Richard Lafargue paced slowly along the graveled walk. It led to a little pond set amidst the trees alongside the wall surrounding the property. It was a clear night, an evening in July, and a shining rain of milky stars flecked the sky.
Camouflaged by a group of water lilies, a pair of swans slept serenely, their necks folded beneath their wings, the slender female snuggled tenderly against the more imposing body of her mate.
Lafargue plucked a rose, briefly inhaled its sweetish, almost cloying perfume, then retraced his steps. Beyond the alley of lindens stood the house, a compact, squat, graceless mass. On the ground floor were the servants’ quarters, where Lise, the maid, would be taking her meal. To the right, a pool of light and a muffled purr signaled the garage, where Roger, the chauffeur, had the engine of the Mercedes running. And then there was the main drawing room, whose dark curtains allowed but a few thin streaks of light to escape.
Lafargue looked up to the floor above and let his gaze linger onthe windows of Eve’s rooms. There was a delicate glow, and through a half-open shutter came a timid sound of music, the first bars of “The Man I Love”….
Lafargue repressed a gesture of irritation and, striding briskly, went into the house, slamming the front door behind him, almost running to the staircase, and holding his breath as he bounded up the stairs. Once on the second floor, he raised his fist, but then held back and resigned himself to knocking gently with the knuckle of a curled index finger.
He slid back the three bolts that, from the outside, barred the door to the set of rooms inhabited by the woman who was so determinedly turning a deaf ear to his calls.
Without making a sound, he closed the door and proceeded into the dressing room. It was plunged in obscurity, the only light a glimmer from a shade-covered desk lamp standing on the piano. At the far end of the adjoining bedroom, brutal neon from the bathroom threw a bright white slash on the farthest wall of the flat.
In the half-shadows, he made his way to the stereo and turned the volume down, interrupting the first notes of whatever tune followed “The Man I Love” on the record.
He controlled his anger, then murmured, in a neutral tone quite devoid of reproach, a nonetheless biting comment about the length of time reasonably needed to make up her face, pick out a dress, and select jewelry appropriate for the kind of evening affair to which he and Eve were invited.
He went on into the bathroom, stifling a curse when he saw the young woman luxuriating in a thick cocoon of bluish foam. He sighed. His eyes met Eve’s for a moment; the defiance he thought he read there caused him to snigger. He shook his head in feigned amusement at her childishness and left the flat.
Back in the main drawing room on the ground floor, he fixed himself a scotch at a bar set up near the fireplace and downed it in one swallow. The spirit burned his stomach and tic-like movements worked in his face. Going over to the interphone connected to Eve’s rooms, he pressed the button, then cleared his throat before pressing his mouth against the plastic mouthpiece and bellowing:
“For God’s sake, hurry up, you piece of shit!”
Eve started violently as the two 300-watt speakers set into the dressing room walls blasted out Richard’s yell.
She shivered, then unhurriedly got out of the vast circular bathtub and slipped into a black flannel robe. She went and sat at the dressing table and began to apply makeup, wielding the mascara brush with lively little gestures.
With Roger at the wheel, the Mercedes left the house in Le Vésinet and headed for Saint Germain. Richard observed Eve, indolent beside him. She was smoking nonchalantly, bringing her ivory cigarette holder to her elegant lips at regular intervals. The lights of the city penetrated the car’s interior in intermittent flashes, streaking her black silk sheath dress with fugitive flashes of brilliance.
Eve held her head way back, and Richard glimpsed her face only when her cigarette glowed briefly red.
They did not intend to linger at a garden party put on by a cheap wheeler-dealer bent on signaling his existence to the landed gentry of the region. They meandered among the guests, with Eve on Richard’s arm, to the accompaniment of soft music from a band set up on the grounds. People clustered around buffet tables arranged at intervals along the tree-lined walks.
There was no way of avoiding the odd social bloodsucker. They had no choice but to raise glasses of champagne in honor of the master of the house. Lafargue ran into several colleagues, including a member of the Medical Council. He allowed himself to be complimented on his most recent article in The Practitioner. He even agreed, during a lull in the conversation, to take part in a panel discussion on reconstructive breast surgery at the forthcoming round-table conference at Bichat. Later, he felt like kicking himself for accepting the invitation instead of politely refusing.
Eve kept her distance; she seemed to be in the clouds. But she relished the lustful glances that a few of the guests cast her way and took pleasure in responding with a barely perceptible pout of contempt.
