A Week Abroad by Tom Ward

The south of France, a beautiful woman, obsession, murder. What more could a man want from a quick jaunt across the Channel?

He raised the cup to his lips and took a sip of the rich coffee. He held the cup there a moment and looked at her over the rim, like a spy looking over the top of a newspaper. She sat a few tables along, half hidden in the shade of the parasol. Where the sun hit her it lit her up like dynamite. He lowered the cup. That’s right, she was dynamite. He looked over again, trying to only move his eyes, not his head too. No one wants to look like they’re staring. She was beautiful; anyone could see what all the fuss was about. The way her bare shoulder caught the sun, her skin like powdered snow on a mountain top. Her red dress tight around her breasts and her cream silk scarf tied firmly around her neck. Like a bow on a gift. Hair like black lace flowed down her back. He couldn’t see its length now as she sat facing him, but he knew it reached to just above the curve of her hips. A mouth to die for, he could just about make out red lipstick on the tip of the cigarette she held nonchalantly in her left hand, the smoke drifting with no rush, penetrated by the bright sun’s rays like a mist around her, an aura of mystery. Or danger.

He saw all of this from the corner of his eyes. He saw more than this. The white tulip brooch she wore on her dress. The black high heels she wore, now hidden under her table. No more than four inches. She was roughly five eight herself, so no more than six foot with the heels. He lifted the cup from the shiny ring of coffee in his saucer and took another sip. It looked like some would drip from the bottom of the cup so he took a napkin and wiped it and then wiped the saucer. Three times. Clockwise motion.

A dog barked in the square and some pigeons flew up from the fountain, the flap of their wings mingling with the trickle of the clear water. It had an almost green tint to it. Not a polluted green, a nice green. He liked it. Colours were important to him. He enjoyed all sorts of details that most people did not notice. The dog had left the square, disappeared down the third alley way. He was pleased; animals annoyed him. Never work with children or animals. The only distraction now was the little yappy dog the two women next to him had. It was a Chihuahua and the two women yapped along with it. They had come over with it in one of their designer handbags. He hated to imagine the mess it left in there. He thought about this now, and wiped his hands on his trousers under the table.

She had loved it when the women had sat down beside her, the Chihuahua poking its face out of the handbag, yelping and scrambling to escape. She had moved her chair closer and commenced stroking the foul little animal as she asked the women it’s name, breed and price.

The two new women droned on for minutes in response, obstructing his view. They were old money and tasteless. She knew what was in good taste. He imagined she was being polite about the dog. The worst thing was the women let it wander all over. They had no control, no discipline. He felt it now, sniffing against his shoe. His freshly polished shoe. He could imagine its wet nose dripping onto his foot and gave the dog a quick jab in the ribs with his toe. It yelped and went scurrying back to the women at the next table. They looked shocked and stared over at him with big frowning brows. He smiled across at them and held his gaze until they looked away and began muttering to the dog, ‘Ah ma Cherie!’

He ignored them now and took another sip of his coffee. It was strong, better than anything he’d had in England. He finished the cup but kept it held to his lips so that he could watch her over the rim. A waiter came out of the café and over to her table. He could not hear what was being said but knew it was in French. She smiled at the waiter as he poured her more coffee, and she stretched her legs out under the table. The yappy dog ran over and licked her heels but she didn’t seem to notice. He would have liked to kill the dog. The waiter went back inside and he put his cup down and looked out over the square. It was empty apart from a few couples walking in the sun. He could hear the dog yapping again and he ground his teeth. He was getting annoyed. He had to remind himself about this. Breathe in. One, two. He felt his pulse slow down and ran a hand through his blond hair, making sure it was still slicked back. He could feel a slight sweat on his brow. For God’s sake, this was no good, if she saw him looking nervous…He took his handkerchief from his breast pocket and dabbed the corners of his forehead before placing it back in the pocket. He straightened his narrow tie.

A different waiter came out of the café carrying a tray with cakes and coffee for the two women next to him. It was the blond waiter. He worked Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, and today was a Wednesday. The other one worked every day and the skinny one was not here. He only worked Friday to Monday. She knew them all. She had been a regular here each day for the past two weeks. Normally between twelve and two. Before those two weeks she had been in the town a month. He knew all this but it was the first time he’d been to the café and he had only been in the town a week.

