first bus mobile app novella written

The Novella that the Mobile Bus App Ticket Wrote

A Novella – In Parts

The Premise:

First Bus, a south west bus company, issue digital bus tickets through their mobile app. I buy a weekly ticket to get to work and back. In order to prevent fraud and other naughtiness, First Bus use a unique word each day to confirm the authenticity of the digital ticket. Inspired by the word, I write a section of a story, perhaps a novella, for the duration of the bus journey: the first sentence and last sentence contain the word. This is the result, updated weekly. The daily word is written at the top of each section.

Jump to Week Two
Jump to Week Three
Jump to Week Four
Jump to Week Five

 

WEEK ONE

Coop

The queue in the Co-op stretches the length of the cereal aisle and flattens along the freezer units at the back of the shop. There is no clear reason for the hold-up. Of course, there are two old women at the self-service machines engaged in syncopated tutting as they fail to scan Robinson’s squash and a tin of John West tuna respectively. There is also a middle-aged man searching his pockets for a five pence piece so that his change can come in whole pounds – an act of faux chivalry and shop etiquette that is painfully unnecessary. Another man spots that his iceberg lettuce has a brown leaf that spreads across its base like wet rot. He expresses the need to handpick its replacement, presumably to avoid the indignity of being duped a second time. A woman in lycra bottoms tries to squeeze a two-bag shop into the single bag for life that she has so proudly brought with her. It involves several repacks and still she finds herself exiting the shop with a box of granola wedged in her armpit and a loaf of farmhouse seeded swinging from her jaws like a dog with a favourite toy.

 

Fleur does not mind queues ordinarily, but there is an aggravation that crackles along the line right now and it passes through her. She can feel it and although not aggravated yet, she can sense its claustrophobic closeness, its presence.

 

The woman in front of Fleur, wearing an old-fashioned dress and sports trainers, is recounting in great detail the numerous issues she has experienced with garden waste collection and the incompetency of the council. The tone of the woman’s voice and the rage that seems to fill her saggy lower eyelids like rainwater gathering in a gazebo during a downpour, is starting to get to Fleur. Doesn’t this woman understand that the world is blighted with genuine misery and injustice?

 

“I put three bags out before I left for work on the Tuesday, so six-thirty, and they were still there when I got home so I emailed them. But you know what, they don’t read the emails properly. I wish they would just read them. They sent one back saying they’d be round at nine the next morning. Well, it so happens I was still at home at nine and not a sign of ’em. Nowhere to be seen. I got on the phone straightaway and they’re just as useless. Three weeks this went on! Glenda next door had a green wheelie bin so I put my bags that were all rotten now of course. That was collected sure enough.”

 

Fleur had had enough of this woman – she too is aggravated and finally the circuit is complete. Annoyance shoots back and forth freely along the queue like atoms in the Large Hadron Collider. Fleur considers leaving her basket on the floor and walking out. She imagines the breeze on her face, the sun on her shoulders, the taste of freedom on her lips. The queue shuffles on though, and her commitment to it is renewed. There is progress at last.

 

As Fleur moves closer to the tills, she swings her basket trying to provide further momentum to the line. In doing so she accidentally knocks a box of fruit and fibre off the shelf and to the floor.

 

Fleur bends awkwardly to pick it up, the close proximity of those behind and in front of her making it very difficult. Her skirt rides up slightly and she is concerned that her thighs will be the attention of more than one bored onlooker. She adjusts her skirt before rising slowly to her feet. The air around her suddenly snaps, a loud bang shatters the angry silence and she finds herself once again on the floor. For a moment, she hears nothing and sees nothing. She is aware that she is on the floor but not how she got there.

 

There are muffled screams now and distant shouting – it’s like her head is submerged under water but she can hear voices beyond the surface. A jar of passata has smashed near to her: she can see the glass and red liquid that spreads around her across the aisle of the Co-op.

 

Hake

 

Fleur crawled away, sliding along using the piece of hake that had fallen from her basket to protect her hands from the broken glass. The frustrated order of the queue had been replaced by utter chaos. Had there been an explosion? A gunshot? Were people hurt? Was she injured?

 

Fleur tried to stand and make her way towards the body of a young man sprawled out behind her who didn’t seem to be moving. Her left leg didn’t want to work and she fell again to the floor. She cursed loudly and was surprised to hear her voice coming back to her broken and strained through treacle. She tried again to stand, holding on to a shelf to steady herself. It was at this moment that she knew that her life would be different from now on. Whatever had happened had changed something fundamental. She had to make a decision, that much was clear. Fleur lurched over to the body, closer towards a new world order.

 

The man was dressed in a black t-shirt and jeans with a crimson Wills’ hoodie. He was tall and his limbs extended in several directions. Fleur bent over and took his wrist in her shaking fingers. There was no pulse. She moved her fingers frantically up and down his wrist but couldn’t find a heartbeat. It was then that she looked up his torso and saw the wound, a crater just below his neck.

 

She had never seen a dead person before and she recoiled at the realisation. This man had been shot and killed in a Co-op supermarket on a Tuesday lunchtime and here she was holding his hand and sobbing.

The paramedic sat next to her in the rear of the ambulance. He was typing figures on a robust-looking tablet.

 

‘Hello there. I’m Gary and I’m a paramedic. You’re ok, but you are in an ambulance and we are going to hospital. You were caught up in an incident and we just want to run a few checks. Now, tell me what hurts?’

 

The ambulance went over a bump and Fleur winced as pain shot up her leg.

 

‘Is he dead?’ Fleur managed to say, scraping the words from her dry mouth with a combination of tongue and teeth. ‘I couldn’t find a pulse.’

 

Gary shook his head and half-smiled in a way that conveyed sympathy whilst simultaneously revealing that his job didn’t allow for it.

 

The ambulance came to a stop and the doors were flung open by the driver, a young blonde woman with freckles and a no-nonsense abruptness of movement that meant Fleur was down and out of the ambulance and being wheeled through eerily silent hospital corridors in what felt like seconds. Before she knew it, Fleur had been deposited at a ward in the care of a nurse that disconcertingly resembled Kathy Bates in Misery. The paramedics handed over a bag containing Fleur’s possessions, her handbag, umbrella, and the piece of hake.

 

Navy

Fleur was assessed an hour later by a handsome young doctor in a navy-blue sweater. In his sonorous voice, he told her to rest and that, all being well, she would be discharged in the afternoon. Fleur watched him leave and then looked around the ward, the only person awake was a frail old lady who scratched at a sudoku with a violence her body didn’t seem capable of, everyone else was asleep. Fleur smiled at the lady and then fell into a deep sleep.

 

When she awoke, she was no longer on the ward. Fleur was still in the hospital but now found herself alone in a private room. A man who needed a shave and some sleep judging by his dark hooded eyes, sat on a chair by her side, sipping a cup of coffee. He did not look like a doctor.

 

“Morning,” the man said, the word stretched with sarcasm. “D.C Webb. You can call me Phil if you can’t manage that.”

 

Fleur remained silent. Her head hurt and she didn’t understand why a detective was in the room with her, why she was in hospital, and what had happened at the Co-op. She screamed inside her head and then blinked to try and get rid of it.

 

The detective was still speaking, Fleur focused on his voice and then the words.
“A man was killed yesterday. We have reason to believe that he was shot by mistake. The CCTV footage seems to suggest that you were the intended target. You had a lucky escape Miss Draper.”

 

Fleur grimaced. Shot dead. She was the target. It couldn’t be true. She didn’t believe it. Who on earth would want her dead?
This was the question that came next from the detective, who had now finished his coffee and started to roll a cigarette from a cracked pouch of Drum.

 

She’d never done anything to anyone. No jealous exs, no debts, no addictions, she had no siblings, her parents had retired to Spain. She told the detective this and he nodded, bored, unconvinced.

 

“We’ll need you to come into the station when you’re up on your feet. I’ll send a car. We’ll need to chat again, you and me. Get to the bottom of this ugly mess.
“I’ve got to go tell a mother that her son ain’t coming home for tea. Wish me luck Miss Draper, tactfulness isn’t my strong point.”

 

With that, the detective left the hospital room and left Fleur alone and reeling. Her mind raced, jumping to the same points over and over. Who? Me – dead! Shot. How can they be sure it was me they were trying to kill? Why me? Who?

 

When she left the hospital that afternoon, a bright pure slither of blue sky was being slowly swallowed by a brooding black mass of cloud. Although natural, it seemed unnecessarily cruel, similar to watching a lion devouring its prey on a wildlife documentary. There was rain in the air and Fleur checked her umbrella before taking a step outside. Everything and everyone was a threat now.

 

The man in fluorescent clothes picking cigarette butts from the kerb with a mechanical grabber, the long-haired teenager texting as he cycled along the road, the woman pushing a double buggy in tracksuit bottoms and Nike sandals. It was so wholly implausible that someone wanted her dead that she had no idea what the threat looked like. It must be a case of mistaken identity; someone with her name or who looked like her.

 

Fleur walked home the long way, sticking to busy, but not crowded, streets. Opening the door to her apartment, she found her palms sweaty and her body flushed. She quickly placed the chain across the door before checking every room, every potential hiding place for assailants. When she was satisfied that she was alone, she curled up on her sofa and cried. She allowed her tears to fall freely, tasting their saltiness as they passed her trembling lips. The rain fell outside and the room darkened by two more notches. She had never felt so alone nor as scared as in this precise moment.

