Paris – Autumn 2004.
For three whole days, Chloe had listened to Charles’s theories, his paranoia, even his obsession for an investigation into the deaths of biological weapons scientists. There was no reasoning with him, as far as he was concerned there were no accidents, and no reasonable explanations.
Chloe Moreau walked from the Métro to the main office of La France, a leading daily centre-left newspaper. Early morning Paris mist formed droplets on her tan trench coat; she had tied the belt, and would have put up her collar against the weather, had she noticed it. The colours of autumn were vibrant and the promised Swarovski moments of winter had yet to arrive. The traffic noise was muffled, and the only clear sound was the click of her boot heels on the pavement.
William S Burroughs is reputed to have said, ‘Sometimes paranoia is just having all the facts.’ Chloe’s mind was frantically sorting out fact from co-incidence, trying to decide what she would tell her editor and whether to commit to this lengthy project on so much conjecture. In her heart she knew she would, with or without the blessing of her editor; she wanted to know the truth. Turning off the main road, she took a short cut to the office’s underground car park, reserved for senior staff. It would save time, as she wouldn’t have to clear security at the main entrance.
Chloe became aware her footsteps had developed a soft echo. Either she had a stalker, or an innocent pedestrian was following her. She could hear her self-defence coach telling her, don’t rationalise away your fears, don‘t be a victim, plan against an attack. She regretted there were no Tasers, mace or rape alarms in her bag. It was Paris, a quiet tree-lined boulevard off the Périphérique, an area not known for muggers at the peak of morning commuting.
She pulled the cover off her umbrella. Now it could open at the touch of a button, it would serve as a cosh, and although it was lightweight, she hoped it would be enough. She opened her bag, stuffed the cover in a pocket, took out her flat keys and placed them between her first and second finger to act as a weapon. She thought about what else she could use from her handbag to surprise her attacker. Drawing a clown nose with a coral lipstick would be a surprise, but not a defensive strategy. She put the lipstick back.
Chloe extended her pace, and for a couple of steps, the echo was out of sync. Then her follower’s footsteps changed, a leaf crunched underfoot a few meters behind her and they were in step again. This made her feel less paranoid and more threatened. Where was everybody? Had she missed a bomb alert while she was on the Métro? She looked up at the surrounding offices, unable to tell in the mirrored glass if anyone could see her. It was an unlikely time of day for staff to be looking out of the window; they would be looking at computer screens, catching up on emails, performing the usual routines of starting the day. No one would notice her from the windows, and they couldn’t offer help even if they did.
She could hear her own breathing, fast, deep, her body working itself into flight or fight mode in an adrenalin rush. If she made the hundred yards to the car park, and got through the security gate, she would be safe. Without the appropriate security key and pin code, her potential attacker could not follow her. She wanted to look round, maybe stare down her opponent. Instead, she quickened her pace. She could hear the rustle of her stalker’s clothes, perhaps from a waterproof commando jacket. He or she must be closing in. She considered making a dash for the entrance. Six months ago when she was in peak condition after completing a marathon in three hours, she might have tried, but not in these boots. She might manage an elegant jog but it wouldn’t be enough to escape. She cursed the vanity and impracticality of the boots.
The moment of reprieve came from a cruising taxi. The ‘Taxi Parisien’ sign glowed yellow in the mist as it turned into the street, on its way to the busy boulevard where, no doubt, it expected to find more potential passengers. She moved quickly to the kerbside and hailed the taxi, waving her arm frantically. She expected it to cruise past her, they usually did, but she had put more effort into the wave than usual, not caring if she looked ridiculous. When the taxi stopped, she bundled in, computer bag over her shoulder, messenger bag slung across her front, keys in one hand and red compact umbrella in the other; she landed on the seat in a complete muddle. She exhaled, she had been unaware she had been holding her breath. For one brief moment she wondered if this was part of the plan, perhaps she was supposed to get into the taxi. Let’s face it; taxis never seem to stop when you really need them.
“Where to?” He turned, he had the look of a taxi driver, and he asked the right questions, an abductor presumably wouldn’t need directions.