The women cooed next to him as the waiter placed their cakes on the table. One of them touched the waiter’s arm and the other laughed. The waiter smiled at them. It was disgusting and he had to grip his knee under the table to control himself. The waiter finished at the table and turned to go back inside. He called out to him,

‘Monsieur, café s’il vous plait.’ The waiter nodded, ‘Oui’ then went back into the café. He’d had to turn in his seat to call to the waiter, and now something dug into his ribs. He could not reach inside his jacket to move it, so he sat back in the chair and ignored the discomfort.

Her cigarette smoke drifted across to him and he inhaled it deeply without trying to look like he was doing so. It tasted sweet. The coffee was sweet as well. Everything was too sweet. The women next to him with their sweet tooth. He checked his watch, it was almost two; she would be leaving soon, back to her hotel. He glanced over at her. She seemed to be in no rush. She leant back leisurely in her chair and smoked her cigarette, letting the smoke escape through her red lips. The lips were like a wound and he thought of his own wound, the scar across his left cheek. It was not yet fully healed and always turned a bright red in the sun. He wondered if she had noticed it. If she had noticed him. It would be better if not.

‘Monsieur, votre café.’ It was the waiter. He placed the new cup on the table and took up the old one.

‘Merci’. The waiter smiled, his blond hair shining in the sun, ‘Ah, you are English, non?’ He said nothing.

‘I have seen you admiring the woman over there.’ He rolled his eyes to indicate the direction and then winked.

‘Yes, she is very beautiful, she comes here every day.’ The waiter continued. ‘They say she is famous. Perhaps she will give you an autograph; she is English too, non?’

He took a sip of the coffee then put down the cup. He gave the waiter his smile. The same one he had given the women.

‘Is she? I can’t say I know who she is. I’m not sure she is famous at all, I hadn’t really noticed her until just now.’ He saw the waiter looking confused and added,

‘But yes, she is rather beautiful, I suppose.’ The waiter smiled and nodded.

‘Oui monsieur, très belle!’ He smiled back and after a few seconds the waiter nodded, ‘Monsieur,’ and went back inside.

She stood up now and stubbed out her cigarette on her saucer. He checked his watch. It was two p.m. exactly. The women called over to her and she came over and kissed them goodbye, not quite touching their cheeks. Air kisses. Then she tucked her slender legs under her, her dress riding slightly up her thighs as she bent down to lift the dog up and kiss it goodbye. He could almost have been sick. He drank the rest of his cup of coffee in one go, ignoring the heat and watched her as she walked past him and across the square. She hadn’t looked at him. He took out his wallet and placed a twenty euro note under his saucer then took out his sunglasses from his inside jacket pocket. He put them on and brushed his hair back then counted to ten before rising and following her across the square.

She was the other side of the fountain now and about to turn down the second alley. He was in no rush to catch her. The idea was to keep some distance. Besides, he could hear the rhythmic click of her heels on the cobbled street. He matched her pace and followed along behind her, watching the two curves of her behind move as she walked. Now they were into the alley and she turned a corner. It did not matter if she got away; he knew which was her hotel.

He was certain it was her. He had watched her for a week without her realising. The first time he saw her he had checked her against the photograph he carried in his wallet and was sure. He should have burnt the picture after that but he couldn’t bring him himself to do it; he was lonely at nights in this town where he knew no one. He remembered when the fat man had given him the picture. He had sat in the office somewhere in London. It was night time outside but the fat man had called him in. ‘Urgent business’. His office was dark and the lights were dim. The deep green of the leather made the chair seem uncomfortable. It was all too formal. The fat man had sat back behind his desk and offered him a whisky. He didn’t drink. A haze of cigar smoke filled the room and the taste had stung his throat. It was a bitter taste, not like the sweetness of her cigarette. The fat man had forgotten about it once he had started talking and the stub lay smouldering in a gold ash tray. Suddenly he had become all business. He’d leant forward over the desk and stopped stroking his yellow and black tie. He had been biting his nails. The fat of his cheeks wobbled as he spoke and continued moving a split second after his jaw had stopped. The fat man had explained everything and then raised his eyebrows as if inviting questions but he had none. It was simple enough. He reached into a drawer in his desk and took out a small photograph which he slid across the desk.