 

Fleur turned on Radio Four so that the comforting solidity of those intellectualising voices could return some order to the world at 140 words a minute in perfect RP. An admiral was chastising a politician about the inadequacy of the navy, the depleted fleet ill-equipped to protect a country once so great, so strong.

Ibex

“The alpine Ibex, a species of wild goat found in the Alps, could hold the secret to male pattern baldness, a report from scientists in Geneva revealed today. We are joined in the studio by…”

 

Fleur turned off the radio. She felt more together now and capable of making a cup of tea and a slice of toast. Baby steps. She picked up her phone from where it was charging as she went to put the kettle on – six missed calls. Two with a London area code, one withheld and three from a local number. A quick Google confirmed that the local number was the police station. She sighed.

 

As she pressed the call button, her throat started to close up. Reality was suddenly back, flooding her brain with thoughts and causing her body to behave in unusual ways.

 

D.C Webb answered several rings later. His phone manner was worse than in person. He was rude and painfully blunt. Fleur was told to get the station in an hour and not speak to any strangers. The tea would have to wait and the offer of a car was no longer forthcoming.

The station was flanked by police vans and cars, outside the entrance doors men were smoking cigarettes, pacing up and down and talking into mobile phones. D.C Webb was waiting for her and ushered her into a small dank room piled with papers and empty coffee cups – his office.

 

The detective’s questions came quickly and Fleur felt certain that she was being interrogated. They seemed designed to uncover the nefarious activity that had made her a target and someone to want her dead. D.C Webb wasn’t all that interested in gathering details of the Co-op murder.

 

Public shootings with handguns were rare, Webb reiterated. The shooter had worn a motorcycle helmet and taken aim at her. The CCTV footage and Scene of Crime report confirmed it; this was an assassination attempt that she was lucky to have avoided by bending down at the precise moment. ‘Not so lucky for the poor lad behind her,’ Webb added with a dry chuckle.

 

The questions continued for another ten minutes, taking another tangent altogether. Webb was talking about Gabby. If Fleur had been confused before, she was completely lost now. Webb seemed to be building up to a point, a grand reveal.

 

It came – Webb suddenly and with some force slammed a photograph down in front of Fleur:

 

“It’s him, isn’t it? He’s the one?!”

 

Fleur did not recognise the man with his eyes too close together and in a shadow cast by an enormous mono brow. His pixelated stubble fizzed around his face like white noise.

 

Reading the situation, Webb bent double over the desk in exasperation:

 

“Go. You can go! Thanks for your time, Miss Draper. You’ve been most completely unfucking helpful.”

 

Fleur saw that Webb was balding and she remembered the Ibex on the radio – she hoped that the cure would never help this angry little man.

 

Mare

“Oh love, you’ve been having a ‘mare, ain’t ya now? All that drama. Blood everywhere and dead in front of you. Questioned by the police. Come on, let me in and let’s see about a cup of tea now. And maybe a bicky if you can find any.”

 

Fleur knew that Gabby would be like this and it was exactly what she needed. A great normalising force, Gabby treated her attempted murder by a hired killer as if it were a failed job interview, getting splashed by a double decker bus or finding out your hairdresser had taken an extra inch off. Injustices didn’t have a scale for Gabby – they were all treated with equal disdain.

 

Fleur could feel the tea passing through her, warming, calming, dependable. She had started in on D.C Webb – a balding bastard with an axe to grind, so rude – Gabby nodded empathetically in all the right places, saying nothing.

 

“Get his number. Report him. Treating you like a criminal; the only thing you ever done wrong was pinch that cocktail strainer on Jane’s hen. And even then you took it back to the bar the next day. “

 

Fleur chuckled to herself.
When Gabby left, Fleur felt ready to forget the whole mess and start the week again. This whole mess would be sorted out and things would get back to normal in no time. She had work tomorrow – a receptionist at a solicitors in town. The job wasn’t permanent but the pay was better than most temping she’d done and there was something about the pinstripe suits, Burgundy leather armchairs and dark rooms lined with legal tomes that made her feel like she was in an Austen novel. The formal facades of the solicitors barely concealed a raft of sexual deviance, snobbery and emotional turmoil. Making educated guesses about the solicitors’ interior lives and indulging in short flighty fantasies meant that the days went quickly.

Fleur swiped her alarm to the left again – the fourth snooze. A distant, unlikeable part of her brain was telling her she was definitely going to miss her bus now and be late for work. She reluctantly sat up in bed, holding her phone in her hand, more asleep than awake. The alarm went off again and this time she jumped from the bed and to the bathroom.

 

She was five minutes late into the practice but nobody seemed to notice. They only watched the clock when they had a client with them. The morning dragged; Fleur’s mind was preoccupied and she couldn’t tune into the inner lives of the partners as she would ordinarily do. The phone rang a couple of times and only the few booked appointments arrived, ten minutes early and looking unhappy to be there as always.

 

At around midday when no appointments were scheduled, Fleur was surprised to see a tall figure at the door. Eventually the outline moved and the buzzer rang out. She buzzed them in. As the door swung open, Fleur’s stomach dropped and her heart pounded out of her chest. It was him. The man from the photo. The thick brow was unmistakeable and those narrow eyes that were fixed on hers were the same she had seen yesterday. Maybe she was still in bed, hitting snooze, having a nightmare but then he spoke.

 

WEEK TWO

Fawn

As the man spat out his first words, one of the senior partners turned the corner and came into the reception: “Mr Kirby, so nice to see you,” Fleur fawned. “You must meet Mr Baxter here.” She indicated the heavy-browed man. As soon as Kirby bumbled his way between her and the man, her would-be killer, she ran.

Fleur darted through the kitchen and out the back door. She crossed the car park and was out running along the backway. Already she could taste iron in her mouth and feel each beat of her heart pounding in her ears. She didn’t stop though, knowing that the man would be close behind.

As she sprinted awkwardly away from the solicitors, it hit her – it was all real. The man that Webb had shown her had been there right in front of her. He knew where she worked and would almost definitely know where she lived. And he was after her. She tried to remember his exact words but couldn’t. He had called her a bitch and said something about hiding. It wasn’t safe for her anymore. She needed her credit card and her passport, and to be somewhere far away.

Fleur patted her front pocket as she jogged on and was relieved to feel her phone. She was down by the river now and the skate park: to her left twisted metal pierced the slow-flowing brown like fingers clawing, to her right graffiti and blackberry bushes.

Heading over to the skatepark, she slid down behind one of the ramps and got her phone out and called Gabby.

“Gab’s you’ve got to help. I’m in real trouble. It’s all real. I saw the man from the photograph. He was at my work. Can you do me a favour? I need you to do something for me. I need you to go to my flat right away. Get a taxi. Just get there. Then, in the box room, in the second drawer down of the bureau, you’ll find a purple zipped folder. I need you to pick it up for me then come meet me at Superdrug, the smoking spot round the back, at two-thirty. Don’t stop, don’t speak to anyone. Got that? Tell me you’ve got that Gabs.”

Fleur didn’t pause for breath, giving Gabby no opportunity to interject. And when she had finished, she could sense Gabby nodding on the other end of the phone.

Fleur carried on along the river until she reached the nature reserve. She made her way up to the old bird watchers’ hide, covered in graffiti now and with cans of Polish lager and cigarette butts strewn across the floor. It stank of stale urine and she worried that used syringes might be lurking amongst the crisp packets and leaves, but the small concrete hut was hidden from view and that was all that mattered.

Having grown up in the town, Fleur knew all the alleyways and short cuts it had to offer. She prided herself on it, enjoyed the secret knowledge she possessed as if it gave her access to another world. She used this knowledge now, keeping out of plain sight as she headed towards Superdrug.

It was 2.20pm when she got to the secluded spot under the fire escape. It was where she and Gabby used to sneak cigarettes on their breaks during long Saturdays working at Superdrug. Fleur wished she could be back at that time. She wasn’t geared up for her current situation – being shot at, questioned by police, hunted down. Cigarettes and alcopops and giddy french kisses in the park seemed a world away.

It was 2:37pm. There was no sign of Gabby. Fleur tried her mobile – it went straight to voicemail. ‘She’s fine, just struggling to find a taxi,’ Fleur tried in vain to convince herself.

When she heard the town clock strike three, Fleur was seriously worried for her friend. There was no way it would have taken her this long. What if they had been waiting for her at the flat? Had someone been watching it? ‘Gabby was hard as nails,’ she told herself. ‘More than a match for some hired muscle.’

Fleur ran through twenty or so scenarios, some of which she wished had never entered her mind. Gabby was a good person and, despite everything that had happened, Fleur believed that bad things wouldn’t happen to a good person like Gabs. Her brain was disagreeing.

The chimes marking quarter past and then half past three rang out. Fleur checked her phone again then pressed redial. Nothing. Fleur needed that credit card and her passport. There was no way she would go to the police, not now. The strength to withstand the detective’s mocking tone had long since disappeared and her faith in them to protect her. It looked increasingly like she was in this alone. Some way or another, she needed to get back to her flat without being seen and make sure Gabby was not hurt. She picked nervously at her fawn jumper, allowing her nails to pinch slightly at her flesh, keeping her alert, the pain reminding her that she was human.

