Love and Other Murders

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Chapter 8

To put on Ruth’s clothes is simple. To apply her make-up is less so. Nathalie looks despairingly at the passport photo certain she’d never be able to copycat it. The final result is disastrous. Instead of passing for a chic Parisian the girl in the mirror looks like a second rate hooker after a night of debauch. Elijah’s shocked glare is proof of her lost battle with Ruth’s make-up kit.

”Awful, isn’t it? And I can’t wash it off as much as I try. It becomes only worse and worse! What shall we do?”

“It needs a make-up removal. Soap and water won’t do. Here, sit down and relax while I’ll try my best. What a chance I used to be a passionate theatre amateur during my studies at Yale and our second chance is Ruth provided us with a make-up remover.”

Elijah’s the gentle care calms her nerves. He tries to remember the gestures of his mother working on her beauty in front of the looking glass before going out as he models Nathalie’s face according to the passport photo.

“I did my best which seems to be the worst, alas. Let’s hope they won’t look at you closely.” Elijah says coolly, not showing any nervousness at gbeing caught helping her to flee from the Iron Curtain.

The room has been paid for. A taxi is waiting. All happens as smoothly as in a fairy tale. She suppresses her urge to ask Elijah for their next moves. To know too much is potentially dangerous. More dangerous than what she is doing just now? Following a complete stranger into the unknown? So many weird things have been happening to her since she had met him. There is still time not to get into a cab, thank Elijah for his company, return home and continue her life as before. As if it was an option! She moves forward, a sleepwalker balancing at the edge of a chasm!

She follows Elijah inside the cab, leans her head against the back of the seat and shuts her eyes. The car moves forward, more flying than driving, a sweet intoxicating melody mounts into her head; her breathing slows down, she falls asleep.

A silver flask is nearing her lips; she gulps down the liquid in long thirsty sips.

“That’s enough, Nathalie. More would make you sick”.

Straightening her ruffled clothes she gets out of the cab. Supported by Elijah she stumbles into the departure hall. He shoves the passport into her hand and she tries her best to go through the passport control with the nonchalance of a regular passenger.

Opening her handbag to put the passport back she lights upon the letter she was given at the café. How got it there? She does not remember. Suppressing the shiver running down her spine she accepts a glass of champagne from a flight attendant. She drinks it slowly trying to understand what’s happening to her life. Elijah takes the empty glass from her hand and pulls down the tablet for the breakfast tray.

“Enjoy, Nathalie,” he says as if they were sitting in a restaurant and not flying above the clouds under the high-pitched sun rays flooding the cabin. She presses the knife against her hand to feel the pain as a proof that this is real.

Elijah butters her croissant, spreads it with strawberry jam and brings it to her mouth. It opens mechanically, she chews, she swallows. The coffee is astonishingly good. If she can appreciate its flavour then she can’t be dreaming, can she? Not true! How many times has she been eating something delicious while sleeping, feeling its taste even after she woke up? She looks around observing her fellow passengers, seemingly of the average kind, no angels, no devils, no walking dead. A hand touches her shoulder. An emaciated man, his voice scarcely above a whisper asks her to swap his full tray for her empty one, using the moment of the inattention of his spouse chatting with her neighbour. An alcoholic takes his nutrition in a liquid form. He takes out furtively a flask from his breast pocket and gulps the whiskey down with a sigh of absolute bliss.

The trays are collected, the leavings shoved away into plastic bags. The luminous signal –fasten your seatbelts- is lit. The plane gets ready for the landing. Elijah fastens her seat belt. The dry click of its hatch sounds like a gunshot. He lifts up her handbag fallen to her feet, gathers its contents scattered on the floor and puts it on her lap.

The plane moves jerkily forward upon the tarmac. She remains seated, her eyes shut, sick in her stomach. Elijah unfastens her seatbelt, pulls her to her feet, helps her into Ruth’s jacket and propels her forward. The French immigration officer hardly looks at her. They don’t have to wait for the luggage as all their belongings are in Ruth’s ample carry-all and Elijah abandoned all behind at his hotel in Prague.

A cab waits for them at the arrivals. Or is it a private car? Why should she care? Of course she should! If she does not know what’s going on how will she survive?

“We have arrived!” Elijah helps her out of the cab and gives her his arm.

“Let’s go up!”