She left Richard long enough to go over to the band and request “The Man I Love.” By the time the song’s soft and languid opening bars were struck up, she was back at Lafargue’s side. A mocking smile came to her lips when pain registered on the doctor’s face. He took her gently by the waist and drew her aside. But when the saxophonist began a plaintive solo it was all he could do not to slap his companion.
It was nearly midnight by the time they at last took leave of their host and returned to the house in Le Vésinet. Richard accompanied Eve as far as her bedroom. Sitting on the sofa, he watched her undress, at first mechanically, then more sensually—facing him, staring him down with an ironic smile.
Once naked, Eve planted herself directly in front of Richard, her legs apart and the thicket of her pubic hair level with his face. He shrugged, got up, and went to get a small pearly white box from its place on one of the book shelves. Eve stretched out on a mat laid on the floor. He came and sat cross-legged beside her, opening the box and withdrawing the long pipe, aluminum foil, and small waxy balls that it contained.
He delicately filled the pipe and held a flaring match beneath the bowl before passing it to Eve. She took long deep puffs. The sickly sweet odor filled the room. She turned on her side and curled up, staring at Richard. Before long her gaze lost its sharpness as her eyes glazed over. Richard was already getting another pipe ready.
An hour later he left her, making sure to turn the knob twice on all three bolts. Back in his own bedroom, he undressed, too, then scrutinized his graying countenance in the mirror at some length. He smiled at his reflection, at his white hair and the many deep wrinkles that scored his features. He raised his open hands before him, and feigned ripping apart some imaginary object. In bed at last, he tossed and turned for hours before falling asleep at first light.
The maid, Lise, had the day off, so it was Roger who got breakfast ready that Sunday. He knocked for quite some time on Lafargue’s door before getting a response.
Richard ate heartily, biting with relish into fresh croissants. He was in high spirits, an almost playful mood. He put on jeans and a light cotton shirt, slipped into loafers, and went out for a turn round the property.
The swans glided up and down the pond, coming to the edge when Lafargue appeared amid the lilacs. He tossed them some pieces of bread and crouched to feed them from his hand.
Then he went walking in the grounds. The solid beds of flowers were bright swathes of color across the freshly mown grass. Richard made his way toward the seventy- five-foot swimming pool that had been constructed at the far end of the garden. The street and even the neighboring houses were screened from view by the wall that completely enclosed the property.
He lit a Virginia cigarette and inhaled deeply. He indulged in a long mocking laugh before heading back to the house. In the servants‘ quarters Roger had set Eve’s breakfast tray down on the table. In the drawing room, Richard pressed the button on the intercom and roared into it: “BREAKFAST! TIME TO GET UP!”
Then he went upstairs.
He unlocked the door and advanced into the bedroom, where Eve was still sleeping in the great four-poster bed. The sheets covered all but a small part of her face, and her thick curly brown hair was a dark patch on the mauve satin.
Lafargue sat down on the edge of the bed, placing the tray next to Eve. She moistened the tip of her lips with the orange juice and nibbled dolefully at a honey-spread zwieback.
“It’s the twenty-seventh,” said Richard. “The last Sunday of the month. Had you perhaps forgotten?”
Eve shook her head weakly, without looking at Richard. Her eyes were blank.
“All right. We leave here in three-quarters of an hour.”
He left the flat. Back in the drawing room, he went across to the intercom.
“I said three-quarters of an hour! D’you hear me?”
Upstairs, Eve went rigid as she suffered through Richard’s amplified tirade.
The Mercedes had been traveling for three hours when it left the highway and took a winding local road. The Norman countryside lay prostrate in the torpor of the summer sun. Richard opened a bottle of cold soda and offered some to Eve, who was dozing, her eyes half-closed. She declined, and he closed the door of the little refrigerator.
Roger drove fast but professionally. Before long, he pulled the car up outside a country mansion on the fringe of a small village. A patch of dense woodland surrounded the property, some of whose outbuildings, protected by iron railings, were not far at all from the hamlet’s last houses. On the château’s forecourt sat knots of people out enjoying the sunshine. Women in white blouses moved among them bearing trays laden with multicolored plastic glasses.
Richard and Eve ascended the broad flight of steps leading to the main entrance, went inside, and addressed themselves to a formidable lady receptionist at a hatch. She smiled at Lafargue, shook Eve’s hand, and beckoned to a male nurse.
The visitors followed the man into an elevator, which took them to the third floor.