Skew

The telephone wires cut skew lines across the evening sky, bisecting the street where Fleur lived. She watched as a large seagull surveyed them, assessing with beady eyes if they would take its weight. A curtain twitched at number 37, a car door slammed down towards the gasworks, an Ocado delivery van parked up on the curb started its engine. It was the simple punctuation of suburbia, constructing a sentence of smug security, conveying little.

Fleur had been waiting for the right moment to approach her house. She did so in the knowledge that there wouldn’t be a right moment no matter how long she waited. The checks she had done for anyone surveilling the house were superficial at best. She had scanned all the cars on the street that she didn’t recognise – looking beyond the glass for shifting shadows. She had approached, on hands and knees, every garden with a view of her flat. All empty.

She had gone over the next steps in her mind: picking the spare key from under the plant pot near the lavender, making her way down the side of the house keeping to the shadows and letting herself into the building. She wouldn’t go to her flat straight away but instead upstairs to Tom’s flat above.

Tom was from Durham, a six foot five grizzly teddy bear with a love of hot yoga and superfood juices. Fleur had come to rely on his 6am juice routine to start the long process of her exiting bed; the mechanical whirring traveling down through the ceiling and into her dreams. She always enjoyed their chats in the entrance hall and always felt comfortable inviting him in for a cup of herbal tea.

An eerie post-dinner hum now filled the air: bedtime routines had been executed, the omnipresent bottle of Chardonnay had been plucked from the fridge and Netflix episodes tumbled like dominos as everyone settled into their sofas for the night.

The hum was familiar to Fleur and was strangely comforting as she made her move. Keeping low she crawled around parked cars and recycling bins, making her way along the street to her building. When she got to next door’s garden she crawled quickly inside and tried to slow her breathing so that she could listen for any sounds from her front garden.

There was only silence. She replayed the scenario in her head: Tom opening the door, telling her to come in and saying:

“Don’t be silly, pet. I’ll come down with ya and check for boogiemen. We can do it together. Sherlock and Watson us too, fighting crime wherever it lurks.”

The keys were there under the pot, nobody was lurking in the dark path down the side of the house and she placed the key in the lock. She held her breath and pushed the door open. A few leaflets for a local takeaway were scattered on the mat and the road bike that belonged to the middle-aged man downstairs was in its usual place. Everything was as it should be. Gabby was going to be fine, just a mixup. She’d probably be in the flat still looking for the folder.

Fleur climbed the stairs, more slowly as she reached her floor. The door was closed. Fleur continued on, up the stairs to Tom’s flat. She knocked on the door, waited a few long seconds – come on Tom, come on – and knocked again. There was no answer.

It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. Fleur slumped to the floor with her back against the door. She had to find the courage from somewhere, Tom wasn’t going to be her knight in shining armour. The phone vibrated in her pocket. ‘Gabby, thank goodness,’ Fleur thought, removing it from her Jeans.

It was an email from her bank reminding her to check her online statements. The mundanity of the email opened up a new tact for her to try. Everything was normal, Fleur told herself, starting to walk down the stairs. She was just coming home after work. She would eat some Ainsley Harriet couscous with a nice fillet of salmon, water her plants and check her bank statement in front of the tele.

The key turned in the lock but the door wouldn’t open. At that moment the stress of the last couple of days came to a head and she shoved at the door again and again. Fuck, fuck, fuck. She shouted in her head, furious at the universe and whatever was blocking the bloody door.

A space opened up just wide enough for her to squeeze through into her flat. Fleur no longer cared who was waiting for her on the other side. She pushed through and instantly tripped. Fleur stood up and fumbled for the light.

The light clicked on. There, just inches from her, was a hand curled in a tight fist. Fleur gasped at the air, trying desperately to fill her lungs. A pool of blood radiated out from the head, soaking the carpet. Fleur knelt down and whispered: “I’m so sorry Tom. I’m so sorry.”

Her vision was skewed, tears, snot and mucus poured down her face, as she scanned the room looking for Gabby.

 

Skew (Day 2)

It wasn’t just her vision that was skewed, the whole of reality seemed to be, knocked out of joint by some giant invisible sledgehammer. Tom was lying dead in her flat, his blood in her carpet. This was another death she felt crushingly responsible for, although she had done nothing to deserve it.

The situation looked bad, she realised. No sign of a break in, a dead body inexplicably close to a closed door (Tom must have used his last bursts of energy to head towards it to get help), blood on her hands and clothes now, no alibi. The police, D.C Webb, even her own mother would struggle with this one.

Fleur still shaking all over, her body trembling like a blade of grass in a breeze, made her way through the flat. Everything was at it should be, nothing out of place apart from the body of her neighbour lying there in the doorway.

In the bureau, just where she said it was, she found her folder. Quickly she switched into action, she gathered a pair of boots, a couple of vest tops, a thick knit jumper and a rain coat. She shoved the clothes into her gym bag along with a fistful of underwear, a phone charger, some date bars and an apple.

Without looking at his face, Fleur stepped over Tom and ducked out the gap in the door with her gym bag on. She closed the door silently behind her and wiped the lock with a tissue, some sort of TV criminal muscle memory, and headed out into the thickening evening.

The only coach leaving from the bus station that night was the 10:27pm to London. It would have to do. She used cash to buy her ticket, birthday money she had put in the folder to stop her spending it on evening meals or Primark homeware that she neither liked or needed but found herself so regularly drawn to, and went to find a place hidden from view to wait for the next hour.

The bus station was grim – that painful contrast of bright artificial light, unforgiving and clinical, and dark nooks where homeless men kept their sleeping bags and coverless duvets, bus drivers smoked and rats made merry in the debris of itinerants. Fleur bought a coffee that tasted terrible and a sausage roll that tasted even worse. She consumed them both in a concrete stairwell of some office block.

What had happened to Gabby? Had she got to the flat? Was she ok? Why had Tom been in her flat? Why was he dead? And who on earth wanted her dead and why? Why hadn’t she gone to the police? She was innocent, after all. She should have gone to the police. Why was someone killing people? Was she in some way responsible?

The questions never stopped spinning around her head. She could think other thoughts but the questions were always there, like background conversation at a party.

A pigeon whose face had been taken over by two horn-like eruptions scratched around Fleur’s feet. She made a chirping-kiss sound without thinking – it was her go to bird-attracting noise and not too dissimilar to her conversational cat. She stopped suddenly, the last thing she wanted was to tempt the hideous creature any closer. Fleur stamped her left foot and it half-hopped half-flew a metre or so away. It was past 10 now and she knew a queue would be forming at the gate for the National Express. She knew that the queue was also too visible so she decided to wait until the last minute and then rush on.

In the moments before her phone died, Fleur was able to check the local news. Once she had finished clicking off all the pop-ups and scrolling past the miracle cellulite creams and ageing cures, she saw the headlines. Nothing about Tom, nothing about Gabby, thank God, but there was a face she recognised – the young man from the Co-op.

‘Local man killed in supermarket shooting – police appeal for witnesses.’

Beneath the headline, there was a picture of him surrounded by skinny smiling black children in what looked like an African village – they all seemed so truly happy in that moment. Fleur swallowed hard. 2% battery. She tried to call Gabby one last time but her phone had already turned itself off. She got up, grabbed her gym bag – the ground was uneven, paving all skewwiff and cracked, she tripped for the second time that night – nothing was simple anymore, not even walking.

Surf

The motorway at night had its own unique rhythm, cars surfing the crests of black waves beneath watery stars, the stream of headlights and brake lights like phosphorescent. Fleur rested her forehead against the glass and felt the motion of the coach pass into her and bring with it a broken sleep.

Victoria coach station was a hive of activity. Megabus sleeper coaches to Amsterdam, Paris and Brussels slowly filled with fresh young faces – travellers, poor and hopeful, glowing with the freedom they had found. The glow would be just a flicker in nine hours time, but it would come back soon enough.

Fleur was summing up her options. It seemed crazy to leave the country, but stupid to stay. She needed time to think and sort out the whole mess she had found herself in. Europe seemed the best option but flying wasn’t an option. If the police were trying to find her that would be the first place that they’d check. She felt she still had time – Tom wouldn’t be found for a while, Gabby would turn up and come to her.

She took out £250 cash from a cashpoint in the station and separated it around her person and bag. Next she went to the Megabus counter. The women in the booth had turquoise eye shadow simultaneously distracting from her ageing face and tying in with her outfit. Her faded glamour lingered in the small booth like the smell of old leather, not pleasant but hinting at something once much more appealing. Fleur was given the itineraries and prices of all European destinations leaving that morning. She decided on a one-way ticket to Amsterdam leaving at 2am. She handed over her passport and credit card to the woman.

Collecting her ticket, Fleur turned and nearly knocked into a homeless man with a grey dome of a belly protruding from above stained joggers. He had three sturdy carrier bags in his left hand, the right he held out to her palm up: “Please, pet”

Without thinking she gave him the neatly folded bus ticket to Amsterdam. ‘Good luck’ she offered, before turning quickly and leaving the white washed art deco of Victoria station behind.

It was a long walk to St Pancras but Fleur was in no rush and felt buoyed by the plan she had made. She kept a steady pace through the streets, enjoying the constant juxtaposition between grand buildings and tower blocks, art galleries and corner shops. For the first time in many hours, she didn’t see every stranger as a threat. As many had done so before her, she was experiencing the thrill of anonymity that flowed through London just as permanently as the Thames.

The next thing that Fleur needed to do was charge her phone, call Gabby and book a Eurostar ticket. Walking through Bloomsbury, she admired the leafy squares and impressive buildings. Senate House loomed above Russel Square like a Scooby Doo ghost and the grand hotels that lined the surrounding roads twinkled like fairy lights.