“I would like to get back to here. Do you think you could drive round the block? I think that person over there is following me.” Chloe rummaged in her computer bag for her camera; she wanted a picture of her stalker.
The taxi driver shrugged, locked the doors, put the meter on, and drove slowly up the street. Her stalker knelt on one knee as if tying his shoelaces. Dressed all in black; combat trousers, soft boots that did not need retying, a zipped jacket, and baseball cap, not the commercial kind, but the sort that made your head look square. He didn’t look like a mugger. He looked more like…
Chloe took her photo. She thought it would be subtle, unnoticed in the gloom and mist, but she hadn’t allowed for the automatic flash feature. The only benefit was the man on the pavement was startled and looked up, so she took another photo. At least she could identify him. He looked familiar.
By the time, they had circled the block and returned to the underground garage, there was no sign of the man in black. She couldn’t decide if she was disappointed, feeling safe in the confines of the taxi, or reassured. She concluded she was overthinking it, paid the taxi driver, gave him a large tip, muttered things about being paranoid, and was encouraged by him telling her, ‘Better safe than sorry’. She walked down the slope to the pedestrian entry, used her personal security key, entered the pin number on the keypad, pushed the cold metal gate open and was relieved by the closing clunk of the heavy bars and grills relocating in their five-point lock; the noise reverberated through the garage. She leant back against the gate, and felt the outline of the bars through her mac, solid and reassuring. She exhaled long and slow, made her shoulders relax and felt slightly foolish. She smiled. She wasn’t sure if she had overreacted or had taken a wise precaution. Her few days with Charles had given her the start of a cold, and a mild dose of paranoia.
She made her way across to the lift through puddles of fluorescent light and pools of grey shadow; past concrete pillars streaked with car paint and rubber bumper marks, a testament to the need for parking and the impossible number of spaces promised by the property developers, none of whom it seemed actually drove.
A vehicle stopped at the garage entrance and she heard the noise of the metal shutter rolling up. She paid it no attention and assumed a colleague had arrived for work. Instead, she focussed on the numbers above the lift as they counted down its descent to the basement. The lift stopped at the ground floor. Silently and impatiently, she implored the lift to come down to the basement to collect her, rather than going up with its new passengers. She pressed the button three times in quick succession in the hope the computer lift control would note her urgency. She wanted coffee and companionship – in that order.
Chloe never found out whether the lift came down or went up. The recently arrived car stopped alongside her with a tyre squeal, and a passenger got out. As she turned to look, she felt a blow to her neck. Her hand closed over her umbrella, an instinctive reaction, the umbrella opened. Her attacker’s response was a single expletive, ‘Ben zona!’ Everything went black. She knew she was falling but could do nothing to stop it; her landing on the concrete was hard, but she felt no pain. She was unable to move. Urgent voices whispered instructions to get her computer bag, the carrier bag, her phone and a computer storage key. Her last thoughts related to the computer storage key they were looking for; Charles’s last intimate act and final demonstration of his paranoia had concealed it in her bra, nestled under her breast, next to the underwire.
The first thing she was aware of was someone bending over her, patting her hands and calling her name.
“She’s speaking English – I think. Is she English?”
“Not really. Well I suppose in one-way yes, the other no, English Father and French Mother. She bilingual and I don’t think of her as being anything other than French.”
What was Jean Pierre doing here? She wondered. Then everything went black again.
She awoke, or more accurately, the catchy Chihuahua from D J Bobo was booming its repetitive lyrics and Latino beat at full volume in her ears and blasted her consciousness into a response. Her first act was to take out the iPod earplugs. There was a strong taste of ammonia cloying at the back of her throat.
“There you are,” said Jean Pierre. “Don’t play nice soothing music from the patient’s own iPod; you need to hit them with something they can’t wait to get out of their ears.” He turned from the doctor to Chloe and cradled her shoulders as she sat up. “I think you fainted and you’ve given your head a bit of a knock on the garage floor. In fact, you’ve made a bit of a mess. You okay?” He gave her a stare and she realised he was telling her to play it down.
