Deadly Secrets

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Chapter 1 – Paris, 3 months earlier

Chapter 1 – Paris, 3 months earlier.

The dark armoured van screeched to a halt at the corner. Its back doors swung wide and a black mass of helmeted figures spilled onto the road, quickly disappearing down a laneway. Shelley watched, fascinated, as excitement and apprehension fought to control her nerves.

Ahead, a group of four gendarmes blocked the side street, their heads bent close in serious discussion. More riot police were strategically positioned along the street and her heart raced as a siren blared beside her. A police car raced past heading towards the square and she startled.

Nervously her hand lifted to twist the ring on her finger but instead touched bare flesh. The divorce was final. She’d long dreamed of visiting Paris, never thinking she’d do it alone, yet here she was leaping into the unknown

More and more people joined her as she continued down the street. Then suddenly she was there. The square in front of the Hotel de Ville was huge, but the crowd was bigger. She stopped and trembled at the thought of what lay ahead. Rebellion had never been part of Shelley’s nature and joining the protest march on the Paris G20 summit was out of character but she has an irresistible urge to voice long-suppressed concerns. Life was too short and tenuous.

A motley mix of people spilled over into the lanes and onto the road. She wiped her palms on her jeans and then, with her nerves jangling, she plunged forward past the gendarmes.

People dressed in stark white suits and grotesque monkey masks caught her eye. Cavorting through the crowd they both shocked and amused onlookers and Shelley laughed at their antics.

She talked to the group of five standing next to her. Their tousled hair, dark tattoos, and excited chatter made Shelley feel older than her thirty-eight years. Her introductory language class hadn’t prepared her for this fast and furious French but luckily, her stilted French was met with excellent, although heavily accented, English.

The man with a nose ring leaned forward to shout above the noise. “You Australians are hard,” he said provocatively.

“Your mining companies rape poor countries,” the young girl with the torn T-shirt added.

“You turn asylum immigrants away,” his friend goaded.

Shelley grimaced. It was true. She’d enjoyed her job resettling asylum seekers until the new government policy had dashed all hope. A move into policy enforcement, a harsher role, awaited her return and she didn’t know how she’d cope.

“You are too close to America. You both worship money,” the first man said. “Yes, you Australians are hard. You don’t even believe in climate change.” He smiled but watched her reaction closely.

“No, it’s not all Australians, it’s only some,” she tried to explain.

“Ah, but your Prime Minister —Mr. Wrogarth isn’t it? —has been voted in twice so maybe it is many Australians.” He raised his eyebrows at her then continued, “But, you are here. Good!”

Lost for words Shelley looked down and shrugged. Like her friends, she’d reflected the Australian laid-back, ‘she’ll be right’, attitude in the last few years but they’d been wrong.

Gradually they drifted away to join other friends. Around her, the burgeoning crowd hummed with passionate conversations and she craved to be part of them. Waving hands and earnest but animated faces were everywhere. She’d been spell-bound watching news reports with French farmers blocking highways or tipping container-loads of milk onto the lawns of some government building. Their fervour inspired her to action, although the radical elements still frightened her. Nerves danced in the pit of her stomach, crossing back and forth between courage and fear. Activists, non-activists, extremists, anarchists, people who care, the labels blended into an amorphous mix and she struggled to separate them. Tom’s voice sounded out a caution in her head, her parents lending their voices to his, as they always did, but she wasn’t listening to them this time. Perhaps the news of Ayisha’s death, the tragedy of a gentle life lost too soon, fed her resolve. Ayisha was, had been, her greatest success, or so she’d thought. Clenching her fists she willed the surrounding noise to drown out the voices in her head. She was doing this despite them or maybe because of them. It didn’t really matter which.

Shrill whistles pierced the air as the organisers rallied the group. Launching into stirring speeches from a makeshift podium, their amplified voices resonated around the square. The French language that usually sounded beautiful, in this setting, sounded fierce and frantic. They spoke fast, barely taking a breath between sentences and she understood little. However, the crowd understood and erupted in unison with loud jeers, cheers and slogans; spurring each other on. Shelley’s skin broke out in goosebumps and her body trembled. The resounding chants, bursts of laughter and speeches, were accompanied by placards rhythmically stabbing high into the air. She tentatively punched her fist into the air too. Banners fluttered wildly, displaying a mix of international commentary that she didn’t understand. She noticed one in English: ‘Forget the $, what about the sense.’ Cries of ’Il faut nécessaire absolument’ and ’Quelle honte’ rose to a climax before the march set off along the Rue de Rivoli.

