Sunday, 24 April 2016

A Killer on the Move...

 Excerpt Two from 'A Life Lived Twice'

It was inconvenient, but to be expected in his line of work.

Claude Cousteau prepared his overnight bag and selected the papers he would be travelling under.  His contact had insisted that he follow the instructions he would receive in Verona to the letter.  It was an important client.  There would be no room for compromise. 
Claude disliked not knowing how his clients wished him to work.  It would be irritating to have to use a knife or, even worse, a garrotte.  Claude considered these methods old fashioned and messy.  What was more, he did not enjoy mutilating his targets, it was not a thrill he sought to see them disfigured or brutalised.   On the other hand, he hoped he would feel the life drain out of his victim and sense the moment when the heart, if not the brain, finally gave out.  And then, the exquisite lifting of the spirit; its separation from the body, subtle, yet overwhelming.  He closed his eyes, remembering.
The night was moonless, the road quiet, and his second-hand Peugeot unremarkable, turning no heads as he parked in the long-stay car park and took out his bag.  On the plane, he read the newspaper and drank a coke, trying to ignore the overweight passenger in the seat next to him, who couldn’t help spilling over onto his seat and who, by way of apology, it seemed to Claude, proceeded to engage him in minute conversation.
Eventually, in self-defence, Claude pretended to fall asleep. The buoyancy of the plane relaxed him and he drifted back to his childhood, remembering a second visit to the Dumas residence, at the age of sixteen… 
His father had parked right outside the main entrance, as the driveway was not clogged with cars this time.  No celebration was being held, and the place did not seem the same.  It was as though it were less alive, but infinitely more beautiful.
Monsieur Dumas appeared shortly before the maid, shooing her away and greeting his guests effusively.  He wore a cream-coloured suit and a silk cravat in a shade of blue that resembled the delicate petals of a cornflower. The man was too perfect to be real.
Once inside, they sat in ornate armchairs, while their host enquired politely about his father’s health and then moved on to the question of Claude’s studies – the reason for the visit.  The maid returned with a tray of tea and a glass of lemonade.
‘When you have had enough of old men’s chatter, perhaps you would like to see the apple orchard?’ suggested Dumas.
It was all Claude could do to answer, trembling over his choice of words in order to address the two statements successfully. 
‘I would love to see the orchard!’ he said, timidly.
‘Ha!  Of course you would.  Felix is about, I believe.  Why don’t you sneak up on him?’
 Outside, Claude felt the sweat on the backs of his legs evaporate and he began to relax a little, listening to the breeze coming up from the meadow, his senses alert to even the smallest sounds as he continued his walk down to the orchard, catching the scent of apples on the warm autumnal air.  Before him, the branches swung heavily with fruit.  It was difficult to tell whether the fruit was ripe enough to be harvested.  There would only be one way to find out.  He stretched out a hand…
‘Good enough to eat, eh?’ Felix Dumas, older and smarter than Claude remembered, moved almost as though he were floating a little above the ground.
‘Oh!  Good afternoon, Maitre Dumas.’ Claude dropped the apple he had plucked, holding his breath as it rolled towards Felix Dumas’ brown leather shoe.
‘Call me Felix, for goodness sake!  Here!  Try this one,’ replied his host, selecting another apple and handing it to his terrified guest.
‘Thank you.’
The man and the boy observed each other, Claude with an expression of restrained panic and Felix with the kind of smile that oozed benevolence, his handsome face exuding a wholesome glow.  As during their first meeting, Claude was overwhelmed, and fought to keep his composure in the presence of a man who seemed to grow in stature and in beauty, yes, beauty, even as he stood there in the shadows of the fruit-laden trees.
‘So, Claude, you want to study Law?’ Felix Dumas was amused and yet keen to encourage his future apprentice to speak without fear.
‘I…My father wishes me to try something… respectable,’ Claude answered, looking directly at his better.
‘Your father?  Respectable?  Of course!’ Felix laughed. ‘He has been a good friend to my father in the past.  I am sure we can come to some arrangement.’
Claude had never thought of his father’s being a friend to the proprietor of such a palatial residence, who must surely move in very different circles. To have such a person as a friend would be beyond belief.
Felix Dumas led the way down towards the stream and Claude wanted more than anything to open the chest that still stood beside the oak tree, but Felix seemed not to notice it this time and carried on along the narrow path, towards the bridge.  It worried the young boy that perhaps the smart notaire had forgotten all about the boats and the racing. 
Claude relived the afternoon, biting into the apple at last, casting frequent glances behind him, half listening to his host as he described the benefits of a career in Law.

The plane jerked and Claude opened his eyes.  It struck him for the first time, that Felix Dumas had known about the alternative that awaited his young protégé, if he did not take up the help that was offered.  Felix Dumas had wanted to save him!  It was not just a question of generosity towards a boy he hardly knew, it was the offer of an honourable life, a chance to rub shoulders as equals, the opportunity to reject the path his father had reluctantly planned for him, and branch out. 
The air hostess came nearer, offering drinks and snacks, in a voice honey-sweet but weighed down with routine.  Her neck was slender and fragile.
‘I’ll take a scotch, young lady!’ cried Claude’s fellow passenger suddenly. ‘And whatever this fine fellow would like!’
Claude realised that the patient smile on the young girl’s face was for him.
‘Nothing for me, thank you.’
A look passed between the man and the girl. 
Her neck would be oh so easy to break.  And the enormous lump beside him?  It would be better to finish him with a single, clean shot. Claude imagined his surprise, his body slumping to the floor – it would be difficult to move him, afterwards.
Conversation became impossible to avoid, now that the contact had become personal, and so Claude feigned interest in the perfume salesman, who was bent on launching his new and unique product on the Italian people, whom he pronounced to be the most stylish of the Europeans, and the most beautiful.
A fat tongue flicked out and wet his lips as he described the sophisticated women who would choose his product, how it would increase their powers of attraction and render them even more irresistible.  The sales pitch made the fat man sweat.  He didn’t seem to notice the expression on his neighbour’s face, which held a level of contempt only possible when laced with a deep-seated desire to do harm. 
At last, the plane touched down and Claude disappeared into the crowd.  Any contact with the public was always potentially awkward, but, with his new identity, it would be unlikely to cause any problems, and he doubted whether the man or the hostess would give him a moment’s thought.  Their lives would carry on without him and he would become a vague memory.
The taxi driver paid his passenger little attention, pre-occupied as he was with the rush-hour traffic.  He said that the streets were infernal and the tourists ripe for the picking.  Did Claude agree that there should be two fares – one for the foreigners and one for his fellow Italians?  Of course.  It was only right and natural, did he not think?  No need for a tip.  No.  It was a pleasure to transport a countryman.  Goodnight and good luck. 
Claude walked away, harbouring a complex loathing for this fawning hypocrite of a man, with his constant flow of bigotry, his lucky charms and brash display of signs bearing expressions of welcome in a selection of languages.

There was an hour and a half before the scheduled rendezvous with the client’s representative; just time to check into his hotel and close his eyes for a few minutes.  Then, he would go out into the early evening, his pulse steady and his heart unmoved by the task he would perform. 

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