Chloe pulled down the oxygen mask from her face. Shook her head to try to clear the muzziness, and said, “I think I’m okay.” She gathered up the iPod. “Yours?” Jean Pierre nodded.
“Did you faint or something?” Jean Pierre took the iPod and put in his jacket pocket, he sounded unconcerned, as if fainting was something women frequently did for no reason. “The medic tried smelling salts but you wouldn’t respond.”
“Something,” replied Chloe and decided not to say more. The doctor leaned over to check her pulse and respiration. He took the oxygen mask away, and shone a torch into her eyes.
“How do you feel?”
“Absolutely fine. I probably should eat breakfast more often, so sorry to inconvenience you,” said Chloe brightly, going along with Jean Pierre’s suggestion that she had fainted, and hoping her lies would be undetected. She rubbed the new red wheals on her wrists. Her head throbbed. She couldn’t believe the medic had ignored the blow to her neck. But, she wanted to get upstairs, sit down in the office and collect herself. A computer bag placed between the lift doors prevented them closing. Jean Pierre wouldn’t want to waste more time than necessary getting back to his desk.
“I think you should probably come with us to the hospital and be under observation for a few hours at least,” said the Doctor.
“That’s all right. Now she’s up and awake, I can keep an eye on her.” Jean Pierre sounded determined.
She could see the SMUR (Mobile and Emergency Resuscitation Service) sign on the ambulance, Jean Pierre had been sufficiently concerned to call the equivalent of an intensive care unit with a doctor for her, but now seemed to think she would be better off in the office. Jean Pierre for reasons best known to himself, was encouraging her to dismiss the medics.
“Thank you, but I’m fine. Really.” Chloe hoped Jean Pierre was right, she felt awful and wanted to go to sleep.
“Take it easy for a couple of days. Any further symptoms – go visit your physician. That was a nasty blow to your head. You have a mild concussion,” said the doctor.
Chloe nodded and immediately regretted the instinctive action. She felt the back of her skull and found the swelling and wound dressing. It was evidence of the damage from her head crashing into the concrete. She smiled at the doctor to encourage him to leave. He shook his head as he packed his medical bag, clearly unhappy at her decision, then patted her shoulder, picked up his equipment and went to the ambulance, leaving the bloodstained blanket he had placed under her head on the floor. It was a disposable world.
She looked round and could only see her messenger bag, which lay on the floor next to her, unzipped. Her umbrella was open and rolled round on the floor, reacting to the air movement from the departing ambulance. She pressed the button to collapse the umbrella, looked inside her bag for the slipcover, once the umbrella was secured she checked her purse and credit cards, they were untouched.
“Let’s go up,” said Chloe, picking up her things and the discarded blanket.
Jean Pierre helped her to her feet and they made their way to the lift and rode in silence to the fifth floor. He settled her at her desk, before going to get coffee.
He returned with a latte and a supportive smile. “So what was that about? And how are you feeling – really?”
She cupped her hands round the mug, more for comfort than heat, and drank. The warm foamy liquid soothed her throat. “What time is it? How long was I out? Who called the ambulance? They took, my computer, my camera, my flat keys with the computer storage key on it, my phone and all Charles’s papers I had in a carrier bag. I feel as if someone has had a bottlebrush up my nose, encased my limbs in lead, and emptied a duvet inside my head. Apart from that, I’m fine.”
“Oh good! Lots of questions. That’s all right then! No damage to brain functions, but you sound like you’re on speed. It’s probably an adrenalin reaction. So now, will you give this investigation up? I told you not to mess with Mossad a week ago.”
“How do you know it was Mossad?” Chloe thought about what had happened in one week. It was extraordinary, only one week. It seemed a lot longer.
“I don’t, but you didn’t faint. They shot you with a tranquiliser gun on the side of your neck, so not your average mugger. I found you. I was on my way out to an interview. I don’t know how long you were out. It’s nine o’clock now, so maybe you can work it out. I called the ambulance because you were having difficulty breathing, probably a reaction to the drug. Your wrists were bound tight with cable ties – thank heavens for a Swiss army knife.” Jean-Pierre paused between comments to check her reactions and make sure she was listening.
