Ed. Note: The brilliant, brilliant, brilliant Elizabeth L. Smith is back with the fifth chapter of her original — just for us — summer saga of love and intrigue. Obviously the story unfolds in Paris. If you have missed the first four installments, please click here, here, here and here. You really, really do not want to miss a word of her wonderful writing and what is evolving into a “sitting on the edge of our seats” story line. (I don’t want it to end.)
The restaurant was so discrete that Caroline walked straight past the entrance and Alexis had to grab her arm to pull her towards the door. She noticed navy blue gloss paint, polished brass plate and two beautifully manicured bay trees before being ushered into a sunny room where Alexis was clearly well known.
They were shown to an impeccably snowy table, the waiters snapping open heavy linen napkins and conjuring two glasses of Kir Royale from thin air. Caroline thought about that orange box, now stowed safely away by the emotionless maître d’, and decided to ask Alexis outright why he had summoned her. She was too old for any games. Even when she was younger, the unspoken courtly moves of relationships had left her bewildered. And now here she was, feeling a little out of her depth and rather a lot confused.
“OK, Alexis,” she began, the fortifying gulp of Kir Royale tickling her nose and throat, “why am I here and what’s happened to Annouk? How can I possibly be of assistance when I haven’t seen her in over quarter of a century?”
Alexis looked at her gravely. “Dear Caroline, always the practical one. I had hoped to have this conversation after a good lunch, but clearly you need some answers. It’s only fair.” He took a deep breath. “Do you remember Bastille Day? The party we all went to that night?”
Was he joking? Caroline looked at him steadily. Did she remember? That was the single most important night of her life, of course she remembered. She nodded, frowning.
Alexis shifted in his seat a little, and for the first time Caroline saw he was uncomfortable too. He continued, “do you remember that Annouk left the party that night? It was quite late and she had gone to a neighborhood I did not like.”
Caroline didn’t really remember. Annouk had always been a law unto herself, forever disappearing and turning up when she was ready. She had reminded Caroline of a cat, twining seductively about to get what she wanted before darting off, untouchable and mysterious. She took another belt of Kir. “I don’t really remember Annouk leaving. I certainly don’t know where she went that night. It wasn’t the most important thing that happened.” A prickle of embarrassment ran along the back of her neck. She felt a little bit irritated that Alexis was harping on about something so irrelevant.
He took her hand briefly, his warm dry fingers clasping hers and squeezing briefly. “We’ll get to that part in a moment. The point is that I went after her and something very bad happened. And now it has resurfaced and I need your help.”
The waiter appeared and Alexis, distracted, shook his head and waved him away. “Caroline, I need you to listen carefully and think very hard about that night. I also lost touch with Annouk for a long, long time. She was rebellious and I?” He smiled ruefully. “Well, au fond it appears I am as bourgeois as you are, ma chereAnglaise. I went to the States and studied law. I worked for the government and now I have a pretty successful practice in the financial sector. And now,” he closed his eyes briefly. “I am invited at last before the nominating body and I want to become a judge. First to serve my country and then, I hope, to Luxembourg, to the European Court of Justice. You see?”
Caroline shook her head. “Not really. How does Annouk figure in any of this? Or me for that matter?”
“Because you have the power to save my life. Dramatic, but true. You see, Annouk contacted me from Morocco last month. It’s been almost twenty years since I heard from her. She has been there for years, she had some bad relationships, a couple of kids.” He shrugged. Caroline was intrigued.
“So why did she contact you after all this time?”
“Money.” He suddenly looked very tired. “She finally ran out of money and now she threatens to blackmail me. It will be the end of my professional life. Everything I worked for all those years.”
“What could you possibly have done?” Caroline leaned forward and lowered her voice. “Blackmail is a very strong term. Alexis, what did you do?”
He picked up the bread roll from his plate and pulled it to pieces with nervous fingers before finally meeting her eyes. His voice was also low.
“That night, Bastille Day, when I followed Annouk to les banlieues. A terrible thing happened. I have tried not to think about it for many years. My wife, my colleagues, my children, all of them are ignorant of this terrible thing I did.”