Soon enough she was near Kings Cross and the all-night cafes called to her. She spotted one with visible plug sockets that was busy enough. A guy with dreadlocks and Beats headphones worked from a MacBook, a teenage girl with red hair in spiralled ringlets read the Bell Jar in a window seat and two men in florescent construction clothes and safety boots ate ham, egg and chips. It looked exactly as it should.

Fleur ordered a ham and mozzarella panini and a coffee, and took a seat next to a socket where she could plug her phone charger in. A young boy in dirty overalls carried the panini to her table. The chips, pile of lettuce and chopped pepper dwarfed the striped bread, cut at angles. Fleur watches the boy walk away, snatches a glimpse at the outline illustration of the battery on her phone and takes her first bite.

The cheese instantly burns the delicate space behind her front teeth and she recoils. As she instinctively pulls her hand away from her mouth, strands of mozzarella attach themselves to her chin and scald the delicate flesh, jellyfish stings. Nothing is simple, she reminds herself, in limbo between tears and laughter.

Powering on her phone, she prises the panini apart and blows on it. The ooze of white cheese and the pink of the pork forces her to take another hungry bite. With greasy fingers, she types ‘eurostar to paris cheap’ into Google. There is a train at 6:47am going direct to Gare du Nord for £89. Fleur books it on her credit card. An advert appears on her mobile screen asking if she wants an all inclusive surf trip to Biarritz or a two for one ticket to Disneyland – she allows herself a small forced chuckle that instantly feels too loud – if only.

 

WEEK THREE

Ibis

St. Pancras was deliberately impressive – Fleur stood beneath a steel sculpture of what looked like an ibis in flight, contemplating the thousand structural black lines that stretched out in front of her. The giant bronze statue of the embracing couple was romantically over the top, a grand gesture. It was hard not to feel the efflorescence of excitement, even though she was effectively running for her life.

Fleur made her way down to the Eurostar check-in. An old Japanese man in a business suit two sizes too big, played a piano in the concourse. She watched his long white fingers dance spider-like across the keys. A small crowd had gathered, transfixed, forsaking their coffees for this fleeting moment of transcendence.

With the gentle lilting music still playing in her head, Fleur went through customs without issue; the two French border guards barely glancing at her before handing back her passport.

By 6:30am she was reclined in a comfortable seat, flicking between composing a text for Gabby and scanning the local headlines. She had decided to text Gabby after another call had failed to connect.

‘Tell me you’re ok. Let me know somehow. I need to get away. Not safe for me here. Off to Amsterdam. Sorry. Love you.’

The train started up and instantly gathered speed, turning the Kent countryside into lazy watercolours of brown and green. So, this was really happening.

Two and a half hours later the train pulled into Paris. Fleur grabbed her bag and jumped onto the platform. There was no customs to clear, no security to pass through, she simply followed the throng and was spat out into the Paris rush hour.

Finding a bureau du change, Fleur exchanged her remaining cash for Euros. It wasn’t a lot but it would be enough for bread and cheese and a dingy dorm bed for a few nights. That was all she needed and some time to figure things out.

She walked past a Mercure, an Ibis and a few more pensions, until she reached an altogether grimier street with broken glass on the pavements, homeless men pushing trolleys and sex shops – this was where she’d find a room.

 

Part Two

Yews

At a cafe in an eastern suburb of Paris, a man sits alone at an outside table in the middle of a small avenue of yews. It is fitting that this man, Benoît, takes his place amongst these trees of the dead, more common in graveyards than side streets, and this is because is an assassin. His business is death. Each of the seven trees Benoît can see over the rim of his coffee cup could represent a job – a man or woman – that he has wiped quite cleanly and completely from the earth.

You would not think it possible looking at him now, with his pepper pot hair, watery green eyes and short, well-groomed grey beard, his easy manner with the waitress and the help he offers so readily to the elderly women whose small dog has just tangled itself around a chair leg at an adjacent table, but it is true – this man kills people for money and he doesn’t think all that much about it.

The first time Benoît had pulled the trigger, he had been coerced. The warm shallow breath on his neck as he took aim was like a chant booming in his ear: do it, do it, do it. Of course, there would have been severe consequences if he’d refused and this is what ultimately made him tighten his finger until he heard that no familiar pop.

The money Benoît’s father owed, gambling debt of tens of thousands of francs, would have been repaid through the torture of his mother and younger brother. He loved them both with all of his being. From a young age, Benoît had assumed responsibility for them. Even as a teenager, he had known that his father was hopelessly weak and that, more than anything, he would not allow himself to be weak like him. He would provide for his family in all the ways his father didn’t.

By his third hit, Benoît had made peace with himself and what he had to do. It had taken countless hours of soul-searching, sleepless nights fretfully moralising, and chest-heaving fits of tears but eventually a stillness settled inside him. He had constructed a series of channels in his mind that were carefully designed to transport errant thoughts to an end-point he was comfortable with. There were no narratives that existed beyond the one now indelibly written in his psyche. By Benoît’s standards, he was a good man that occasionally killed bad people for money.

Benoît’s life as a contract killer meant that he never settled down. He travelled often and made few friends. The trick was to stay disconnected and fluid. An anonymous businessman that travelled widely, had lovers but not partners, drinking companions but not friends, was likeable but forgettable. There was no glamour in his work nor was it a life of underworld bars and rooftop vantage points. The deaths were often mundane to the point they didn’t make the front pages of papers. Clean and calculated, risk was always kept to a minimum, Benoît’s killings were almost boring.

On this warm afternoon, Benoît felt that same stillness inside. The rigidity of the channels in his mind were something he admired often, even after all these years. Mentally he traced out their contours like men of his age might the chassis of a vintage car they had restored, knowing every inch, feeling deeply connected to their achievement.

And then, in one unexpected moment, it all disappeared.

A seismic shift occurred.  The channels started to rattle, hammering like pipes in an old apartment block. The faintest whispers of doubt trickled through failed seams. Thoughts flooded Benoît’s brain, screeching, demanding attention. He slid the photograph he was holding back into the envelope and placed it onto the table. Why was this happening? After all these years, why now?

The photograph of the woman was nothing out of the ordinary – plain-looking, a hint of girl-next-door sexual attractiveness, an unflattering haircut. The A4 sheet of information was also standard – name, address, height, weight, hair colour, last known whereabouts, background, bank details, passport number, mobile phone. Something wasn’t right though. She was somehow different.

After a moment, he removed the photograph and analysed it further, studying each tiny detail for something amiss. There was nothing there, yet he could not regather the stillness, collect it from where it had scattered.

It was a strange sensation but Benoît knew then, with complete certainty that he would not go through with the hit. He hadn’t refused a job for 24 years. He didn’t know how to or what the repercussions would be – soon enough he would find out though.

Benoît finished his coffee, drank the glass of water down and ran his tongue over his teeth, cleaning the tacky residue from his incisors. He placed a Euro carefully in the saucer, picked up the envelope and walked north.

The birds sang in the trees, sunlight danced upon the face of a woman who was cooing softly to her baby hidden from view in the folds of a sling, Leonard Cohen’s First We Take Manhattan floated down from an upper floor window. Benoît could smell the sweet cloying notes of caramel. His senses were heightened and it was overwhelming. A lump lodged itself in his throat and he bit back tears. It had been decades since he felt this aware. There was energy everywhere, the world fizzed with it, and he could finally see it.

Later that evening, Benoît sat with a bottle of beer on Pont Neuf. He looked out at the Eiffel Tower illuminated against the dark sky. Parisians drank wine around him, couples sharing deep kisses and cigarettes, making moments in an infinite tapestry of possibilities. Nothing existed but everything could be. The beer passed down his throat and he knew that from this moment on he was free to make choices.

There was a time, when Benoît was thirteen, when he realised that another realm existed beyond the one he knew. It all began with a girl. She had mousy hair, hazel eyes and a smile that transmitted pure unbridled joy. To make her smile was to make the world a better place, even for a few fleeting seconds. He didn’t know what love was, but he chased that smile with all that he had, missed it when he was away from it, distraught when he said things that made it disappear.

One evening Benoît and the girl had gone to the park for a picnic. It was approaching losing time but they had made a plan. They wanted to watch for shooting stars and steal strokes of mottled flesh beneath them. The trees, oaks and horse chestnuts, yews and willows, provided cover for them to wait unseen until the gatekeeper had locked up and gone home.

 

Ryes

Beyond the park, behind where they crouched, lay fields where corns, wheats and ryes grew, their tall frames still after the day had exhaled one last time and night’s eerie calm took over. The gatekeeper had locked the iron entrance gate and made his way off towards his lodge, talking to his faithful dog all the while.

Benoît and the girl had crept from the darkness and walked without speaking to the spot that they had planned. They spread out the blanket in the middle of the small copse where tree trunks and shrubs formed a protective circle around them and the arrangement of leaves provided a clear view of the sky.

They lay back and took it in turns to play each other songs from cassettes they had carefully selected; compilation tapes wound forward to perfect musical moments in preparation. While one listened, the other studied their face expectantly, looking for signs of approval and experiencing the disorientating magic of young love where imperfect features combine in a perfect whole.