“Why SMUR?” asked Chloe.
“I didn’t think the paramedics would be any good for diagnosing what was wrong with you. I thought you were dying from the injection, in which case your best bet was SMUR and have resuscitation facilities and a doctor available. I felt it was be the safer bet. But you were getting over the effects by the time they arrived. I probably came across you at the worst time.”
“Thanks. But why did you feel I shouldn’t go to the hospital?”
“Do you know how much paperwork there would be for Anne Marie if you were hospitalised from the newspaper premises, she’d kill you – and she wouldn’t make any mistakes or half hearted attempts either.”
Chloe could imagine the anger of their editor and it wasn’t a pleasant thought.
“You should give this investigation up. Really – it’s not a suitable case for…”
“Don’t you dare say – a woman.”
Jean Pierre shrugged, “I was going to say a journalist working alone. Leaving a post-it note on my computer is not keeping me in the loop. Our esteemed leader was not pleased you took off for a week and I didn’t know what you were doing or why. I thought it would be better to call an ambulance than prepare a eulogy. How the doctor missed the mark on your neck, I don’t know. Perhaps he thought it was a love bite.” Jean Pierre lifted her shoulder length hair away from her neck and looked at the wound. “It could look like a love bite; anyway will you give this investigation up?”
“Hell, no! As I was walking into the office I had my doubts, I thought Charles was paranoid. But this only confirms his suspicions. I may have a bad headache, but I’m not going to be bullied. And Anne Marie knew where I was at the beginning of the week, and I took a few days holiday at the end of the week.”
“Great! So what will you do now you’ve lost all the evidence?”
“I haven’t, Charles has the real papers, there was only recycling in the carrier bag and the storage key is…,” she paused, lifted up her sweater, revealing a white half-balcony lace bra, and pulled out the key.
“Great storage facility! Anytime you need anything filed or retrieved, do let me assist.” His smile faded quickly, “You know you can’t transfer those files on to anything than a laptop which you can never connect to either the paper’s network or the internet. I suggest you transfer these to a new computer which you then leave in Anne Marie’s safe. If they’ll mug you for the information, they’ll certainly try to access our computer system to find the files. I’ll warn the IT department there’ll be more hackers than usual.”
She pulled a face, reacting to Jean Pierre’s flirtation and despairing of more paranoia. Jean Pierre took this as a sign she was feeling better.
“Let’s go look at the CCTV recordings from the garage. See if we can tell if it was Mossad. If you’re feeling up to it.”
They walked slowly across to the lift, Jean Pierre put a protective arm around her, frightened she might faint and they went down to the ground floor. The security office was compact, banks of TV screens lined one wall showing staff coming and going through public areas, and the guard set up one screen to re-run the garage footage they were interested in. They watched the car arrive. You couldn’t see much, most of what was happening to Chloe took place on the floor, shielded from view by the car.
“How did they get through security?” asked Chloe.
The security guard moved to the recording of the car entering the garage, “They appear to have a key and the code.”
“Were you carrying a bag with ‘Target’ on it?” Jean Pierre had taken over the controls and was replaying the recording at the point where she was waiting at the lift and before the car arrived.
Chloe laughed, “Yes, it was Charles’ little joke.”
The ubiquitous American discount store had a red bull’s eye on its carrier bags, which he had referred to as Tar Zjay, thinking it funny to make it sound French and chic. Whether it was the effect of the cocktail of drugs in her system, or a reaction to her fears, she felt tired and tearful. It had been an extraordinary week. It had been one of the most frustrating weeks of her career. Normally journalists get questions answered, she had spent the week accumulating more questions and doubting if she could get any, let alone all, of the answers.
© C R Harris 2013
Smoke and Mirrors is available on Kindle from Tuesday 17 September 2013, and in all good book stores in paperback from 17 October 2013.