“Where are we?” She asks watching incredulously the two rows of ancient houses she has seen before. Where? Was it in a dream or on a postcard? All that’s happening to her seems to be a déjà-vu; a scary feeling as if she tried to wake up when a dream is about to change into a nightmare. How can she start anew if all has already happened? What sense does it make to have accepted the offer of an absolute stranger to abolish her past if there is no rift between now and then?-Panta rhei- she is a drift wood tossed in the flow of time between no beginning and no end, no before and no after.

“Rue de la Huchette”- the name is strangely familiar. The bitter taste of coffee and the sweetness of Turkish delight linger still in her mouth. “Café des Amis” is just as shabby as it used to be and the shifty-eyed Arabs throw the same shocked glances at a woman intruding on the company of men. Throwing one last look at the street with the veterinary practice on the opposite side she sees the same hunched woman carrying a mewing cat. Is he brought for the shots or to be put to sleep? Who knows? Who cares?

Turning her back on the past she follows Elijah up the winding staircase with the traces of feet since long passing out to another dimension. A key turns soundlessly in a lock. They have arrived. Arrived where? In her past or in her future?

All is vaguely familiar: the living room with its odd pieces of furniture rescued from the garbage. It has lived its life before being tossed aside becoming homeless after the death of its owners or their forced move to an old peoples’ home, both becoming superfluous and disturbing by just being there. Do things suffer like unwanted humans, plants and animals? She touches the bruised wood of the table stained with dark marks mapping out the events of a disappeared life. Who knocked over the glass during a family gathering washed down with plenty of wine? Whose chair topped over?

”Come here, Nathalie! I want to show you something!” Elijah calls her from the window.

“Notre Dame,” emerging from the breach between the opposite houses, shoots up to the sky through the carmine clouds. Also this is just a part of her remote and ever present past! The intensity of her new existence, the power of the real over the dream, of the “now” over the “déjà-vu” make her hope that she might have strayed into a wonderland where miracles do happen. In a state of utter exhaustion she tries to keep her eyes open to solve the puzzle and decide what to do next. Does she really want a new life? What she perceives now is out of the real suspended before her like smoke after a since long extinguished fire. She goes through her existence eyes open and eyes shut, Elijah’s presence is a plastic bag over her face stifling her and lifting her up like laughing gas; flashes of repulsion alternate with irresistible attraction, merciless fights with blissful reconciliations. She turns about to ask Elijah for an explanation. She is alone. The only proof of the reality is the letter on the table. She turns it in her hand:

-12, cité Vaneau, Paris 7-

The letter is sealed, thus not meant for her to be read. She shudders. What will happen after she has accomplished her task? Be flown back home? She is alone in a foreign city whose language she happens to know. Does she enjoy her new existence? She doubts it. Depending only on one self is scary. Better deposit the letter and see what will happen next. But not before taking a shower and washing off her sweat.

The adjoining bathroom with an ancient bathtub on lion’s claws is supplied with a profusion of cosmetics lined on a shelf under the mirror that she knows only from the adds at the glossies smuggled to Prague from abroad. She opens a perfume bottle and inhales its bewitching scent. “Opium”- what an appropriate name!

She turns the faucets on, mixes the water to her liking and, waiting for the bathtub to fill up, explores the pots of beauty creams, cleansers, moisturisers and anti-wrinkles. Feeling like Alice in Wonderland she sprinkles the stream of water with bath salts. She starts to understand why she was allowed to leave the land of gloom. Once she’d got used to living in the sun it will be hard to give it up and return to the monotonous greyness of Prague. Those who send her here count on her doing anything so that she could stay.

The tiles feel pleasantly cool under her feet. She wishes off the steamy mirror and examines her naked body. What a shame there is no one else to share her admiration! She sinks into the bath enfolding her like a lover’s embrace. Her eyes shut, smiling a happy smile she dreams about the exciting life Paris will give her.

She steps out from the cooling water, dries up with a heavenly soft bath towel, applies a body lotion, taps a moisturizer on her face and neck, sprinkles lavishly “Opium” all over her, puts on a robe and goes to the living room to explore the wardrobe hoping for the best. She is not disappointed. It’s packed with designer garb of exactly her size. She rattles through the hangers considering what to wear. Why not the Mark Jacob’s clingy, deceptively simple black and white sheet evidently meant to be worn on a naked body? The provocative gesture of Sharon Stone in the “Basic Instinct” flashes through her mind. Nothing venture, nothing won. She slips the gown on, puts a chair in front of the mirror and sits down crossing her legs. The girl in the mirror is a go between her former self and the girl on the passport photo. She shoots her reflection an encouraging smile full of expectations.