After half an hour of music, Benoît leaned towards her and kissed her deeply. Having overstretched, his weight shifted and he found himself falling on to her, causing her in turn to lose balance and fall back on the blanket. Their teeth collided in the awkward tumble but now here they were, alone and lying on a blanket in the open, alone and in love, anticipating what they didn’t have the vocabulary to describe.

They kissed until their tongues ached. Their hands nervously felt out once private shapes that had transformed from inanimate appendages to tingling vessels struggling with the life force they now contained. The two of them chartered each other’s bodies, mapping new territories physically and emotionally as the stars blinked into being above them.

When they finally untangled themselves and looked up, when the first shooting star blazed its trail across the ink black sky, when Benoît took her hand and squeezed it, this was when he knew that life contained so much more than he ever imagined.

Putting his beer down, Benoît looked up to the stars and sighed. He was experiencing some of those distant feelings again.

It was around three a.m as Benoît walked to his apartment in the 20th arrondissement that he decided upon what he was going to do. As soon as the thoughts ordered themselves, he knew it was the right course of action.

There was a mobile number he was supposed to text when the job was done. Tomorrow morning he would ring it. If no one answered then he would text the word – No. That would trigger a chain of events.

Refusing the hit meant that perhaps they would come after him – this was a possibility that he fully expected and accepted. It was the fact that they would issue another contract on her life that bothered him. This lead to the next conclusion. He would need to track her down and protect her. Finding her would not be a problem, protecting her would be the issue.

Back in the apartment, Benoît was finding it impossible to sleep. The detached stillness that meant he usually slept as soon as he fell to his bed had deserted him. A kinetic energy had replaced it, each digit and sinew, limb and synapse twitched with it. The pillow was too lumpy, then the sheet too clingy, the sound of the fridge too loud. He stretched himself out then curled into a ball, waiting to see how his body would respond, if the energy would disperse.

Eventually, Benoît got up and walked to the living room. He picked up his burner phone and looked at it. Could he ring now? What difference would it make?  He needed a headstart so decided against it.

He grabbed a glass from the cupboard and went over to the sideboard where a bottle of Canadian rye whiskey waited. The warming spice of the golden liquid passed through him – bourbons, ryes, Irish, Scotch – it really didn’t matter, it always hit the spot.

 

Swap

It was hard to know who you actually were, what elements of your personality you owned, were in some way innate, and which you could swap out. Fleur looked at herself in the mirror and found a stranger staring back.  Her hair was cut short and she had dyed it black. She looked hard into her own eyes until they started to water and her features began to soften. The eyes she looked at became embedded in a skull and that skull was generic. It looked like any skull she had ever seen – from museums to ghost trains, television shows to churches.

It was not just her physical appearance that had altered – it was the manifestation of these changes inside her. She no longer knew who she was and what role she was supposed to be playing. There weren’t friends around her to say: ‘That’s so you, Flo,” or look at her concerned when she said something out of character or acted strangely.

The five girls she shared her dorm with were chameleons, trying out new roles like ‘going out’ tops in a changing room. In this foreign country, they too had come to find their personalities unfixed, fluid; they could be whoever they wanted amongst these strangers.

As the cast of the hostel changed, they would once more assume new roles. One night they would be confident sexual beings picking their playthings for the night, the next evening coy gigglers, hiding behind a book or a tablet as young men made their advances. They could flit from brooding intellectuals and seekers of solitude to caricatures craving the centre of attention, offering nothing of themselves. Fleur was one of them now, but unlike them she had much more to lose, so many extra layers to discard.

Despite numerous attempts and several international phone cards, Fleur had still been unable to reach Gabby. She felt completely helpless and sick at the thought that her best friend had come to harm because of her. She did manage to get through to a mutual friend, but they had not seen Gabby for a few weeks. Fleur asked them to check on Gabby and get her to email her.

Another thing Fleur had found herself doing was replaying every bad thing she had ever done. Each wrong doing had been boiled down into a succinct, painfully direct miniature play. Three or four scenes, minimal dialogue, culminating in her wrong doing, always the final act. They cycled over and over, in different orders but always the same.

Her ending up in bed with her friend’s boyfriend – they hadn’t had sex but the intent and the betrayal was there. The time she stopped speaking to her best friend Harry for months because he didn’t like her boyfriend at the time. He had died in a car accident before she could make it up with him and tell him that he was right about the boyfriend. The time when she turned down the wrong street, too narrow for her car, and had driven along it anyway, scratching every vehicle along it – she hadn’t left a single note. The time she collected money for a charity skydive and then bottled it. And instead of telling people, she had kept the sponsor money and lied about doing it, even to her parents. Then there was Tom, dead on the floor. And Gabby gone.

We’ve all made mistakes, Fleur reasoned, all ended up in situations that we never intended and were never quite sure how we ended up there. Nothing in this stream of fuck-ups would have made someone want her dead. If she had her time again, Fleur would have done things differently, been better. But probably doing it again would only swap her wrongs for new ones.

 

Pack

It was time for Fleur to  pack up and move hostels. Three nights and Fleur had slept little and achieved even less. She had spent the days using the free Wi-Fi, searching for people with her name and variations of her name in Google. She’d read long in-depth articles about the gang scene in the UK, but none of them seemed to operate in or around her town. She had searched the local news for any violent crimes with an organised crime angle. There was nothing there.

She did however read a news story about Tom. Her heart pounded as she read it. It mentioned a head injury, her street and that police were appealing for witnesses. There was no mention of her by name and she was relieved. The relief was mixed with remorse and grief.

It was impossible to know what else she could do. Research was one of her transferable skills from university or so she had written on her CV. It wasn’t doing her much good now, but then again she wasn’t trying to find data on limestone cliff erosion on the Dorset Coast in the 1970s.

Fleur checked out of the hostel, happy to receive the twenty Euro key deposit back from the miserable but utterly beautiful girl on the reception desk. The money she had changed had run out and she needed to get some more.

At the first boulangerie, Fleur stopped and ordered a coffee and a pastry which she inhaled instantly. The buttery rich pastry contrasted with the sharp bitterness of the coffee in the most perfect way. She went back and ordered the same again. All she’d eaten since arriving in Paris was bread, cheese and eggs cooked in the tiny hostel kitchen in officially the worst non-stick pan ever.

Gare du Nord was surprisingly quiet when Fleur arrived. A few people stood around chatting, others looked up at the giant digital timetables. Two security guards moved on a drunk who was serenading a business woman at a cafe, his baritone stuttering and popping like an old record.

Fleur took out 250 euros from a cash machine and then used her credit card to buy a one-way ticket to Marseille. For the ticket attendee, she performed a routine that she intended to be memorable. It wasn’t so much an act, but instead a conscious choice to allow some of her true panic to come out in a mess of tears, broken French and frantic hand gestures. She took her ticket, shoved it in her backpack and then left the station once more.

 

Pegs

A white-haired woman hung out her washing on a line with wooden pegs. Insect-like her fingers scurried their way across each garment, expertly securing them with a final rhythmic click. The fabrics were faded and nearly completely transparent under the glare of the sun. It was a perfect day for drying clothes: warm with a steady breeze.

Men wore short-sleeved shirts and women cotton dresses. People chose to walk rather than use the subway. Parents gathered up toddlers and headed for the city beach. Tourists filled their water bottles from the slow trickle fountains outside Shakespeare & co. or enjoyed picnics in the dying grass that stretched from the Eiffel Tower away from the Seine. The air was muggy with contentment. Everyone was happy to be alive or so it seemed. At least two individuals were not.

Fleur could feel the sweat forming beneath the backpack and soaking into her t-shirt. She’d been walking for nearly an hour, looking for a budget hostel. The streets she now walked were deserted, the shops shuttered and bistros closed. It didn’t feel like the right area to be looking for a bed for the night or anything at all for that matter. It was hard to know where she might find somewhere. Suddenly, from out of an office door, a man in a long overcoat lurched, nearly careening into Fleur. She screamed and started to run. He was following close behind her with the same lurching motion as if he had a peg leg that he had to swing out in front of him to propel himsel forward.

 

Flag

After running for a couple of blocks, Fleur turned round to see if he was gaining on her – her face, puce with effort and contorted in pain, was like a red flag to a bull. The man, although over 100 metres away, found a hidden reserve of energy and spurted on.

Fleur carried on but could feel herself slowing, her lungs burned and her legs felt like jelly. She had tried to prepare for this moment since D.C Webb had first told her that the bullets had been meant for her. This was not how she imagined her killer though – a disheveled man in an overcoat, but there was no denying his intent now as he gained on her once more.

She didn’t know how it happened, but she found herself down on the hard pavement. Forks of blue pain shot out from her left elbow. Gritting her teeth, she turned her head awkwardly to see what she had tripped on. A shadow fell across her. The overcoat like a cape blocked out the sun and she could smell its intense musk, like a tarpaulin long forgotten in a shed shaken loose. She screamed of course, but the high pitched wail was instantly swallowed by the filthy folds of his coat, dampened to a pathetic squeak. Fleur felt the sharpness now of his long, dirty fingernails as they came down across her cheek towards her neck. Despite struggling, kicking and flailing her arms, the man did not flinch.

What happened next, Fleur could not begin to process. The man took her nose between his fingers and squeezed, honking like a goose. He then let loose a high peel of maniacal laughter and lurched off, flapping his cape as he went. Fleur unsteadily got to her feet, attempted to flag a taxi that sped past and failing slumped to the floor and started to cry.