She was swept along by the column of marchers as they left the square and threaded through the shopping crowd along the footpaths. Shelley smiled at the man next to her as he lifted his small daughter down from his shoulders. He gently pulled her thumb from her mouth and took a firm hold of her hand. The man and his wife exchanged frowns as they wedged their small child between them. The size of this crowd set Shelley’s pulse racing too. The family next to them pulled their young son close. His hand-painted sign swung gently, demanding ’Qu’en est-il mon avenir?” His wide-eyed stare matched that of many older participants around him. Both families moved to the outer edge of the square, but Shelley, despite her rising unease, moved in close to the lead group and followed the crowd. She wasn’t staying on the sidelines today. Her stride lengthened and she stood tall responding to the camaraderie and sense of purpose.

Near her were young radicals in ragged clothes, studs protruding from unlikely places, matted dreadlocks and elaborate tattoos. Their contorted faces formed fierce masks that stretched their piercings to a frightening tightness. Shelley pulled her jacket close around her and steered away from them.

The march fanned across the footpaths and spilled onto the road, splintering as shoppers pushed through them. The crowds mingled, creating pockets of confusion. The heady smell of sweat tinged with whiffs of perfume stuck in her throat but she didn’t mind. The noise, the chaos, the colour and the marchers’ energy brought a spring to her step.

They veered across the road and brought traffic to a halt. Horns blared while fists waved from car windows accompanied by angry shouts. The mass of protesters swelled as more and more people flowed from the footpaths and the road, spilling into arcades along the Rue de Rivoli, creating more and more chaos. Shelley’s heart thumped hard in her ears and her mouth was dry, but she couldn’t stop smiling.

As the crowd compacted, she struggled to breathe. Her short, sharp gasps were not enough to fill her lungs. She searched for an escape to the edges but she was locked in, being pushed forward and jostled from all sides. It was so much bigger than she had expected. The muscles in her back ached from holding herself rigidly upright to stave off the crowd. Concentrating on staying in step, she still clipped people’s heels and in turn they trod on hers. There was no way out now. Her pulse quickened and she tried to force her elbows out to create some space, but her arms remained pinned to her sides. She couldn’t move. This was riskier than she had imagined. What had she been thinking?

Without warning the marchers ahead suddenly slowed while those behind her continued to surge forward. Shrill cries of panic pierced the air as hot, sweaty bodies pressed against her. A scream stuck in her throat. She was trapped. Sweat slid down between her shoulder blades and she struggled to match the slower rhythm of those in front. Calamitous scenarios filled her mind with every step. Her heart pumped furiously and she gasped for air but it was squeezed from her lungs with frightening speed. Beside her, stunned, wide-eyed people stared, the look of fear etched into their faces, yet they continued to push ahead. Propelled forward she collided with the people in front, stumbling as the pressure increased and she held back a scream. It took all of her self-control and concentration to stay upright. She was weakening. If she fell now she’d be trampled.

She tripped and grabbed a shoulder in front. The man behind her clutched her elbow, but others recoiled in self-preservation. Then suddenly the woman in front stumbled and Shelley lost her balance. The road surface loomed before her eyes. The boy beside her tripped and knocked Shelley sideways. A searing pain jabbed through her ankle as it twisted. She couldn’t support herself, desperately grasping at the air, for someone, something, anything, to steady her. But all she felt was a throbbing, sliding mass of bodies slipping away from her and unbalancing her further. Images of her trampled body flashed across her eyes. She screamed as she planted her foot to regain traction. Her ankle buckled. She was powerless to stop her fall.