She hides the letter in her handbag containing needy little things: a purse with some money that Elijah left for her on the table, a book of metro tickets, a make-up kit, a brush, a cellular phone, a map of Paris. She adds to it a set of keys lying upon the chest of drawers. Her last task is to choose a pair of shoes matching the dress. Black strap pumps on high heels seem to be an excellent choice. She slings the handbag over her shoulder ready to meet any challenge. When shutting the door the phone starts ringing. After a little hesitation she goes back to answer it.


Elijah’s voice makes her heart jump for joy.

“Is everything OK? Do you need me? Shall I come over?”

“It won’t be necessary. I am a big girl. I can manage. Thanks anyway.” She declines voting for independence.

“As you wish, my number is on your cellular. Don’t hesitate to contact me any time.”

“Thanks, Elijah.” She hangs up. Doubts about being right declining his help are creeping up, yet this is the only way to act if she wants to be the master of her own life. Locking the door she is aware how absurd it is. Who knows how many other people have got the key. She stops in front of the house. The presentiment of danger compels her to clasp the handbag in her arms. How simple it would be for the fast approaching biker to snatch it in flight. The letter is a threat. Better to get rid of it as fast as she can. The biker, his face under a crash helmet, is like a bad guy from a thriller. She waits until he is gone before continuing her walk. The street has a timeless look. She feels as if she has lived here forever. Was it in another life? She shivers. Who is she? Who was she? What is happening to her? How is it possible that she knows her way in a city where she has never been before?

In quest for her past she peeps through the open door of “Shakespeare & Company” searching for the emaciated silhouette of George Whitman, the bookstore’s master and slave, to be invited in for a cup of tea and listen once more to the heart-to-heart talk about his girl friend Colette, his unrequited love with a baby-doll face who with the cruelty of a child squeezes his love for her drop after drop from his heart and also about his excruciating toothache, the two great miseries of his otherwise fallen for literature life. She suppresses her urge to enter and be assured all this is real and she is not just hallucinating her past.

-Panta rhei- There is no difference between past, now and forever.

Suddenly uncertain about the right direction she asks a passing by girl for help and they walk a part of the way together. When the girl leaves her at the nearest bus stop she feels to be in danger and, before crossing the street, checks if the biker is gone.

She finds the address easily and rings the bell for AS on the envelope. Without asking for her identity she is she is buzzed in. The thick red carpet on the staircase and the gilded elevator give the house an opulent touch. Before she has time to look for the AS a door on the ground floor opens. A shockingly handsome man catches hold of her hands and draws her inside.

“Welcome, Nathalie! May I offer you some refreshment?” He asks his well-defined lips kiss-like near her mouth.

“A cold drink would be welcome.” She accepts resisting the temptation to fall into his arms and surrender. Should she deliver the letter first or later? How to know? Why not kiss first and ask later?

“Nathalie?” He shoots her a devastating smile sending shivers down her spine and her name in his mouth takes on another meaning.

“I’ve got something for you if you are the AS written on the envelope and can give me a proof of your identity.” She says trying her best to sound professional.

“And if all I want are you and nothing but you?” He asks moving dangerously close and the nearness of his body makes her freeze with voluptuous fear. Drawing back she puts her handbag between the two of them like a fire wall.”

“First tell me what the AS is for!” She steps back suppressing her desire for him.

His only answer is drawing nearer.

“Alex Severn, satisfied?” He whispers into her lips responding to his kiss with until now inexperienced passion. She knows that what she is allowing to happen is wrong. A girl with some self respect shouldn’t make love with an absolute stranger on first sight and, less so, if the man in question is her business partner who happens to be a spy! She shuts her eyes blind to the truth.

When she opens them all has already happened. The letter lies open under the bed. She reaches after it though what good would it do to read it now after all had been decided? She would go through hell flames if it only were with this man.

She feels confused. Everything has been too fast and not as she wanted it to be. When did he remove the letter from her handbag and read it? Has she fallen asleep from exhaustion or was she drugged?

She shudders feeling his presence. He leans over her fully dressed, ready to leave.

“I have to go now, sorry Nathalie! I have to deal with something that can’t be postponed. This doesn’t mean you have to get up too. Stay as long as you wish. No need to lock after you. Just push the door shut.”