Before them stretched a long straight corridor punctuated by set-back doorways, each equipped with a rectangular observation panel of transparent plastic. Without a word, the nurse opened the seventh door on the left, then stepped back as the couple entered.
A woman sat on the bed-a very young woman, though her youth was belied by her wrinkles and hunched posture. She offered a pitiful image of premature aging. Deep crevices ravaged her otherwise still childlike face. Her hair was unkempt—thickly matted, with spikes here and there. Her bulging eyes rolled this way and that. Her skin was blotched with darkish crusty patches. Her lower lip trembled spasmodically, and her trunk rocked slowly back and forth with metronomic regularity. She wore only a blue cotton smock without pockets. Her bare feet slithered about in overlarge bedroom slippers adorned with pom-poms.
She seemed not to have noticed the entrance of her visitors. Richard sat down next to her and took her chin in his hand and turned her face toward him. The young woman was compliant, yet nothing in her expression or gestures betrayed the slightest feeling or emotion.
Richard put his arm around her shoulders and drew her to him.The rocking ceased. Eve, standing near the bed, was contemplating the countryside through the reinforced-glass window.
Viviane,” Richard murmured. “Viviane, my darling.”
He rose suddenly, grasping Eve’s arm and obliging her to look at Viviane, who had started her rocking again, wild-eyed.
“Give it to her,” said Richard sotto voce.
Eve opened her handbag, produced a box of soft-centered chocolates and held it out to the woman, to Viviane.
Clumsily Viviane seized the box, tore off the top, and set about greedily eating one chocolate after another. She ate every one. Richard watched her in stupefaction. “
“Come on,” sighed Eve, “that’s enough.” And she pushed Richard gently out of the room. The male nurse was waiting in the corridor; he closed the door as Eve and Richard made their way back to the elevator. They returned to the reception window and exchanged a few pleasantries with the receptionist, then Eve signaled the chauffeur, who was leaning against the Mercedes, reading a sports paper. Richard and Eve took their places in the back, and the car set off along the local road to the highway, returned to the Paris area, thence proceeded to the house in Le Vésinet.
Richard had locked Eve into her upstairs quarters and given the help the remainder of the day off. Now he was relaxing in the drawing room, picking at cold dishes Lise had prepared before she left. It was nearly five o’clock by the time he got into the driver’s seat of the Mercedes and sped off toward Paris.
He parked near Place de la Concorde and went into a building on Rue Godot-de-Mauroy. Keys in hand, he climbed briskly to the fourth floor and let himself into a spacious studio apartment. The center of the room was taken up by a great circular bed with mauve satin covers, and the walls were adorned by a few erotic prints.
On the bedside table was a combined telephone and answering machine. Richard set the tape in motion and listened to the messages: throaty, breathless voices of men trying to reach Eve. He noted the times they proposed for appointments. Leaving the apartment, he went quickly down the stairs and returned to the car. Back at Le Vésinet, he went straight to the intercom and called Eve.
“Eve, listen! Three! For this evening!”
Richard went upstairs.
She was in her dressing room, intently painting a watercolor. A peaceful, pleasant landscape: a clearing flooded with light, with at the center of the picture, drawn in black pencil, the face of Viviane. Bellowing with laughter, Richard seized a bottle of red nail varnish from the dressing table and dashed the contents over the watercolor.
You’re never going to change, are you?” he murmured.
Eve had stood up and was now methodically putting away the brushes, paints, and easel. Richard pulled her to him, till her face almost touched his.
“I have to thank you from the bottom of my heart,” he told her softly, “for the humility that allows you to yield to my desires as you do.“
“Eve’s features froze; from her throat rose a long, hollow, plaintive moan. Then a gleam of anger flashed in her eyes.
“Leave me alone, you pimp bastard”
“Ha! Very funny! No, really, I can’t tell you how charming you are when you rebel.”
She had detached herself from his embrace. She patted her hair back into place and straightened her clothes.
“All right, then. This evening? Is that what you really want? When do we leave?”
“Right away, of course.”
They said nothing to each other on the way. They were inside the studio apartment on Rue Godot-de-Mauroy before a word was uttered.
“Get yourself ready,” ordered Lafargue. “They won’t be long now.”
Eve opened a closet and undressed. First putting her own clothes away, she proceeded to dress in long black thigh boots, black leather skirt, and fishnet stockings. She made herself up, using white face powder and bright red lipstick, then sat down on the bed.
