“Ouch… Hey lady! Watch your step!”
Meghan’s heart skipped a beat as her jade eyes locked with the blue ones, the owner of which she had just knocked over. Accidentally.
“Désolé! Sorry!” She mumbled absentmindedly and resumed her walk, trying to blend in with the crowd. She could feel those blue eyes staring at her back, she could even swear she heard him mutter “Snob!”. But Meghan couldn’t afford to stop right now.
She felt mortified at the thought of Noah. She had left him at the cafe without a word, on the pretext of using the washroom, right when she’d noticed a pair of eyes following her.
Noah doesn’t deserve to be in this mess, he already had enough on his shoulders, she’d decided in desperation.
When she spotted two more men in black at the third crossroad, she knew. The streets here were empty. She broke into a brisk run, aiming to lose herself in the shadows of a dark alley, but instantly realized her mistake. She had alerted her stalkers. And it was a blind lane.
Meghan hid in the darkness, waiting.
The sound of the ominous footsteps came, and then faded. She couldn’t make out the shadows in the dark. Were they gone?
She waited, just to be sure. She was aware of being followed for a while now, right since her father’s death. She was sure it had something to do with her father’s business. He had never liked the shady men his father dealt with. Did he owe them anything?
“Meghan! Tu es là ?” A familiar voice called out. Noah? Relief washed over her. Poor man! He must have seen her slipping out of the cafe, and followed her all the way, puzzled and worried.
“Désolé Noah,” she came out of the shadows into the light, “Je suis…”
But her eyes widened in surprise. The rest of her words got stuck in her mouth.
Soirée à Le Marais…Evening in Marais. What a cliched name for a cafe! I smirked to myself as I sat at one of its beautifully decorated outdoor tables by the Seine. Alone.
This was our last night in Paris. Greenwich FC versus Taverny… English versus French! It sure would be a big face-off tomorrow. Coach Acheson had given us a break from the grind tonight.
“Let’s loosen up the stiffness, boys!” he’d always say a day before a big game.
He had one condition. We had to turn in by midnight.
So, Ralph and half the boys were out for beer and a movie, Nathan, my roommate, was on a date with his new French girlfriend, and the loners like me were out by themselves, trying to soak in everything French.
Eiffel Tower, Louvre, MoMA… we had already visited the crowd-pullers in the last three days. This evening I’d decided to march off the beaten track.
Of course, Marais bustled with a decent crowd. The sheer number of shops with high-end fashion goodies made my head spin. What I loved most, however, was the flea market on Rue de Rosiers, where I had managed to score a pre-owned Gucci leather jacket for 5 euros!
I was just sipping on my coffee and mentally congratulating myself for the prized catch when I saw her, the lady from this evening. She had bumped into me a few hours back, almost knocking me over into the streets. But she had walked away without a word… the reason I remembered her so well. Now, however, she stood before my table, with an apologetic smile.
“Désolé, I’m so sorry young man for what happened this evening. I was in a hurry,” she spoke in clear English.
For a moment, I fumbled, remembering the rude words I’d hollered at her.
“I-I… It’s alright lady. No big deal,” I glanced at her disheveled hair.
She followed my eyes and started patting her hair in a bid to fix it.
“I got in a bit of a scuffle. Do you mind if I join you for a cuppa?”
I smiled and asked the waiter for another cup of coffee in my horrible French, which amused her.
“I’m English. I’ve come from London,” I tried to defend myself.
She just smiled.
There was something about her kind green eyes, and her smile, that seemed other-worldly. For a while, I kept looking at her.
“I need your help,” she suddenly broke the silence, and I came out of my trance.
Her smile suddenly vanished, and her lips trembled, “My little girl is in great danger. They’ll kill him. Will you help me?”
I was flabbergasted. I wasn’t expecting this.
“Why don’t you tell the police?”
She shook her head, “No… They are all in on this. He has the police in his pockets. Please help me.”
I tensed up. Was this a trap?
“I don’t know any people here, I don’t even live here… I don’t speak French. How…?”
The lady passed me a Polaroid photo of a little girl of around seven. She had her mother’s green eyes.
“She’s ten now, her name is Minka Duprese,” she pleaded again.
“Listen lady, I’ll take you to our hotel… Some important people are staying there for the match tomorrow. If your daughter’s in danger, I’m sure one of them will be able to help!”
She began to cry, “It will be too late. He will kill her tonight.”
“She’s in the 18th house, Ave De Gravelle, 12th arrondissement,” she suddenly dropped her voice.
I was beginning to doubt if she was sane.
“I’ll see if I can get someone at my hotel. It’s almost 8o’ clock, I must leave now, I’ve got to turn in early for the match anyway.”
She suddenly grabbed me by my collar, “But you’re a reserve player, aren’t you? They haven’t put you on the field yet, have they?”