She hears his fast steps somewhere in the deep of the flat, the bang of the door, then silence. He is gone; without breakfast, without a loving word. She feels like creeping under the blanket and fading away. She doesn’t understand how she could have spent the night in his bed! It could be worse, she tries to console herself. He could have murdered her. Nobody knows where she is, nobody would care! When her body would be found she would be identified as Ruth Miller according to the name on her passport. Is it possible that once declared dead Ruth couldn’t die a second time and should live forever? That’s enough! Now she is beginning to ramble! As if life and death could be administratively governed! She has to regain her self-control, get up, start a normal day and leave though she is dying to wait for him in his bed hoping he would make love to her again, even if she had to beg for it. Which she wouldn’t! Even if tempting, this is beyond her self respect, or of what remained of it.

The sound of the slamming door seems like cracking a whip over her longing. She stops in front of the house. What now? Was the passing of the letter the only reason to come to Paris? Will she now be sent back to Prague her presence no more needed? She jumps up startled by the ringing of the phone. Tearing her handbag open she spills its contents all over the pavement. She pushes the first button she comes upon. She is lucky.

“Nathalie!” Says the only voice she wants to hear. The voice she can’t live without!

“Where are you, Alex?” She stammers choking on her need for him.

“Sorry to have left you in a hurry. This wasn’t my intention. Something unforeseeable happened and I won’t be able to see you for some time. Use it to explore Paris and have fun. I’m certain Elijah will be only too glad to serve as your guide. By the way, promise me not to mix with the wrong kind of people.”

The cellular goes dead in her hand. Was that a gun shot that finished their conversation?

“This must belong to you, Miss.”

“It does. Thank you.” She allows the man to help her putting her stuff back into her handbag.

“Not at all, Miss. It was a pleasure. May I buy you a cup of coffee? I know a nice place just around the corner.” He says persuasively and she wavers in her resolution to keep her distance from “the wrong kind of people”, who ever they may be, as Alex asked her and she had no time to promise. Why should she obey him? The man looks quite harmless, about her age with striking liquid amber colored eyes. What harm would it do to drink a cup of coffee with him, to eat the breakfast Alex failed to give her? She is famished!

“It would be nice. Thanks.”

She follows him deciding to forget Alex and all that goes with him. OK, they made love. Probably it was so exciting due to the exotic circumstances: meeting Elijah out of the blue, her newly assumed identity, the danger to be jailed, the flight, Paris and eventually Alex. Based on her limited experience how can she be so sure he is a great lover? Next time he may be just average? Is this her secret wish? She is not certain. Of course it would be more convenient. Becoming a woman under influence would be a new role for her and, quite sincerely, she doesn’t like it.

“You seem to be very thoughtful, Miss. Is anything wrong? By the way, my name is Nick.” He says proffering his hand.

“Nathalie. How come you addressed me in English? Being in Paris it seems somehow strange.”

”Simple to explain: firstly, you don’t look French. Secondly, being an American my knowledge of foreign languages is notoriously bad. Of course, if you insist on French I’ll try my best to oblige you. Though be warned, my French is rather inadequate.”

“Don’t bother! Really and truly, I prefer English.”

The waitress brings them coffee and croissants without waiting for Nick’s order; he must be a regular customer. She enjoys both of them which makes her see the advantage of starting a relationship on a breakfast over beginning it in bed.

“What are you doing in Paris, Nick? Are you a student?” She starts their conversation on asking questions. Why is she doing it as she can’t oblige him with plausible answers on his?

“I’m, as they say, just living. I did my master in comparative literature and my grandfather, who is a great believer in culture and who paid generously my studies at the Princeton University, rewarded me with an extensive trip around Europe. My next stop will be Spain as he did one of his doctoral degrees in Salamanca. Now, I am following Hemingway’s traces in Paris, later I intend to go to the South of France tracking Scott-Fitzgerald. I want to be a non-fiction writer. Your turn now, Nathalie, what are you doing in Paris?”

’Damn! Now she has got on slippery grounds which could have been easily avoided.

“What am I doing in Paris, indeed? Just living, like you. It was nice meeting you, Nick.” She gets up ready to go.

“Thanks for the breakfast.”

“Keep your horses, Nathalie! When shall I see you? What’s your address, what’s your phone number?” He snatches her hand preventing her from leaving.

“Paris is small for people who love each other with a great love!” She disengages herself from his clutch.

“Marcel Carné’s “Children of Paradise”! They are at the “Champollion” at Rue des Ecoles! May I invite you for the three o’clock screening? Don’t say “no”, please! Even if I have seen the film a thousand times, with you it will be a completely new experience.”