Richard left the apartment and entered its twin next door, where a one-way mirror let him secretly observe whatever went on in the room where Eve was waiting.
Her first client, a wheezy storekeeper around sixty with a bright red face, arrived just over half an hour later. The second came only at nine-thirty—a provincial pharmacist who visited Eve regularly and wanted merely to see her strolling naked about in the room’s confined space. The third—whom Eve was obliged to keep waiting after he had begged her over the phone to let him come over—was the scion of a good family, a repressed homosexual who became excited as he walked up and down using insulting language and masturbating. Eve’s role was to walk beside him, holding his hand.
Behind his mirror, Richard exulted at the spectacle, laughing silently, pitching back and forth in a rocking-chair, and applauding whenever the young woman evinced a sign of disgust.
When it was all over, he rejoined her. He tossed her leather gear aside and donned a severely cut suit.
“That was perfect! You are always perfect! Marvelous—so patient! Come on, let’s go”
Richard took Eve’s arm and took her off to supper at a Slavic restaurant. He kept the Gypsy musicians clustered around their table well supplied with bills—the very same bills that Eve’s clients had left earlier on the bedside table in settlement for services rendered.
Think back. It was a summer evening, horribly hot—and unbearably humid. A storm that wouldn’t break. You took your motorcycle, intent on racing through the darkness. The night air, you thought, would feel good.
You went fast. The wind filled your shirt, whose tails flapped noisily. Insects smashed onto your glasses, onto your face, but at least you were no longer hot.
It took quite a while for you to become concerned about the two white headlights piercing the blackness in your wake. Two electric eyes focused on you, never leaving you for an instant. When you did feel anxiety, you gunned the engine of your 125 to the limit, but the car behind was powerful and had no difficulty keeping up.
As your initial anxiety turned to panic under the relentless scrutiny of those lights, you began zigzagging through the forest. You could see, in your rearview mirror, that the driver of the car was alone. He seemed to have no wish to close on you.
The storm finally arrived. Drizzle quickly gave way to driving rain. After every curve the car would reappear. Streaming with water, you were soon shivering. Your bike’s gas gauge had started to flash ominously. You had fuel enough for a very few more kilometers. By this time you had changed course so many times that you were lost in the forest. You no longer had the slightest idea which way to go to get to the nearest village.
The road surface was slippery, and you slowed down. The car leaped toward you, overtaking you and almost forcing you to skid out onto the shoulder.
But you braked, and the bike spun around. As you started up again to leave the way you had come, you heard your pursuer’s brakes squeal as he too turned and began trailing you once again. It was darkest night, and sheets of rain made it impossible to see the road ahead.
In desperation you tried to mount the embankment at the edge of the road, hoping you might escape through the trees, but you skidded in the mud, and the 125 fell on its side, and the engine cut out. You managed to right the machine, though it was not easy.
Back in the saddle, you kicked the starter pedal, but the fuel tank was empty. The beam of a powerful flashlight was roving across the underbrush. To your dismay, it fastened on you as you raced for the cover of a fallen tree. You fingered the blade in the shank of your boot—a Wehrmacht knife that you always carried….
Sure enough, the car had pulled up sharply on the road. You felt your stomach knot at the sight of a massive silhouette getting a gun into firing position. The barrel was pointing in your direction. The report melded with the thunder claps. The flashlight had been laid down on the car roof. It went out. You ran then and were soon out of breath. You ripped your hands as you tore your way through the brushwood. From time to time the flashlight would come on again behind you, illuminating your flight. You could no longer hear anything; your heart throbbed crazily; mud clung to your boots and slowed you down. The knife was clasped tightly in your fist.
How long did the chase go on? Gasping for breath, you leaped over fallen trees in the blackness. A trunk lying flat on the ground tripped you, and you went sprawling on the soaking earth.
Laid out in the mud, you heard that cry, which was more like a growl. He stamped on your wrist, crushing your hand under the heel of his boot. You released the knife, and he fell upon you, pushing your shoulders down with his hands. Then one hand moved to your mouth, the other was clamped about your throat, and a knee was driven into your flank. You tried to bite the palm of his hand, but your teeth closed on nothing but a clod of earth.
He continued to hold you tightly against him. The two of you remained like this, welded together, in the darkness…. The rain stopped….