 

WEEK FOUR

… 

Ragi

Benoît ordered a beetroot, cucumber and ginger juice, and the breakfast special of ragi porridge with pomegranate seeds. The vegan café where he stood was incongruous in this classically Parisienne avenue, all stark and minimalist, unfussy. The clientele inside were similarly attired. Black and grey outfits, spectacles either too large or small, drinking their coffees and juices in a deliberately slow and considered manner.

It was approximately three hours after Benoît had made the phone call – unanswered – and two hours and fifty five since he’d sent the text – also unanswered. He had turned the contract down – his future was now both his own and in the hands of others.

Taking out his laptop, Benoît fired up Tor, the program that granted him access to the so-called dark web where much of the contract killing was arranged. There was no chatter on the network, no hit put out for him yet, at least not in the places he knew.

Benoît started to run traces on Fleur’s phone and view her credit card activity. He also read her recent emails, and searched the local and UK police reports. He could see that a Lloyds credit card had been used in London – a large withdrawal three days ago, and then nothing. ‘What was she doing for money?’ he wondered. She’d be running out soon, if not already.

The type of phone she was using meant it couldn’t be tracked live via GPS, but Benoît could see when it was last used and it was in Paris. A couple of unsuccessful calls to a mobile number listed as decommissioned. Police reports came up with her name as a person of interest in a double murder case with some interesting notes, but nothing like a case.

Benoît finished his juice, knowing that his best bet was to wait for her to use her credit card and then move fast. It turned out that he didn’t have to wait long at all. As he was closing down the windows on his laptop, it flashed up – withdrawal €250 Gare d’Nord. So much for the wait. He gathered up his laptop quickly and flagged down a cab.

The traffic was slow and the taxi driver was in no hurry. He was an angular, tall man from Mali that seemed content to roll down the window further and turn up the hypnotic loops of desert guitar that played on the stereo. The traffic fumes mixed with the musky smell of the air fresher that dangled from the rearview mirror. Benoît felt intoxicated. From inhabiting a place of such stillness and clarity to this, was a disorientating and exhilarating change.

When Benoît finally stumbled out of the taxi at Gare d’Nord, he felt wholly incapable of tracking down the woman. Ordinarily he relied on instinct, which in reality was a solid knowledge of human behaviour and an ability to analyse situations quickly based on probability. For most jobs, Benoît would spend at least a week watching his target’s movements, understanding their routines but also how they made decisions based on random occurrences; studying how they reacted when someone bumped into them or cut in front of them in a line, when they tripped or stubbed their toe. It was then easy for him to determine the cleanest method for the hit. Everything about this job was different.

Entering the train station, Benoît scanned the crowds for a woman matching Fleur’s height and body shape. It was not particularly difficult to see people for what they were, ignoring clothes and hairstyles and seeing just the configuration of skin, muscles and bones. Benoît thought he caught a glimpse of her heading to a carriage door of a train on platform 12, but as he approached the woman turned, revealing thin lips and a sharp nose.

After five further minutes of scanning the concourse and platforms, Benoît concluded that she must have left already. Something told him though that she wasn’t on a train, but instead was still in Paris. He jogged out of the station and set of briskly across the road towards a church.

After half an hour, Benoît was out of ideas. There was no sign of her. The streets were quiet and the people in them were undeniably French. He walked over to a restaurant where an old man sat and asked him if he’d seen a foreigner around looking lost. The old man replied that we were all foreigners and we were all most certainly lost. Benoît laughed and decided to join the man, ordering a brandy for them both.

The old man hid his wisdom in stupid riddles and said the wisest of stupid things. Their conversation spiralled and repeated; sentences were torn down and reconstructed just so they could both integrate the words they used and turn their meanings into nonsense. Benoît was enjoying himself. It felt like years since he had talked like this, without an agenda but for the pleasure of sharing with someone else. He had no idea what the time was or how long he had been sat with the old man. He looked at his watch. It was late now. The brandy glasses gathered untidily on the table made him felt both foolish and delighted. He burped and the​ unpleasant combination of beetroot and ragi gathered in the roof of his mouth like the smoke that fills a room when you extinguish a candle.

 

Cite

It had been fun to cite Baudrillard, misquote a line or two of Houellebecq and get slowly drunk in the afternoon with the old man, Benoît thought to himself. But there was no denying that it was frivolous and indulgent when lives were at risk. He had put himself and Fleur in great danger, and was regretting his decision to drink so much brandy. He needed to sober up quickly and find her before it was too late.

Fleur was still shaken and sore from her encounter with the honking man. She was also angry – at the lunatic and at herself for proving so weak. If she was going to get through this then she needed to toughen and sharpen up. There was also the small matter of trying to prove her innocence. She needed to get the police on her side and somehow communicate to those that wanted her dead that there had been a terrible mix-up – how she went about achieving either of these things was beyond her.

Fleur was running a bath in the hotel she had found for the night. It was too much money and she knew it, but she couldn’t face trudging through the streets a second longer with the omnipresent threat of a bullet to the brain. She sank into the warm bath and felt some of the tension rise up from her along with the billowing steam.

Having not heard her own voice out loud for so long, Fleur started to speak to Gabby.

“Gabs, I’ve screwed up so bad. I should have gone to the police. I know that now. I can’t be on the run like this, it’s not doing me any good. Look at me? I’m not cut out for this shit. What would you have done in my situation, hey? I just wish I knew what to do next. Why won’t you answer your phone? I need you Gabs. I’m so useless right now.”

Fleur was crying into the bath water. It was then she realised that it was time to turn herself in. The police would protect her and she would help them in whatever way she could to sort out the whole mess. It would be easier to prove her innocence with them than alone in Paris or anywhere else for that matter.

Knowing that it would all soon come to an end, Fleur drew the fluffy dressing gown around her wet body and sat on the bed flicking through the room service menu. She ordered a croque monsieur and a side of fries with a large glass of merlot. Having paid in cash for the room, she had to give her card details for the order and she gave them. She knew it was a mistake, but it was over now.

The knock on the door came fifteen minutes later, sharp and clear. Although Fleur’s instinct was to shout ‘come in’ in the confident rasp of a silverscreen siren, she wasn’t sure how this would work. For starters, it wasn’t French and there was also the fact that she had made tripley sure the door was locked. Did hotel staff have master keys?

Fleur tied her dressing gown once more and walked over to the door. She opened it an inch and paused. Before she had the chance to open the door fully, she was already falling backwards. In the doorway, stood a man that was categorically not an employee of the hotel. Fleur’s mouth made the shape of a scream but the man was on her in an instant, forcing his soft palm over her mouth.

Benoît spoke to Fleur calmly but quickly, trying to convey that he meant her no harm in as few words as possible. He looked at her intensely, trying to add sincerity to his words but it was failing. Fleur squirmed and he knew he couldn’t remove his hand from her mouth.

“If I want you dead, it would be the case already. I am here to save you and myself also. We are both in very much danger. We must be quick to act or else we be dead, both – dead.”

There was a change in Fleur’s eyes and he noticed it. A moment of comprehension forming amongst the hazel swirls. She believed him.

Fleur decided that she would not scream. What use would it do anyway? If he had come to kill her, then it would happen just the same. Also, there was something about this man, with his well-groomed appearance and blue eyes, that made her feel like he wasn’t going to hurt her. He reminded her of a model from a magazine advertisement, like those selling expensive watches. He had a silent brooding power but it didn’t seem real, like it was manufactured. She would hear him out and then, when room service came, she would make a run for it.

Benoît sat down on the armchair to the right of the bed where Fleur was perched, tense and nervously eyeing the door. He started to speak and before he knew it, he was telling her everything about his life. His father, the debt, his mother and brother, the bad men; how scared he’s been and how much he had cried. He told her about the stillness and how it had taken over. He told her about how many he had killed, their names and where they lived. And then, he told her about her and her picture and how the stillness had been replaced by chaos. Benoît stopped for a moment to take a breath and noticed that his face was wet from tears. He looked over at Fleur and asked:

“What is about you? Why now? Why you?”

There was a knock at the door and then the sound of it unlocking. A young girl walked into the room carrying a tray without looking up at either Fleur or Benoît. She was staring instead at the glass of wine, focussing all her energy on not spilling it. Fleur noticed the open door behind the young girl. Benoît looked at Fleur, looking at the door.

Time stopped and the three of them were stuck in the moment. Oxygen could not enter lungs, eyes could not blink. And then, the wine glass teetered and fell. Time rushed in through the walls, ceiling and windows, clambered desperately over every surface. Oxygen was sucked into lungs with an audible gasp and eyes blinked rapidly. Wine spread slowly out across the carpet.

“Merde! Je déteste cette cité et je déteste ce travail,” the girl said angrily.

 

Mold

With that the girl ran out of the hotel room leaving the wine to spread like mold across the carpet. Benoît closed the door, walked to the bathroom and grabbed the only dry towel from the rack. He knew that the girl was gone for good – he recognised a breaking point when he saw one. He spread the towel out and placed it over the spillage and they both watched in silence as the deep red made its way up into the brilliant white.

“We must go now.”

Fleur dressed quickly. The tops of her thighs still wet as was her hair which clung to her scalp. She gathered her few things into her backpack and then nodded to Benoît.

They took the stairs two at a time until they reached the lower level of the hotel where the kitchens were located. Benoît took Fleur by the hand and walked her through the kitchen towards a fire door. Two chefs were prepping for breakfast but their tired, puffy eyes barely registered their presence as they walked past and out the door.

