It wasn’t my first time in Paris but it was the first time I’d been paid to go there. The company was paying for a nice hotel near the Opera. And my other expenses were all covered, too. Two nights for two days in the office. Thursday to install some software; Friday to show people how to use it. Easy.
But it wasn’t easy. Somebody – and, you know, it might just have been my responsibility – hadn’t really checked the local environment. Whatever the reason, on Thursday the software refused to work. It loaded fine but then just refused to talk to the server from which it was meant to retrieve data. Without the data, it was little more than a flashing cursor. And I looked like a noob with no idea. Given that I was recently hired specifically because of my expertise in this area, it was not a great start to my career with the company.
I called up a guy in London who I had worked with on the test servers over there. He was sympathetic, he made some suggestions which sounded sensible – and which I tried – but nothing worked.
Friday’s training had to be canceled. I spent the second day in the data center again wondering why something so simple and which had taken me no more than an hour to set up back in London was playing silly buggers. By the end of the day, I was getting pitying looks and gallic shrugs. When it was time to leave the office, I had missed my train back to London and the flashing cursor winked at me as I walked to the door.
The only positive was that my useless boss had made no effort to find out what was happening. I knew he was on some management course at a spa resort somewhere but I thought he might have taken time out from having his nails polished or his pubes trimmed or whatever and checked on actual work. It was the first time that I was grateful he was as useless as I had suspected.
The thought of my boss gave me the idea to call Susan and invite her to Paris for the weekend.
So, as I walked down Druout on the ay back to my hotel, I rang her mobile. She was home bit the mobile is always safer.
“Hey,” she said.
“You, too,” I said.
That was about it for small talk. I didn’t tell her why I was staying on in Paris but she thought the idea of joining me was a hoot. (That was her word, not mine.)
We rang off. I didn’t tell her I loved her and she knew better than to end with anything more than a ‘bye’.
I met Susan first at work. Well, at a work function, to be exact. My boss invited me to some evening pub do – a quiz night of all god-awful things – three days after I started at the company. I felt it was too early to assert my independence of that sort of arranged socializing. It had only taken me until the second day at work to realize that my new boss was a complete tosser of the highest order so I was both surprised and disappointed when he turned up with an extremely sexy wife. I helped myself to as much of the free bar that left me this side of staggering and found myself talking to Susan. She talked to me first, I seem to remember. I also remember that she was quick to confirm and to agree that her husband was a tosser. A rich tosser, though. We slept together for the first time two nights later. Obviously, my time in the company is limited now for all sorts of reasons but Susan is the boss’s wife, after all, and she is seven years older than me. It’s an ego thing. I’m not ashamed to admit it.
Back at the hotel, I picked up my bag from the concierge – where I’d deposited it after checking out that morning – and rejected the offer of a taxi. There was no way I could afford another night at the hotel, let alone the weekend. I remembered that on my first trip to Paris alone – shortly before I became a student – I stayed in a small hotel near the Sorbonne. So I quit the plush and pricey hotel opposite the Opera and rubber-tired it on the Metro down to Cluny and walked up the Rue Saint-Jacques.
The hotel had had some work done on it since I had last stayed there. That’s to say it looked less of a dump than I remembered it to be. The prices had risen significantly in keeping with their new sense of self-importance but I couldn’t be bothered looking for somewhere else. And if the hotel was in better shape than before, it would only make the time with Susan more pleasant.
The room was adequate, with a small balcony onto the street that overlooked a medical bookshop. If I craned my neck to the left and leaned out over the verdigris stained balustrade I could look up and across the junction with rue des Ecoles and see the rear walls of the university buildings.
I didn’t unpack or change. I just wanted to get out into the Paris evening.
I cut around the Sorbonne and headed towards the Boulevard Saint-Michel. There was a cafe in the Place de la Sorbonne where I could sit and watch the people on the boulevard and the students coming and going around the university. There were fountains there, too, which splashed pleasingly.
My plan was to have a drink and then to take a walk across the Luxembourg gardens and then cut back through Saint Germain. I even thought of heading down to the river and checking out Shakespeare & Co to see if there was anything on this evening – a reading or something – or if it was just open late for browsing. I was in the mood for a new book. The evening was warm and pleasant and I liked the idea of just strolling like a boulevardier. But after a couple of beers, I decided to eat at Les Patois. An omelet and half a bottle of Chablis would be fine. The thought struck me that I was just killing time now until Susan arrived in the morning. It surprised me that I was looking forward quite so much to seeing her. I would meet her at the Gare du Nord and then tomorrow evening we could do the walk together that I had planned for tonight. After a long day’s detour to my room in the Hotel Diana.
When I sat down at the table outside the brasserie, I instinctively chose a seat that looked towards Saint-Michel but now I was bored with the stream of traffic up the street – both vehicles and pedestrians. As the evening light faded, the street took on the air of city streets almost anywhere. So I switched seats to the other side of the table. This was better. I had a view straight into the stately edifice of the Sorbonne itself, as well as the parallel fountains in the square between the brasserie and the steps to the university.
My omelet arrived, followed closely by the wine. Some mistake – my pronunciation, a busy waiter, or a deliberate attempt to rip me off – meant that a full bottle of Chablis was placed on the table instead of the half bottle I’d ordered. I looked at it for a moment and then again thought about work and the failed software and my boss and the arrival of Susan tomorrow. A full bottle would do nicely, I decided. The waiter returned to open the wine and place a bucket and ice by the table.