Alex Bamy rested on a camp bed in an attic room. He had nothing to do, except wait. The chatter of the cicadas in the garrigue was an unrelenting racket. Through the window Alex could see the crooked silhouettes of olive trees in the night, forms fixed in bizarre poses. With his shirtsleeve, he mopped his brow, where pearls of acidic sweat had gathered.
A naked bulb dangling from a wire attracted clouds of mosquitoes; every fifteen minutes or so, Alex would get furious and bombard them with Fly-Tox. On the concrete floor, a large dark circle of squashed mosquitoes continued to grow, shot through with specks of red.
Alex struggled to his feet and, relying on a cane, hobbled out of his bedroom and down to the kitchen of the farmhouse, which was somewhere in the depths of the countryside between Cagnes and Grasse.
The fridge was well stocked with a variety of provisions. Alex took out a can of beer, pulled off the tab, and drank it down. Belching loudly, he opened another can and went outside. In the distance, beyond the olive-covered hillsides, the sea shone in the moonlight, sparkling beneath a cloudless sky.
Alex took a few cautious steps. His thigh subjected him to brief bouts of searing pain. The dressing dug into his flesh. For two days now there had been no pus, but the wound was reluctant to heal. The bullet had traversed the muscular mass, happily missing the femoral artery and the bone.
He leaned, with one hand against the trunk of an olive-tree and urinated, spraying a column of ants engaged in the transport of an immense pile of twigs.
He began drinking once more, sucking on the can of beer, swilling the foam around his mouth, spitting it out. He sat down on a bench on the porch, puffing and blowing, belching once more. He fished a pack of Gauloises from his shorts pocket. The beer had splashed onto his T-shirt, already filthy with grease and dust. Through the cotton material, he pinched his stomach, taking a fold of flesh between thumb and forefinger. He was getting fat. Over the last three weeks of forced idleness, of nothing but sleeping and eating, he had been getting fat.
Alex ground his foot into a two-week-old newspaper on the floor. The heel of his hiking boots covered a face staring out from the front page: his own. Alongside the image was a column of large print in which a name stood out, in even larger characters. It was his name: Alex Bamy.
There was another photograph, too, smaller: a guy with his arm around a woman with a baby in her arms. Alex cleared his throat and hawked onto the paper. His saliva, which had picked up a few traces of tobacco on its way, landed on the baby’s face. He spat again, this time hitting his intended target, the face of a cop smiling at his little family. A cop who was now dead.…
He emptied the rest of the beer over the paper, causing the ink to run, blurring the pictures and bloating the newsprint. For a few moments, he was lost in contemplation of the progressive staining of the pages by the trails of liquid. Then he stamped on the whole mess, reducing the paper to shreds.
A wave of anxiety flooded through him. His eyes misted over, but no tears came; the sobs that formed in his throat failed to materialize, leaving him distraught. He
tidied up his dressing, rearranging the folds and tightening the whole thing by shifting the safety pin.
With his hands flat on his knees, he stayed where he was, staring into the night. During the first days after his arrival at the farmhouse, he had found it devilishly hard to adjust to the solitude. He had a slight fever because of his infected wound, and there was a buzzing in his ears that blended unpleasantly with the chirping of the cicadas. He scrutinized the garrigue, and often thought he detected movement in the scrub; night sounds filled him with alarm. His revolver was always in his hand or, when he lay down, on his stomach. He feared that he might go mad.
The bag full of banknotes lay at the foot of his bed. He would dangle his arm over the iron bedpost and plunge his hand among the wads of bills, turning them over, fondling, enjoying the feel of them.
He had moments of euphoria when he would suddenly burst out laughing and tell himself that after all nothing could happen to him. They would never find him. He was safe here. There were no other houses, no neighbors, for over a kilometer around. Even then, it was only some Dutch or German tourists who had bought up a ruined farmhouse for a vacation home. Some hippies with herds of goats. A potter. Nothing to fear! In the daytime, he occasionally observed the road and the vicinity through binoculars. The foreigners would take long walks, picking flowers. The children were extraordinarily blond—two little girls and a boy slightly older. The mother would sunbathe naked on the flat roof of their house. Alex would spy on her, squeezing his crotch and grousing to himself….
He went back inside and made himself an omelet, which he ate straight from the pan, mopping up the sloppy part with bread. Then he played darts, but the to-ing and fro-ing needed to retrieve the darts after each turn soon wore him out. There was also a pinball machine, which had worked when he arrived but had now been on the blink for a week.