The night was cold and still. In front of them was a maze of tall thin alleyways, the floors of which were slick with grease and ripe with the the smell of rubbish and urine. Exit lights shone through metal grilles casting shadows in the gloom. Benoît took a right and Fleur followed.

For over an hour they walked, never leaving the darkness of the passages and alleyways. Then, the buildings became shorter and the city suddenly opened out and Fleur felt her eyes adjust. She could see the Seine moodily flowing across the road from her and a row of futuristic skyscrapers behind her. She had no idea where she was, but seeing the river meant she was still in Paris at least.

Benoît had a place like this in every city. An abandoned building, unguarded, unsurveilled, where he knew he could hide out if need be. This development on the north east banks of the Seine was once upon a time meant to be the future. The concrete towers and angular glass edifices once contained hope, bush hammered and raw, over-reaching. It took just 25 years for the businesses to move out and the decay set in.

The door was unlocked and opened first time just as he knew it would.  The smell of abandonment clung to the walls, a muted sad scent with an earthy undertone. Benoît lead Fleur up the stairs to the third floor and along a corridor to a blue door. Expertly Benoit picked the lock and it swung open. It was an executive office that looked out over the sci-fi landscape, book-ended by the Tour De Mars and the Tour Totem.

They each took a seat in black office swivel chairs that were covered in a thin film of dust. The situation was more than a little ridiculous. Not a word had passed between them as they had made their way through the alleyways of Paris, and now they sat across from each other over a substantial teak desk.

Fleur was first to speak:

“Why didn’t you kill me?”

“Why did you not run when you had the chance?” Benoît replied, still not knowing the answer to her question.

“I don’t know. I guess I kind of expected something to happen, you know? When you’re running from something, you know that eventually it’s going to catch up with you. You were who I was running from and you caught me. You know it was almost a relief to stop running. If you hadn’t found me, I was going to turn myself in. I’d had enough. I was going to call the police.”

Benoît listened to her, watched her lips move and waited for it to become clear why she was different from the others. Nothing was happening. Was it her? Or was it something in him that had changed? He’d presumed it was a aura of innocence that had stopped him; that somehow in the photograph he had sensed her goodness and knew that she didn’t deserve to die. But he did not sense that now. She was not evil; he had known evil people and she wasn’t that, but innocent, no, he did not believe this either.

“Why would some person want you dead?” Benoît asked.

“I don’t know. I’ve asked myself the same thing so many times. And it’s like shouting into this deep well and not hearing anything back – like, no echo, nothing. Do you not get given a reason? I mean, you’re about to kill someone, you must want to know why?”

“It helps knowing nothing. They don’t tell and I cannot ask them, even if I want to. It’s just something I do. Something I did. Not anymore though.”

Benoît smiled gently, saying it out loud felt good.

“Do you think they will send someone else to kill me? There was a man in England, too.”

“Yes. It is true. For me and you, they send new man now. That is why we are here. We are safe for a time, so I can think and make a plan.”

Fleur’s face slackened and her eyes throbbed with tiredness. This was never going to end. And all she wanted was for it to stop, for her to be safe, for Gabby to be ok. She needed to speak to D.C Webb. Behind where the man sat, on the wall she could see spots of mold – she stared at them, into them, until shapes started to form.

 

WEEK FIVE

Cove

Emerging from the mold, Fleur recognised the outline of a cove that she had visited in Croatia. She remembered the small boat that had dropped her off somewhere off the coast of Split. The man had told her that in order to reach the cove, she needed to dive underwater and swim through a hole in the jagged rock face. Two big kicks and she would be through the other side and able to see the cove, he told her, making kicking motions with his arms as he spoke. It wasn’t reachable by boat and it was an eight-hour hike overland – this was the easy way. It was beautiful, he told her once more, like paradise.

Fleur was not a strong swimmer and couldn’t help but imagine getting stuck in the hole. The water would fill her lungs and the sharp rocks would cut her back and arms as she tried to free herself. She would, of course, drown. Eventually, her body would be ripped free in a storm and float into the cove. Many years later they would rename the secluded bay after her.

The scenarios had played out in her mind that afternoon. She knew she would need to make the journey through the hole twice and one way was bound to be easier than the other. Fleur had looked down at the waters, clear electric blue, before flopping inelegantly off the side of the boat and into them. Although the water was warm, Fleur gasped and instantly found herself struggling to keep her head above the water. It was at this moment that she remembered the disclaimer that she had signed about being a competent swimmer – she was a long way from competent.

Fleur tried to take a deep breath – more water than air – and plunged into the water kicking waywardly. The entrance was harder to see underwater; her eyes stung and she closed them, feeling along the rock with her outstretched hands. She found the opening but it was below her, deeper underwater. She needed more air. There was no option but to surface and try again to dive lower. Surfacing, Fleur gulped for air, feeling sick and weak. What little confidence she had had now disappeared. She looked frantically for the boat – no cove was worth this! The boat was a dot on the horizon, its outline frayed in the heat like cheap cotton.

Fleur started to panic. The boat was supposed to back to collect her in three hours. She looked around for a ledge to wait on, a rock to climb onto, there wasn’t any. Fleur could not feel the bottom – she was stranded. Surviving in open water for that long wasn’t likely – drowning felt like a certainty.

Fleur had then cupped her hand and propelled herself backwards about a metre. Next, she took several shallow breaths before ducking her head into the water and kicking down hard. When she felt she was lined up with the hole, she pulled her arms back and furiously kicked and hoped.

Her head came up on the other side – she had made it through. She was alive. The water felt warmer and calmer and she could breathe again. After a moment, she opened her eyes. The cove was the most elegant curve, flanked with spikes of rock and lush palm trees. It was a shape that burnt itself into her retina – the first site of a second life. She would later try and sketch it without success, but it was the shape she saw now on the wall.

Fleur remembered the elation she had felt in that moment, like she had cheated death, like she was invincible. She had swum a few strokes towards the cove and then realised that her feet could touch the bottom. She then strode towards the beach and watched as the handful of people on the sand moved languidly, seemingly welcoming her home.

Right now, in the abandoned office, Fleur was lost underwater and about to either drown or become invincible. She didn’t know which and the fear of not knowing paralysed her. Benoît sat in front of her deep in thought. He was planning several moves ahead, weighing up the likelihood of different scenarios. A hut by a beach in Mexico or Goa wasn’t going to happen. Could he leave Fleur? If he did, then she would probably die – was he ok with this? But if he didn’t leave he, then they might both die. And what if they made it out of France, somewhere less risky, they’d be forced to live a life hardly worth living. Benoît was fully aware how much he had missed out on and wasn’t quite ready to give up his new-found freedom.

Benoît got to his feet:

“I go get food for us now. We need to eat. You must please stay here. It is not safe for you to leave. I make us safe but first we must eat.”

With that he left the room, leaving Fleur alone, staring at the mold. Water had started to fill her lungs.

“Don’t, don’t, don’t leave me,” she spluttered, suddenly aware of the empty room. It was too late – Benoît was already outside, still contemplating whether to leave her or protect her.

Sensing the need to do something, anything, Fleur opened her backpack and took out her phone. She turned it over and over in her hands before her thumb settled on the power button. She held it down and it slowly started to boot up.

Fleur had her own questions. Did she trust Benoît to keep her alive? If he changed his mind about not killing her then that was that, the end of her. And if he didn’t kill her, it would mean a life of running away, always looking over her shoulder, never being able to truly relax. She didn’t have the money either. The police would cut off her bank cards soon enough and that would be that. What would she do? She didn’t want to live in squalor or end up being wholly at the mercy of Benoît.

Scrolling through the call history on her phone, Fleur suddenly stopped at D.C Webb’s number. The smell of his breath came back to her – tobacco and coffee and so, so stale. She selected his number but didn’t dial. With one downward motion, all of this could end. Fleur looked across at the mold and felt her chest tighten. She couldn’t see that perfect curve of the cove, she saw only blackness.

 

Oats

Benoît had walked two unpleasant blocks back away from the Seine, stepping over dog turds and vomit congealed like porridge oats on the sidewalk. He had passed a newsagents and a noodle bar but had not been compelled to stop at either. He would carry on and find a better option, he told himself, not knowing if he believed it. The night air was still and he could hear the screech of a distant scooter and the cooing of a bird somewhere above him. It felt good to be outside. He focussed on breathing in and feeling the air fill his lungs.

For nine months Paris had been the city where he lived. It did not feel like home though, not that anywhere did, but he liked it. Some cities feel detached, aloof, but Paris for all its grandeur needed you. It wanted you to walk all night through its streets, to breakfast with it at dawn and allow it to lead you for days on end. Those that refused to be lead or didn’t have the inclination or means to wander, Paris rejected with such cruelty: a human cruelty that created and maintained the angry, forsaken rings around its centre. It was to these outer arrondissements that Benoît would need to go to purchase a passport for Fleur. Money wasn’t a question – he had money and he had his own identities. It came down to making a decision.

The phone was ringing and Fleur could hear it although the handset remained in her outstretched palm. She was disconnected from what she was doing, occupying a slow boggy unreality where her actions were not her own. It was 10:30 at night, of course he wouldn’t answer. The phone continued to ring. Why wasn’t Benoît back yet? Where had he gone? Had he been killed?

The ringing had stopped. Fleur could make out a distant barking sound – ‘hello, who is this? Hello? Slowly, dream-like, Fleur lifted the phone to her mouth.