Golden-framed mirrors adorned the hotel reception walls, reflecting the red velvet seats, flocked wallpaper and the flicker of passing pedestrians on the footpath outside. The parade of colourful winter coats enlivened by the sunshine disoriented Adrian momentarily. He gasped as he caught sight of the reflection of a familiar figure in a red coat, a tendril of curly blonde hair escaping from her red felt beret. Yasmine? His head snapped around, trying to catch a glimpse of the figure before she disappeared. His heart pounded. Yasmine couldn’t be here in Paris! He slumped back into the cushions when he realised he’d been right. She wasn’t here. He breathed again, but a dull ache settled in his chest.

He’d thought he was over her, but this city swirled with memories. Happy moments tumbled to the surface but brought with them flashes of a deeply buried pain. Paris would always hold both sides of that episode of his life.

Adrian sat up as he heard his name and saw Jason’s unruly mop of hair bobbing through the foyer, “Ready?”

Adrian smiled. Jason was the only one of his friends who still had a mullet. He nodded and grabbed his jacket and together they strode out of the door.

“I’m really looking forward to this.” The breeze whipped hair into Jason’s eyes and his toothy grin widened.

“Yeah, surprisingly I am too.” Adrian laughed. Joining the demonstration today buoyed him.

His meeting yesterday with the human rights lawyer hadn’t gone as planned and he’d left deflated. He’d spent the afternoon wandering deep in thought, restless and ready to head back home. So many of his ambitions had petered out, he’d allowed them to die for the need of oxygen and a little nurturing. Before Africa he’d had a fierce desire to right wrongs and make the world a better place. Now Adrian laughed at his naivety; he’d had such lofty ideals. In Africa he’d put his heart and soul into the work. He’d made a difference, but there was so much more to do. Yasmine had inspired him back then, but she had also cast the crushing blow. Her face filled his mind and again he saw the unruly hair, always in her eyes, and that infectious smile. He shook his head trying to cast the image out, but it wouldn’t dislodge. He still didn’t understand what had happened.

Today was a new day. It was time to rekindle his energy to fight for what was right. The demonstration at the G20 could convince the politicians their careers were at stake. That applied especially to James Wrogarth, the Australian Prime Minister.

Jason’s voice cut across Adrian’s thoughts as he greeted a group of new friends: a young couple from South Africa dressed in all black; an Irish man wearing a silly hat that almost matched his silly grin and a couple from Sweden with red and white beanies pulled down low over their hair. Adrian smiled. Jason, his best friend, had branched out in the last five days and it had given him a welcome boost. Turning forty had shaken him.

Just then Klaus tapped Adrian on the shoulder and they embraced. They were old friends. After Africa, when Adrian had slunk back to Paris like a wounded lion, he’d met the short, wiry German. On a cold wintery night in an out-of-the-way bar they were each seeking their own solace in Paris, hoping to mend their broken hearts and dreams, and their wounded egos. This time Klaus was helping Jason with his latest project. The proposed exposé on mining activities was an odd venture for the easy-going Jason, but it was giving him a sense of purpose and Adrian crossed his fingers that Jason would finish it.

They rounded the corner and Adrian’s heart skipped a beat. The huge crowd swarmed in the square. An excited buzz combined with an ear-splitting barrage of noise and the chaos sent a shiver up his spine.

Klaus and the Swedish couple understood sufficient French to follow the speeches, translating what they could for Jason. Adrian understood but only if he listened intently. The passionate speeches harangued the crowd and he cheered energetically. Beside him Jason enthusiastically joined in the cheers and shouts too, even though he was off cue.

They stuck together as the march began but as they passed the Louvre Adrian realised he, Klaus and Jason had been separated from their other friends and were now being pulled in different directions. Turning to motion Jason to follow him he realised he’d lost him too. Adrian recognised a mop of hair bobbing in the crowd but if it was Jason he was already too far away and the roaring noise made calling out pointless.

A note from H.R. Kemp.
I hope you have enjoyed this excerpt of my Conspiracy thriller, Deadly Secrets. I have removed the rest of the chapters and the novel will be with a professional editor in November 2019 with plans to publish it in early 2020. If you are interested, you can find updates on my wall where I will let you know it's progress and when it becomes available for purchase. Thank you to all those who've read, commented and supported my work.

There is another novel in the early first draft stage too.

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