He turned the television on. He couldn’t make up his mind between a Western on France 3 and a variety show on Channel 1. The Western was about a bandit who became a judge after having terrorized an entire town. The guy was crazy—he went around with a bear—and his head was always strangely out of kilter. The fact was that this bandit- cum-judge was the survivor of a botched hanging…. Alex muted the sound.
He had seen a judge once, a real one, complete with a red robe and a weird white fur collar. At the Hall of Justice in Paris. Vincent had dragged him there to witness the superior court in action. He was a little bit nuts, Vincent. He was also Alex’s only real friend.
At present, Alex was in deep shit. Vincent, he thought, would have known what to do in this kind of situation: how to get out of this hole without getting caught by the cops, how to unload the bills, whose serial numbers were undoubtedly known, how to get to a foreign country, how to get oneself forgotten. Vincent spoke English, Spanish…
In the first place, Vincent would never have let himself be fooled so easily. He would have foreseen the cop—and the hidden camera in the ceiling that recorded all Alex’s exploits. Some exploits! Beginning with his wild intrusion into the branch bank, yelling and pointing his revolver at the teller….
Vincent would have thought to check out the regular Monday customers—especially the cop, who was always off duty on Mondays and always withdrew cash at ten in the morning before going to do his shopping at the Carrefour supermarket nearby. Vincent would have worn a ski mask; he would have shot up the surveillance camera…. Alex had worn a ski mask, as a matter of fact, but the cop had torn it off. Vincent would not have hesitated to shoot that guy who wanted to play the hero. If you were going to die….
But it was he, Alex—petrified, waiting for that fraction of a second too long instead of deciding to open fire instantly—who had allowed himself to be taken by surprise. it was he, Alex, who had taken the bullet in the thigh; he, Alex, who had dragged himself out of the bank streaming blood and clutching a bag stuffed with bills. No, there was no denying that Vincent would have done a far better job.
Vincent, though, was no longer around. No one knew where he was hiding. Perhaps he was dead? In any case, his absence had been a real catastrophe for Alex.
Still, Alex had learned. He had made new friends after Vincent vanished. One of them had even supplied him with false papers and this hideout in the middle of the scrubland of Provence. The almost four years since Vincent’s disappearance had transformed Alex, and his father’s farm with its tractor and its cows was very far off now. For a time, he had worked as a bouncer at a nightclub in Meaux, where his massive paws served to make short work, on many a Saturday night, of wine-besotted and unruly patrons. Alex soon had fine clothes, a large ring, his own car. Quite the big shot!
The more he beat people up for his employers, however, the more he came to feel that mugging a few on his own account would be no bad thing. So Alex mugged and mugged and mugged. He did so late at night, in the higher-class districts of Paris, as customers tumbled out of the clubs and restaurants. He garnered a rich harvest of wallets, more or less well filled, and plenty of the credit cards that came in so handy for maintaining his ever more lavish wardrobe.
But Alex grew tired of thumping people so hard and so often in exchange for what was after all a pathetic payoff. It would take just one bank job—a large-scale mugging, in effect—and he could be through with mugging for life….
He lay limply in an armchair, staring at a blank television screen. A mouse ran squeaking along the baseboard just inches from his hand. With a swift motion he straightened his arm, palm open, and his fingers closed over the small furry body.He could feel the tiny heart throbbing in fear. He remembered the fields, the wheels of the tractor startling the rats and birds concealed in the hedgerows.
He brought the animal close to his face and began to squeeze it gently. His nails dug into its silken coat. The squeaks became sharper. Then his gaze lighted upon the front page of the newspaper, on the boldface print, on his own image held prisoner by the columns of reporters’ baloney.
He got to his feet, returned to the front steps of the house, and then with all his strength hurled the mouse away into the dark of the night.
There was that taste of mildewed earth in your mouth, all that mud underneath you, tepid and soft against your back (your shirt was ripped), that odor of moss and rotting wood. And then there was the vise of his hands around your neck and over your face, those iron fingers holding you fast, that knee braced against the small of your back and pressing down with the full weight of his body behind it, as though he wanted to force you down into the ground and make you disappear.
He was panting, trying to get his wind back. And you were not moving now—just waiting. The knife was nearby, in the grass somewhere to your right. He would surely be obliged, any moment now, to relax his grip. When he did, you could heave up, throw him off, get him off balance, grab the knife, and kill him—rip the bastard’s belly open!