‘Recognise her?’

‘No.’ He answered.

‘You’re perfect for this.’ The fat man laughed.

He had looked at the picture for a second before slipping it into his inside pocket. She was beautiful; there was no doubt about it, but money was more beautiful to him. The fat man spoke again,

‘You have ten days. This needs to be done.’ He nodded and rose to leave.

‘Ten days.’ The fat man repeated. He smiled at him, left the office as silently as a wisp of smoke, and stepped out into the wet London night.

He continued after her, occasionally losing sight of her, but always hearing the click-click-click of her heels. They walked through winding alleyways but neither of them were lost. He had rehearsed this walk many times over the past week. They came to her hotel, a five-star palace with golden lions outside and a red carpet lining the steps up to the door. She walked slowly up the steps with practiced grace and the doorman bowed as he opened the door for her. She smiled and touched him lightly on the shoulder. He saw this and tried not to clench his fist. He took off his sunglasses and put them in his left jacket pocket as he walked up the steps. The doorman was still trying to stop himself smiling as he nodded, ‘Monsieur’. He slipped a fifty euro note into the doorman’s pocket as he passed. The doorman thanked him with a straight face.

She wasn’t too far ahead of him now, he could see her at the desk as the Concierge handed her the room key. She held it in such a way that he could only make out one of the numbers on the tag. It didn’t matter; he knew exactly which room she was in. There was no need to sit in the lobby and pretend to be occupied whilst he watched the numbers change above the elevator. He made sure he was out of her field of vision as the elevator arrived and she stepped in and turned to face outwards. Then the golden doors closed and the first few numbers lit up one by one and she headed to her floor.

He took the stairs. Slowly. He had no need to rush. Let her get settled in her room. Let her get halfway through pouring a drink or drawing a bath. It wouldn’t do to be seen hurrying up the stairs either. Not in a place like this and not in any place he’d worked. It dug into his ribs again as he walked but it was just something you had to deal with. Six floors. Four more to go. He was making good time. Quick, but not too quick. He wasn’t sweating; he was too fit for that.

After the ground floor the stairs had been sectioned off from the corridor of each floor and a door led out at the top of each flight. He reached the sixth floor. Six Oh Seven. He stood a moment at the door and listened. He could hear no one. It was silent above him and below him. He took off his shoes and placed them neatly beside the door. He quietly slid it open and stepped out into the sixth floor corridor.

He checked his appearance in a wall length mirror and straightened his tie. His hair was all right for now. He was just a business man heading to his room.

Six Oh Seven was around a bend and he padded quietly across the carpet in his socks and stopped at the corner. He could still hear nothing but he waited a few minutes. The last thing he wanted was a maid to come bustling out of a room and surprise everyone. Or an American family on their holidays. When they got scared they were worse than an alarm. No one was around. He was certain. It was the middle of the day and most people would be out visiting the town. He took a last look around the corner and then leant back against the wall.

He always kept a pair of leather gloves in his trouser pockets and he took them out now. They were the only thing he had in there, other than a wallet which contained only one hundred euros cash and the photograph. He slipped the gloves on and stretched his fingers out in them to make sure they slid fully into place. Still no sound. It was time to earn his money. He reached his right hand into the left side of his jacket and brought his Beretta pistol out of its holster. A different man might have remarked on the multinational aspect of the whole affair. An English man in France with an Italian pistol. He didn’t have time for such thoughts. His mind was clear as an empty glass vase. He pulled back the slide and checked the round in the chamber. Still no noise in the corridor. He kept a silencer in his holster and took this out now and screwed it slowly onto the pistol, using his thumb and forefinger. Three turns. Clockwise motion. He held the pistol in his left hand and undid his jacket buttons so that his jacket swung open. He checked the safety was still on and tucked the pistol into his waistband.