I flinched. How did she know?
“Help me, and I’ll be there to cheer for you on the fields tomorrow,” she laughed hysterically, as she let me go. I noticed she hadn’t touched her coffee. I placed the money on the table and got up to leave.
When I turned to check after running a few steps, she was still sitting on the chair.
Half an hour later, I sat down on a bench by the river bank to rest my legs. The hotel was yet another half an hour away on foot.
I pondered about the crazy woman I’d just met.
Back in the little Arab ghetto in Lambeth, where I’d grown up, no one ever believed I could play. I hardly got a chance on the school football team, because of my short height and measly build… but mostly because I knew no one influential. My father didn’t live with us, and my mother struggled with two jobs a day to feed us both. I remembered Uncle Aziz from our neighbourhood. I’d heard he used to play with a club when he was young. He seemed to be the only one who apparently saw something in me.
“Focus on the ball, Nico. The one who controls it controls the game!” He used to say whenever he saw me practise dribbling.
I remembered the afternoon Coach Acheson had spotted me playing with the little kids of the neighbourhood. He had marveled at my dribbling skills, and signed me up for his little club. But for three years, I’d been sitting on the reserve bench, waiting for my turn. I could swear, I dribbled better than Ralph, and I could bet that I defended better than Simon. But… I knew no one influential.
The green-eyed woman’s words suddenly riled up emotions in me that I had often felt, but never acknowledged before. Was it pain? Or anger?
I wondered if I’d get to go on the fields tomorrow.
The nip in the breeze that came in from the Seine made me shiver, and I put the jacket on. It felt snug and comfortable. I hadn’t noticed that the previous owner had stitched his initials on to this jacket -A.B. Ah! I would have to take it out later.
A little while after, a stocky old man who was passing by, stopped before me.
“Oui?” I asked.
“Ça te va bien!” He glanced at my jacket.
It was beyond my limited French vocabulary, so I shook my head solemnly, “Pardon me, I’m English.”
“The jacket suits you well, my boy!” He spoke in a heavy French accent.
“Thank you, I got it off the flea market down the street,” I smiled, and shared, in case he wanted one for himself.
I thought the man would leave, but to my displeasure, he sat himself down on my bench.
“Oh! What have people of this country come to!” He shook his head in exasperation, “Selling off priceless vintage stuffs for a wee bit of money…”
My face turned red.
“I owned one like this ages ago. My good-for-nothing grandson sold it for a few euros to pay his tuition fees… Mind you, he turned out to be a nincompoop!” He spat on the ground.
I didn’t know what I was supposed to say to this.
“Anyhow, this one suits you, use it well,” he got up as suddenly as he had appeared.
“Nutcase!” I muttered under my breath, as I watched him walk away and disappear in the shadows.
Were there any sane people in this city? I wondered as I recalled the woman from the evening.
Suddenly, my head filled with a buzz. I got up. I had a job to do.
Paris is like a snail. Its 20 districts, which they call arrondissements, are in a clockwise spiral around the river Seine, that flows through its centre. I was in the 4th district, and an hour in a taxi brought me to the 12th arrondissement, which was right after the 4th. I spotted the 18th house on the avenue and got off.
The sign on the door read, “The Duprese’s”.
It was 10.05 by my watch. A little late to knock on someone’s door. But it was urgent. I rang the doorbell.
Five minutes passed.
There was a commotion inside, and an odd sound… of heavy furniture being moved.
I rang again.
A middle-aged gentleman opened the door.
“Monsieur Duprese? Cest la police,” I said in surprisingly fluent French, as I strode in, confident.
“Minka? Où est-elle?” That was the last thing I remembered asking before something hit my head from the back and I dropped to the floor.
When I woke up next, I was on a chair in a dimly-lit room. It seemed like a dirty wine cellar. I saw a rack of liquor bottles. A few broken ones lay on the floor, that seemed to be covered under a mattress of dust. I was in my knickers. My hands and legs were bound. I had been stripped off my clothes, which lay in a heap in a corner. I still had my wristwatch on me. I checked the time. 1o’ clock. I wasn’t sure if it was 1o’clock at night or in the afternoon.
I tried to recall what had happened, but my head hurt. Of course! I had been hit on the head. But why? And then I remembered. The jacket… it was strange! It seemed to have a mind of its own. No wonder I was possessed with the idea of checking on little Minka Duprese right after I’d worn it. But this house belonged to the Dupreses! How can anyone be in danger in their own house? Unless… I clammed up. I had to free myself.
I tried to push my chair to where the broken bottles lay. If only I could get hold of a shard of glass…
“You’re up!” a little voice startled me.
“Minka?” I croaked, as I turned my head to see a little girl crouched in the corner behind me. She wasn’t bound. She rose and stood in front of me.