“I’ll think about it; maybe some other time. Now I have to go. And one more thing: don’t try to follow me, understood? If you do I’ll never talk to you again!”

“Okay, if you insist.” He accepts reluctantly.

“Here, that’s my address and my telephone numbers, both the fix and the cellular. Take them, Nathalie. Things do happen.” He scribbles them on the paper napkin and pushes it into her hand.

“Thanks. Have a nice day, Nick. Do stay a couple of minutes after I have left.”

She shoots a glance at the napkin: Nick Else- what a funny name, she crushes it and drops it into the first waste bin on her way. Crossing the street she only just avoids to be hit by a speeding biker. Is this the same as before? Is he tracking her? It’s hard to say with his crash helmet and anonymous biking garb. She quickens her step trying not to run which could be understood as being scared. She looks right and left before entering her temporary home and runs up the stairs. Suddenly she stops. What if there is someone waiting upstairs for her with a hangman’s rope to put a noose about her neck? Cold sweat starts running down her spine. She feels like turning round and run for safety. Where to? She is in a foreign city under a false name, keeping company with people she can hardly trust.

“Nathalie! At last! I was worried! Why haven’t you answered my calls?” Elijah inquires reproachfully.

“Have you called? I haven’t noticed. Probably the cellular you gave me broke when I dropped it. Let’s have a look.” She rummages in her handbag without success. The phone is gone. Did it roll into the gutter? Did Nick steal it?

“Now you see why I couldn’t answer your calls. It’s gone. Is it important?”

“It could be. Has someone approached you? Is it why you are so late? Paris is a dangerous place, Nathalie. It isn’t wise to talk to strangers. By the way Alex tried to contact you. Why won’t you call him back?”

”She can’t believe her ears! Eli knows Alex! She is trapped in an adventure enclosing her body in a sticky web; she was right, Eli met her purposefully following a former set plan.

“Is Alex your friend, Elijah?” Answering with another question has become her habit.

“One may say so.” He replies without offering the information she is hoping for. There is something in his behavior that doesn’t fit. How come he didn’t ask her where she had spent last night but is upset about her being late in broad daylight? The ringing of the phone interrupts the strained silence.

“It’s for you!” Elijah hands her the phone and leaves, discretion assured.

Alex’s voice makes her jump for joy.

“I’m back sooner than expected and I’d like to let you meet a couple of my friends tonight. Will seven do? Come to my place. Elijah has the key.” He ends the conversation on the sound of a kiss.

“I made you a reservation at the hairdresser’s as I thought you’d prefer to have your old color back. Black is definitely not your color.”

She watches Elijah pensively. What is he to her, actually? Some sort of a butler taking care of her every need or a watchdog guarding her for Alex? This isn’t how he played it in Prague, so very sweet on her, making her amorous advances, proclaiming her to be the only woman of his life! She suppresses the questions budding on her lips. Why bother to ask if all she can hear will be lies and possibly not even the white ones? She should be careful and not trust anyone, first of all not herself. She must have been raving mad not only to make love to Alex but to have fallen completely and irresistibly under his charm. It wasn’t just a passing moment of enchantment. She is still smitten by him. Does Elijah know? Have he and Alex set up the whole act together? Would she mind if Elijah knew she slept with Alex? Why? She isn’t obliged to him in any way and to have sex is quite natural and unobjectionable for two consenting adults. Then why does she feel so uneasy and, at the same time, longing for Alex so fiercely? It wasn’t the first time she made love. Occasionally it was great though her partners were exchangeable. What is so special about Alex that the saying “she would give her soul for him’, that has been just words until now, became reality?’

“Nathalie! Wake up! We must hurry up not to be late for your appointment. Believe me, it wasn’t that simple to get the best stylist in town on such a short notice and Hugo is the top!”

When she leaves the hairdresser’s, she is the living proof of it. Her hair got back its original color now enhanced with glamorous highlights and the masterly cut, flattering her face, proves that she was a fool not to opt for short hair sooner. She looks at her wristwatch. It’s too late for her date with Nick. Never mind! She can live without him, can’t she? Of course, standing him up is neither elegant nor her style. Though she didn’t promise she would swatch the film with him, did she? What now? It’s still too early for her date with Alex. What about a cup of coffee in one of those famous literary cafés following in the footsteps of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir even if she doesn’t admire neither of them. They were charlatans. He lifted his ideas from other more original minds and presented them as his own; she pretended to be a feminist while being completely subdued to Sartre. Another possibility to kill time is to go window shopping which doesn’t tempt her even if she can spend Elijah’s money like water and get more. The only thing she really wishes is to meet Alex and see if he has lost his fatal attraction for her. No! No need to pretend! She wants to make love to him! The best way to fight temptation is yielding to it. Look who is talking! Here she is lifting from Oscar Wilde! Deciding to be less judgmental in future-there is honor among thieves-she shoots an approving glance on her reflection in the window of a flower shop- a most appropriate setting- and hastens her steps, Alex on her mind.