Still no noise. He looked quickly back down the corridor and then around the corner and saw no one. It was time. He walked around the corner and quickly moved over to the light switch. He flicked it and the lights went out, leaving the corridor in darkness except for the lights of the emergency signs and the elevator lights. He padded slowly up to her door, sticking to the wall. Six Oh Seven. He ran a gloved hand through his hair and put his ear to the door. There was no light coming from under the door, she must have been in the bathroom. He stood for a whole minute with his ear against the door and his mouth open to reduce cavity noise and enable him to hear what was going on in the room rather than his own breathing. There was no one moving inside. He could get in and come up on her quietly and catch her unawares. It was a shame really, all that beauty going to waste. They told him she was talented too. Maybe if she hadn’t expanded her talents into the fat man’s area of expertise she would’ve lived to become an icon. He brushed his hair back. Never mind.

He took the pistol out and took off the safety. He knelt now beside the door and laid the pistol next to him, at a right angle to the door and within arm’s reach. He reached into his side jacket pocket and took out a thin piece of metal wire which he inserted into the lock with the steady hand of a surgeon. Still no sound from inside. His total concentration was on the task at hand now as he made subtle movements with the wire, slightly to the left, a little bit up. He worked for thirty seconds until there was a soft click and the lock was open. Now he had to act fast. He placed the wire back in his pocket and picked up the pistol, making certain the safety was off. No sound from inside.

His gloved left hand turned the door knob slowly as he pushed the door open with his right shoulder. He stepped into the room and raised his right hand holding the pistol, gently kicking the door shut with his heel as he did so. The room was dark and he quickly scanned each corner whilst he still stood in the doorway. She wasn’t there. The sound of running water came from the bathroom and light shone into the room from the doorway to the left. He took a step towards it, treading slowly in his socks. His focus was on the door and a hundred different scenarios played through his mind in a split second as he prepared himself to burst through into the bathroom.

He took another step towards the door and the sound of running water and suddenly there was a new noise, a sort of ‘phish’ sound that seemed to come from inside the room. It was followed immediately by another. He wondered where it had come from. It was a sound he knew well but he was confused as to where it had come from without him making it. She was in the bathroom, surely. He turned on his heel to scan the room again but felt unsteady and his knee twisted under him. His pistol dropped to the floor with a soft thud as it landed on the deep carpet. He took a step towards the wardrobe, feeling weaker now. Suddenly his knees buckled and he knelt in the carpet. The carpet was deep and white but there were flecks of red, little drops as through someone had flicked a brush dripped in red paint across the room.

A soft cough escaped his mouth and as he held up a gloved hand he was surprised to see the same red shining on his black leather glove. He couldn’t kneel anymore and fell backwards to lie on the carpet, his long legs tucked under him. He could smell her now, a soft perfume that he’d never smelt. It was strange he hadn’t smelt it; he had been so well prepared. Everything was fully researched. It was all in the details. All in the preparation. He hadn’t let himself become distracted. The smell got stronger and he knew it was her smell as it was mixed with a sweet cigarette odour. He pushed himself up on one elbow but a ‘phish’ knocked him back down. The carpet was wet. Funny. What kind of hotel was this? His breathing was heavy now and it felt like something was bubbling in his chest. He tried to look what the problem was but could only move his head to the side. A pair of black heels stepped from behind a dress screen and as he moved his eyes he could see they led up to a pair of slender legs. They approached slowly over the carpet and he could make out the hem of a red dress.

She was stood next to him now. The perfume overwhelmed him. It became a part of him. It was inside him and seemed to bleed out of him. He breathed deeply but couldn’t quite catch his breath. A shiny black high heel touched his head and rolled it back so that he was looking straight up. He couldn’t see the ceiling; his vision was blocked by a red dress that reached almost as far as he could see. Two red cushions seemed to be floating in the darkness where the dress ended. They seemed to smile down at him and he smiled back weakly. His first genuine smile in a long time. Something black blocked his vision, something cylindrical and cold looking. He tried to stretch his neck to see around it, to see her but he couldn’t move it. He let out a last rasping breath and looked into the barrel of her gun. A millisecond later a last ‘phish’ sound echoed softly around the room whilst his brains seeped into the carpet like the slow spread of split red wine.

Tom Ward is a 23 year old British writer who was recently named the recipient of the GQ Norman Mailer Student Writing Award 2012. His winning piece will be published in the June issue of British GQ, and he is a contributor to Vice and Sabotage Times. His first novel, Since There’s No Help, is due to be published by Crooked Cat in spring 2013.

You can find him on tumblr, twitter and his blog on the Huffington Post.

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