Who was he? A madman? A sadist on the prowl in the forest? For long seconds the two of you lay painfully entwined in the mire, husbanding your breath. Did he mean to kill you? To rape you and then kill you?
The forest was utterly silent, inert, devoid of life. He said nothing, breathing more easily now. You awaited some gesture—a hand, perhaps, moving to your groin. Something of that sort. Little by little you got control of your terror; you felt prepared to fight—to jab your fingers into his eyes, to find a place at his throat to bite. But nothing transpired. There you were, beneath his weight, waiting.
Then he laughed. A little laugh, joyful, ingenuous, juvenile. The laugh of a boy who has just been given a Christmas present. As the laugh ended, you heard his voice, composed, neutral.
“Don’t be afraid, kid. Don’t move. I’m not going to hurt you.”
His left hand was removed from your throat, and the flashlight came on. The knife was there, sure enough, protruding from the grass just a few inches away. But, stamping down even harder on your wrist, he grabbed the weapon himself and flung it far away. Your last chance….
He set the flashlight down and, taking you by the hair, twisted your face into the beam of yellow light. You were blinded by it. He spoke once more:
“Yes, it’s you, all right.”
His knee ground ever harder into your back. You cried out, but he clamped a vaporous rag over your mouth. You fought not to succumb, but by the time his grip loosened a little, you were already dead to the world. A great bubbling torrent of blackness rolled over you.
It was a long time before you came back to your senses. Your memory was a fog. You had had a nightmare, a ghastly dream. Were you in your bed?
No, everything was dark, dark as deep sleep. But now you were well and truly awake. You screamed. A long, long scream. You tried to move, to get up.
But your wrists, your ankles were shackled. You could barely move at all. In the obscurity you felt the ground on which you lay. It was hard and covered with some kind of oilcloth. Behind you was a wall padded with moss. Your chains were anchored to it, and solidly.You pulled on them, bracing a foot against the wall, but clearly even a far greater traction than you could muster would have been equally ineffective.
Only then did you become aware of your nakedness. You were naked, completely naked, chained to a wall. Frenetically, you inspected your body for signs of wounds that might somehow be causing no pang. But your delicate skin was as intact as it was pain-free.
It was not cold in that dark room. Naked as you were, you felt no chill. You called, shouted, roared. Then you wept, beating your fists against the wall, rattling your chains, and screaming with impotent rage.
It seemed that you had been yelling for hours. You were sitting up on the floor, on the oilcloth. You wondered whether you had been drugged, whether all this was hallucination, delusion…. Or perhaps you were dead—killed that night on your motorcycle? You could not recall an accident for the moment, but maybe memory would return? Was this what death was like: being chained up in the dark, knowing nothing?…
But no, you decided, you were alive. You started yelling again. The sadist had taken you captive in the forest, but for some reason he had done you no harm, none.
I have gone mad—that was another thought that came to you. Your voice was weak, broken, cracked; your throat was dry, and you could no longer shout.
Then you began to feel thirsty.
You slept. When you awoke, the thirst was still there, crouched in the shadows, lying in wait. It had kept vigil, patiently, as you slept. Now it gripped your throat, tenacious, perverse. It was a scratchy, thick dust that coated your mouth, a sand that grated between your teeth; not a simple desire to drink, but something quite different, something you had never experienced, something whose name itself, crisp and clear, resembled a whiplash: THIRST.
You strove to think ofsomething else. You recited poems in your mind. Now and again you raised yourself and called for help, banging on the wall. You screamed: I’m thirsty; you moaned: I’m thirsty; at last you could only think: I’m thirsty! Groaning, you implored, you begged, that you be given something to drink. You regretted having urinated earlier, at the very beginning. You had pulled on your chains as hard as you could, trying to piss away from the patch of oilcloth that was all you had by way of a bed and keep it clean. I’ll die of thirst, you thought, I should have drunk my piss….
You slept some more. Was it for hours—or just minutes? It was impossible to know, so long as you lay there naked in the dark, without any point of reference.
A good deal of time had elapsed, however. Suddenly it dawned on you: it was all a mistake! You had been taken for someone else; it was not you that they wanted to torture like this. You mustered all your strength, then screamed:
“Monsieur, I beg of you! Come here! You have made a mistake! I am Vincent Moreau! You made a mistake. Vincent Moreau! Vincent Moreau!”
And then you remembered the flashlight in the forest—the beam of yellow light on your face, and his voice, expressionless, saying, “It’s you, all right.”
Okay, so it was you.
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