She had her mother’s eyes, which now twinkled with hope, “You know my name? Are you a friend of mom’s?”
“Yes, my child. She sent me here.”
“Do you know where she is? She hasn’t come home since she went shopping this morning.”
“I may have seen her this evening. When we get out of here, we’ll find her.”
Her face drooped, “We’re not getting out. Papa has locked me in here for hours. He was upset about some paperwork. I heard him on the phone. He was very angry when you turned up. He called someone to say he’ll take care of me and drop you by the river in the dead of the night.”
“We’ll get out of here Minka,” I sounded determined, “Can you help me?”
I gestured at my hands.
“Find a shard of glass from the rubble and rub the edges over the rope, can you?”
Minka got to work in no time.
I could feel her hand shaking.
“How come you speak so fluent English, Minka?”
She smiled, “We’re English. We moved here three years ago when mom married papa. I can speak French too. But I heard papa say you’re an Englishman when he checked your ID…”
I smiled back, “Smart girl. Careful, don’t cut yourself!”
In half an hour, I was free. But I felt groggy.
“How long have I been here?”
“A couple of hours, I’m not sure.”
So it was night-time. I stretched myself and put on my clothes.
The bastard had taken my wallet, and with it, my ID and passport. But the sight of the jacket filled me with a strange sense of determination. I put it on.
I’d chalked out my plan. I climbed the stairs, with Minka behind me. Of course, the old wooden door was locked. I bumped into it with all my might. It shuddered. I heard Minka’s father scurry to the other side.
He shouted something in French.
I banged against the door again. Bits of dusts and wood fell from the frames.
I pounded again, and it gave way.
Minka’s father was ready with the rod. But this time, we were ready too. As soon as the door opened, Minka rushed out and planted a broken bottle onto his left foot. He dropped the rod and screamed. I took it up and shut him down with a blow to his head.
I grabbed Minka and their car keys and I ran out.
I must have driven like a mad man because when I stopped at our hotel at 3 in the morning, there were a dozen police cars behind us.
There was no way I was playing the match today. I was sleep-deprived, and I was raving. Coach Acheson had himself put me to bed at 4, after a doctor had tended to me. He had warded off the reporters who had gathered at the lobby. But I was woken up at 8.30 by Nathan, who said they needed me on the field. Ralph and a few boys had had to be hospitalized with acute cases of diarrhoea.
I couldn’t believe my luck.
For the first time in two years, I played on the field. And I played the best game of my life. We managed a draw, with nine men playing instead of eleven. But I got noticed by a manager of the Chelsea Club and he wanted to sign me up right away. I was happy… very happy. But not more than what I had felt when I had saved the little girl.
When I visited the police station afterwards for the formalities, I wasn’t prepared for the rude shock that was awaiting me there.
The details appeared in the afternoon bulletin : Meghan Duprese’s dead body was recovered from the backstreets near Rue de Rosiers at 7.30 pm on 18th October, 2019. Her husband, influential business tycoon Noah Duprese, found unconscious at their villa at 18, Ave de gravelle, has confessed to the crime, and has been arrested on charges of murder. Meghan, daughter of Irish industrialist Jean Paul, had lost her father last week. It appears that Noah Duprese had murdered his wife in a bid to get hold of her inheritance to pay off his bad debts. However, Meghan had willed all her property in her daughter’s name, which would pass onto Meghan’s sister, since her daughter was a minor. However, in case anything happened to her daughter, her property would have passed onto Yorbax Inc., a Trust owned by Mr. Jean Paul.
Noah Duprese appears to have also held his step-daughter captive in their wine cellar. The 10-year old girl was rescued by an English footballer Nicholas Bates, who claimed to have been tipped off about the child by a stranger. It has also been learnt that Mr. Duprese had acquired ownership of Yorbax Inc. a month before Mr. Jean Paul’s death.
The blow I had received when the police informed me about Meghan’s death had worn off by afternoon. Last evening, she did what a mother would have done, clung on to the last straw to save her child. I was happy the straw could bear the weight of her expectation.
As I stood on the banks of the Seine for a glimpse of the setting sun, before getting onto the bus back to London, I reminisced about the eventful evening that I’d remember for a long time. I found the old man from last night sitting on the bench.
“There was a brave police officer in this city, who wore a fine jacket like yours during raids,” he said, without looking at me, “His name was Alex Baffier.”
“Seeing that the jacket fits me, I guess he must have had a short height, and a measly build?” I smirked, looking at him.
“Size doesn’t matter my son, what matters is what you have in here!” he pointed at his chest.
I smiled, “Does he feel proud of me?”
“You bet he does!” he sounded amused.
* Prompt: Footballer; gets trapped; Paris
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