Breathless she arrives to the door and pushes the door knob. It gives in without warning and she falls headlong inside. Blushing crimson she allows Alex to pick her up and hides in his arms burying her face on his chest. Her glamorous entry that should have made her diabolically irresistible and conquer his heart and senses has been ruined.

“Poor baby!” Alex strokes her hair as if petting a dog, her who planned to seduce him and make him fall madly in love with her!

“Let me be sure that you are still in one piece!” His purely clinical check- up makes her cringe.

“I’m alright, Alex!” She pushes him off and adjusts her clothes.

“Our guests won’t be long to arrive. Would you like to tidy up in the meantime?” He points to the broken strap of her bra and she just about suppresses the tears of humiliation mounting to her eyes.

When she comes back from the bathroom all is ready to receive the guests, from the champagne to the canapés set out invitingly on the festively dressed table.

“May I offer you a drink, Nathalie? By the way, you look lovely!” He says conversationally.

’Can one love and hate in the same breath? What is she craving more for; to press her lips against his in a passionate kiss or sink her teeth into them and get high on his blood?

“Thanks for the compliment, Alex. And yes, a glass of dry sherry would be most welcome.” She says mannerly and sits down, her skirt straightened over her legs, her feet set daintily on the Persian carpet. The guests appearing one after the other, are introduced to her and offered refreshments. All looks as normal as in any other social gathering but for her being the only woman in the company of men. There is nothing strange in their bonding. They are nearly of the same age, not long after having finished their studies and starting their careers, all of them casually elegant and well-mannered, fluent in small talk. Touch any topic: books, films, visual arts they will follow. The reason of her presence in their midst is puzzling. Is Alex showing her off? Probably not. He must have presented them heaps of girlfriends as attractive as her, even more. A propos, is she his girlfriend? Is one promoted to a girlfriend after two strangers had sex? She stirs uneasily on her seat feeling a pair of gluttonous eyes gliding down her cleavage and she wishes she had put on a more modest dress.

“Hi, gorgeous, may I join you?”

She shoots Alex a questioning glance. Does he mind that his guest, flirting overtly with her, is about to join her on the sofa? He replies with an encouraging wink and perseveres in his conversation. Without awaiting her permission her new encounter sits down by her side. She knows that she should find a pretext to get up and seek refuge with Alex. Yet she feels irresistibly attracted to this man, so visibly and shamelessly lusting after her under Alex’s very eyes, clinging to her so tightly that his warmth flows into her body pouring his desire into her blood. Why would she deny him what she offered Alex so freely? Sex at the first sight! And it was great! Why not to repeat the experience? The man is interchangeable the pleasure remains the same. He takes her hand and nears it to his lips. Not in the polite mundane way, hardly touching it. His torrid tongue is licking it with ravenous greed; his teeth are grazing it while their bodies throb with an anticipation of sex.

“As I see, you have already made friends with Vincent!” Alex, standing over them with two flutes of champagne, says with a glare. She frees furtively her hand, wipes it on the back of the sofa, gets up on her trembling feet and accepts the drink from Alex who probes peevishly her flushed face.

“Dinner is served!” Alex offers her his arm and leads her to the table.

“Catering service,” he answers her astonished glance.

“Why has Vincent disappeared so suddenly?” Asks a man seated opposite to her. The seemingly innocent question is loaded with hidden meaning.

“Don’t we all know Vincent? Unforeseeable to annoyance,” Alex says lightly and stands up.

“May I ask for a moment of your attention? The reason of our meeting is to accept a new member among us. Let’s give Nathalie a big hand!”

They get up from their seats and cheer her while she feels like a moth driven near and nearer into the spider’s web. She gulps the champagne down, charms a radiant smile on her lips and bows graciously to the cheering guests.

-Smoking, drinking, never thinking of tomorrow- Billie’s voice on her mind she accepts an after-dinner joint deciding to play her life’s best card whatever the cost.

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