I made a token gesture of tasting the wine and left just enough time between the winemaking a circuit of my mouth and nodding to the waiter so that both our feelings of pride were assuaged. It must have worked.
“Monsieur,” said the waiter.
The omelet was tasty and there was a runny center that was perfect for mopping up with the plentiful bread. I felt at peace and gave serious thought to how I could avoid returning to London. A transfer to the Paris office would be perfect but given that I had joined the company only two months before, it seemed unlikely that such a posting would be considered so quickly. The fact that I had also failed on my first installation trip would hardly enhance my chances of Paris asking for me by name. I might have to ask Susan for some suggestions. Or some inside knowledge that could help. I took a long pull on the crisp green wine and sat back in my chair. I wasn’t going to let any untoward thoughts dispel my good cheer. The world was good and Susan would be here in a little over ten hours and we would have two days together in Paris.
I closed my eyes and savored once more the sense of being free of work and of being in Paris. I let a broad grin grow in my mouth and opened my eyes to reach again for the wine. At a table a little way closer to the Sorbonne itself sat a man in a blazer who was quite openly staring at me. Emboldened a little by the wine, I raised my glass to him instead of simply looking quickly away.
The man nodded and then rose from his seat and walked over to my table. He stood behind the chair I had recently vacated.
“May I?” he said.
I hate it that nobody takes me for French.
The man’s clothes were immaculate. His blazer and trousers looked as if they had slipped from tailor to wearer less than an hour previously. I sneaked a look at his hands, too. Perfect nails. There was nothing effeminate about the man. He was probably gay but certainly no queen. I put him down as privately wealthy. A gallery owner, perhaps. Not that it mattered. I wasn’t going to be making friends and I certainly wouldn’t be seeing him again.
I gestured for him to sit and reached to an adjacent table and grabbed a wine glass and filled it with Chablis and slid it across to the man. He smiled as he lifted it to his lips.
His conversation was predictable. I was a little disappointed. I had hoped to be propositioned by someone with at least a degree of wit. His English was excellent, however. I told him about my work and my problem with the software and my stupid boss. Why not? I didn’t mention Susan. He was sympathetic and he laughed fondly at the right places. When the Chablis was gone he ordered two glasses of dessert wine. I hate sweet wine but I sipped it graciously when it came. Then the conversation lagged as it reached its natural limits and the moment arrived for his move.
“Are you staying locally?”
I gave him a hotel and room number in rue des Ecoles. Just in case he felt like writing it down. If he was older than he looked he might not trust his memory.
But he only nodded. I smiled and pointed to the narrow street across from our table.
“That way,” I said. “Follow me in a couple of minutes.”
He shifted his head to the side as assent. I pointed to the aluminum dish that held my bill.
“Do you mind?”
“But of course,” he said.
I walked down the rue Champollion, which cuts through to the rue des Ecoles. When I had walked up to it on my way to the cafe, I had noticed how quiet it was and that many of the streetlights appeared to be out. There were a number of deep doorways, too. The ground floor properties all seemed to be specialist bookshops – closed – or printers. It was not a street that attracted much evening life.
I slipped into a doorway opposite a broken streetlight and waited for my date.
“Hello,” I said.
He stopped and turned and smiled when he saw me in the doorway. He walked forward. I reached out and took his throat in my right hand and pulled him fully into the shadow. I could feel the tendons in his neck but not much muscle strength. The man was definitely older than he appeared. He looked terrified for an instant but I did no more than hold his neck and then smiled at him.
“Do you have money?”
The man nodded and I smiled again.
I knew the man was thinking that I was some sort of rough trade wanting money and ready to dish out pain. Let him think that. The old guy slipped his left hand into his jacket and brought out a wallet.
The man brought his other hand to the wallet and took out quite a respectable bundle of Euros. Fat and high denomination. I squeezed the man’s throat a little harder to dissuade him from any attempt to use his hands for anything other than handing over the cash and then took the notes with my left hand and stuffed them into my jeans.
The man’s eyes were looking right into mine now and I smiled again. No point in terrifying the old bastard.
“I want you to know that this has nothing to do with your sexuality. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
The man shrugged.
“I mean that I have no prejudice against homosexuality. I am not homosexual but I don’t care who is and who isn’t. Get it?”
This time the man nodded.
“Good. I would hate for you to think this was a hate crime.”
The man was about to shrug again when I simply slammed his head back against the edge of the doorway. The sharp stone cracked the skull easily and the man slumped to the pavement. I knew he was dead before his body was completely unfolded on the ground at my feet. I stepped back onto the street and made sure I didn’t make the mistake of looking around. I walked confidently down to the corner of the Rue des Ecoles and turned towards Saint-Jacques.
As I walked into my hotel, I took out my phone and checked the time, remember to add the extra hour for the time difference. Susan would be in Paris is only nine hours. And I had some extra cash now, too. I would be able to show her the best possible time. Maybe she would see what a waste of space her husband was, after all. If not, I could always pay him an evening visit sometime.
Something occurred to me. I looked at the phone again and then at the clock behind the concierge desk in the hotel lobby. Of course.
I knew what had gone wrong with the software. A simple setting not updated from the test environment. I was working in the wrong setting. How could I have missed the config file? See, even experts can make silly mistakes from time to time. I could fix that first thing on Monday. Better still, there was a good chance that the fact that I had stayed in Paris on my own time and at my own expense to sort it out would impress work.
The silver lining, or what?