“D.C Webb this if Fleur Adcott. I need you to listen to me and then, I need your word that you will protect me.”

There was a short pause while Webb registered who she was before answering in the affirmative.

Fleur spoke again:

“I killed Gabby Burney and Tom Henri.”

There was silence.

“It didn’t happen like you think. I didn’t mean to hurt her. It was an accident. Gabby was my best friend, my only…my only friend. She should never…”

Fleur was sobbing; the darkness was washing over her, she was stuck in the hole. A distant voice broke through:

“Tell me where you are. I need to know where you are. Fleur, listen to me, where are you?” Webb was shouting down the phone.

“I didn’t mean for it to happen. You must believe me. None of it was supposed to happen.”

“I believe you, Fleur, but right now I need to know where the hell you are. If I’m going to protect you, I need to find you.”

“I don’t know where I am. It’s somewhere in Paris, by the river. There’s a statue, the statue of liberty, on the Seine. I’ll be there.”

Fleur ended call and clambered to her feet. She rushed through the door, ran along the corridor and started to head down the stairs when she froze. From somewhere nearby should heard a door slam and now there were voices. She tried to move but couldn’t. The voices were loud and speaking in French. Surely, the police wouldn’t have been able to come so quickly or even known that she was here. The smell of hash drifted up the stairwell.

Suddenly finding herself back in her body and with the voices getting louder, Fleur turned around and sprinted back to the office. The door was locked. She tried the adjacent door and the next – locked. The pungent hash filled her nostrils. They were close, getting close – a loud banging started up, the sound of metal on metal. Another door locked. And another.

“Shit,” Fleur muttered under her breath. She knew they were on her floor now, whoever they were. In blind panic, she dropped to the floor and lay there motionless with her back against the wall.

The moment she had spoken the truth, admitted to Webb and herself what she had done, she expected everything to change. She thought that the weight that filled her would dissipate and the world would reconfigure around her. And here she was, face pressed into carpet thick with dust, trying not to make a sound, drowning.

The voices had grown distant. They must be heading to the roof, Fleur concluded, gingerly getting to her feet. Slowly, she walked back past the locked office doors to the double-doors that lead to the stairs. She pushed it open a fraction. Seeing the stairs empty, she moved quickly, rushing down each flight. Nearing the bottom, Fleur turned the corner sharply and nearly collided head on with a young boy of about 17. He wore a baseball cap and a baggy black t-shirt and was carrying his phone from which a tinny bassline emerged.

Without thinking Fleur put a finger to her lips and shook her head. He stared at her, not speaking or moving. Fleur darted around him and out the door to the open air. She ran towards the river, not daring to look behind her. She didn’t want to see Benoît or the group of teens.

Illuminated in the centre of the Seine, the statue shone like a beacon and Fleur rushed towards it. She would find a spot where she could watch it unseen and wait. She imagined French police descending on it and bundling her into the back of an unmarked car, speeding her off and throwing her into a primitive cell. She would be forced to strip, put on plain overalls and eat watery oats from a plastic bowl with a plastic spoon.

 

Aloe

As she ran, Fleur quite suddenly became aware of her tongue in her mouth; it felt firm yet rubbery, rough at the edges like an aloe vera leaf. In all likelihood, it was dehydration; Fleur hadn’t had anything to drink for several hours, but still she couldn’t shake how alien it felt in her mouth, like it didn’t belong to her. Had it betrayed her? Fleur doubted that this object in her mouth was capable of forming the necessary shapes to make any sounds. Perhaps, she hadn’t told D.C Webb the truth about Gabby and Tom after all. Maybe she had just made incomprehensible gurgling sounds down the phone or maybe she hadn’t made the call at all. She’d just imagined it. Maybe everything wasn’t lost.

Fleur jogged across the road and made her way down the steps and under the bridge that lead to the statue of liberty. In front of her was a concrete tunnel – she could make out the statue’s plinth and a mini-gym pf strange metallic contraptions stationary in the gloom. Fleur squeezed herself behind a climbing wall, out of sight but just so she was able to make out the statue.

She waited, trying to block from her mind the images of Gabby lying dead in front of her that repeated, faster and more zoomed in each time.

They’d never argued before, not even once. It had all happened so quickly. Gabby was screaming in Fleur’s face, she had been so close that Fleur could feel the heat from her breath.

“You’re just jealous, Flo. That’s all it is. You’re all dried up, left on the shelf, and not a single fucker wants you. And me, yeah, I’ve met someone that loves me for who I am. You just can’t stand that, can you? And before you start in with all that ‘he’s a gangster, he’s no good,’ shit, you’ve got to realise one thing and that’s that you don’t know the first thing about him, alright! You think you do, but you don’t. Deep down he’s alright and he’d never lay a finger on me. You know, sod it; I don’t have to justify anything to you. We’re together and I don’t give two shits what you think, alright. It’s no wonder I’m you’re only friend. Walking around all the time, waiting for everything to land on your lap, face like a slapped arse. Well, now you don’t even have me, I’m done with you and your…”

It was at this moment that Fleur blacked out. The next thing she knew Gabby was on the floor and blood was pouring from her head, and she was holding a crystal vase.

 

 

Benoît had been walking for an hour. He’d stopped looking for shops that were open and assessing fast food outlets. He hadn’t made a conscious decision, but he knew that he wasn’t going back for Fleur.

He’d left a passport and five thousand US dollars in a safe place in the Père Lachaise Cemetery. This was where he was heading when he heard a rustling in the shadows.

A man hunched over in a doorway called to him, struggling to enunicate through the pain: “‘Aloe, aloe sir. Please com ‘elp me.”

 

Lynx

There was the smell of artificial spice in the air, somewhere between Lynx Africa and mulled wine, as Benoît walked briskly over to see what was wrong with the doubled-over man.

As Benoît came within touching distance, the man with great suppleness and speed unfolded to his full height. He was taller than Benoît. The pain that had moments ago crippled him had completely disappeared. The hand that had been clutching at his stomach, had also extended, driving a needle-thin blade between Benoît’s ribs and into his heart.

Benoît knew that he was going to die. There was a strange sensation like his energy was preparing itself to exit his body. He felt an anxious fluttering in every cell, like a moth drawn to an outdoor light, hitting against the bulb. The man had been a pro. He had known that Benoît would drop his guard and run to a man in need of help. The precision of the stabbing was admirable and he had disappeared within seconds.

Benoît didn’t have any real thoughts about death. He always presumed that he’d understood something about it, but he knew now that wasn’t the case. The fluttering had stopped and been replaced by a familiar stillness. Benoît allowed a grin to pull at his lips as he felt out the contours of his stillness with a muted pleasure. It was time to go.

 

 

How long had it been? An hour? Two hours? Fleur had become increasingly desperate and had convinced herself that D.C Webb hadn’t taken her seriously or, worse still, had no interest in protecting her. Perhaps it was what she deserved – to be shot or strangled and dumped in the river. She had killed two innocent people: taken their lives, erased their futures, obliterated countless moments of happiness.

Gabby had been an accident. Fleur didn’t know what had happened, just that one minute they were arguing and the next Gabby was dead. But Tom was different. Although it had only entered her head for an instance, the thought had existed – there had been a moment of awareness where Fleur knew that her actions would have repercussions. If she did what she thought, there was every chance he would not survive and she did it anyway. She hit him with the same crystal vase as hard as she could and then she had watched him fall and hit him again and again.

He should never have just walked into her apartment like that; knocking once then strolling in like he owned the place, carrying a Tupperware of flapjacks, grinning like an idiot. Gabby was wrapped in bin bags on the kitchen floor. What was Fleur supposed to do? If Tom had seen the body, then she’d be finished. He wouldn’t understand. She wouldn’t have had a chance to explain in a way that made sense. She wanted to feel remorse, but anger filled her even now. She was angry at him for coming in like that, unannounced, and forcing her to act. He’s been the only other person that seemed to want to spend time with her.

There was a noise. Fleur blinked herself back into reality. A car engine and then silence. Fleur strained to hear the sounds she wanted to hear; doors slamming, deep authoritative French voices, an English accent, boots on concrete, someone saying her name, near cooing it. Fleur strained hard against the silence. Nothing.

Perhaps the police had crept past her or arrived by boat and were waiting at the base of the statue for her. Tentatively Fleur got to her feet and scanned the shadows, struggling to see through the gloom. The police would be there by now. There didn’t have to be many, just one or two. That would be enough. Of course, they were there waiting by the statue.

“What would you do now, Gabs?” Fleur whispered into the thick silence.

“How about you call off your boyfriend? Tell him I’m a piece of shit and not worth it; that I didn’t mean to kill you, that I bloody loved you.”

Fleur came out from behind the climbing wall and walked towards the statue.

“He didn’t need to have me killed. I’d have done it myself soon enough.

Gabs, I’m so sorry. I don’t know what happened to me. I didn’t want to hurt you, I loved you so bloody much. You didn’t know what you were getting into. I didn’t want you to get mixed up in that life. You’re better than that. In fact, you’re the best. Hear that? The bloody best.”

Fleur stopped just a few metres short of the statue plinth. She looked up and saw it illuminated, ghost-like against the night sky. She inhaled, knowing it was nearly all over, out of her control.  A strange smell filled the air, like a teenage boy’s bedroom. Lynx Africa, that was it – Fleur placed the smell just as she felt the sharp pain in her chest.