Eveline Winston looked at her rear-view mirror and pressed her lips together.
The crimson stained her lips and turned the natural pout into a more sensual gloss.
Sighing, she looked over at her outfit, the same uniform that she was wearing yesterday, the only difference being the dark grey turtleneck she was sporting underneath her coat.
Touching her neck, Eveline ignored the tired look in her blue eyes, before flicking back her onyx hair and opening the door to her BMW sedan.
Opening the latch to the small fence at Alex’s house, Eveline saw that the door was open and she slowly creaked it open, knocking as she did so.
“Alex?” she half yelled to the empty house.
As she moved to take off her shoes, before venturing further, she looked down and saw a thin trail of blood.
Fear blossomed rapidly in her mind and Eveline found herself morbidly curious as she followed the trail into Alex’s kitchen.
Alex was sitting in his office, entranced and desperate to see whether the CCTV footage would reveal anything of use.
Looking down at the program, he noted that he was only an hour and a half in. He had already poured through the damning excel spreadsheet, his mind abuzz with Joel’s ingenuity and the prospect of a proper Maltese Falcon hunt. Excitement was rampant and Alex could not believe he had scored such a case.
Alex, as he stared at the video, noted the hour and time when a garbage truck arrived in frame and two men began to go about their business, their actions looking small and decisive as they threw bag after bag into the back.
Looking down at his note pad, Alex placed down a question mark regarding the number plate. If he could pull the plate off the truck, there was a good chance he could track down the route and work out where this footage was taken.
However, it was around the 2 hour and 45 minute mark, that Alex finally found why Joel had kept this footage.
It was his alibi to the current crime he was accused of. However the only problem was … it showed Joel doing something else that would raise a lot more questions, and thus lead to the discovery of the elusive Maltese Falcon gambit that now everyone was looking for.
Joel, casually dressed in a polo and slacks, had pulled up in his gold Renault Megane and gotten out, his hands grasping a rolled cylinder. Opposite him, unseen off screen, another car’s lights were extinguished and a man stepped out, large and muscular, dressed impeccably in a suit and overcoat.
The two were seen animatedly talking, Joel using many hand gestures and casually waving the large cylindrical roll in his hand. The muscular stranger was much more tense, his body language still and taunt, hands buried deep in his pockets, his face overcast by the night shadows of buildings.
Alex, wishing he could hear what was going on, paid close attention to the proceedings and the damning date, time, camera type information in the corner of the screen.
The conversation, went on for a full 3 minutes, Joel gesticulating and placating, the stranger menacing and frozen. Joel, exasperated, made a fruitless gesture with his hands, before shouldering the cylinder and walking away.
The stranger stared at Joel’s retreating Renault, before taking out a phone and making a brief 30 second call and then spinning around to his car off-screen.
Alex looked at the time and his emerald pupils widened at the implications it did to his mental timeline.
They widened further still, when he heard a knock at the door.
Alex, assuming it was Eveline got up and opened the door.
The door swung inward violently, breaking Alex’s nose.
Instantly disoriented and stumbling backwards, Alex barely felt the hand that grasped his shirt and register the second blow, which cracked into his cheek and sent him tumbling to the floor.
A boot came and smashed into his abdomen. Alex would have vomited, but there was nothing to give in his wretchedly empty stomach.
Dazed and in more agony than he could remember, black gloved hands lifted him up from under his armpits and Alex could see the yellowed wooden floor of his house lift away from him, in a bizarre surreal experience, as he experienced weightlessness, his feet dragging along the floorboards.
He felt his arms being strapped to a chair in his kitchen, the ripping sound of duct tape burning across his hands and wrists, the sensation followed by a resounding slap across his other cheek that knocked him back into a painful reality instead of a haze of stars.
The two men that stared at him, looked liked modern gangster gentlemen. Both had professional, cold miens that showed, despite their youth, they were confident and experienced at their jobs.
Undercut haircuts, three-piece suits and tattoos that sneaked past their expensive watches and cuff-links, indicated that these men weren’t your average run-of-the-mill street gangsters.
They were adept and proficient. Apex predators that had risen up the food chain and were now in command of everything … sartorially and criminality. They viewed Alex as a means to an end. Nothing more. Nothing less. Nothing personal mate. It’s just pure business.
On Alex’s end, his mind was furiously berating him for not spotting these two men who were most likely watching Joel McNamara’s house. His paranoia was only going to be ratcheted up further by this incident.
“Alex Ryder. Private Investigator.” stated the professional with a flat cap on his shaven head, his tone hinting at derision.
“It’s a cool name innit?” inflected the professional whose Liverpool accent came thick, strong and proud.
“Not bad at all. Myself, I would have gone with Private Detective. But, I’m old fashioned that way.” critiqued Flat Cap.
“Aaah well. Either way, little cunts like you always end up running into guys like us. Nosy little buggers aren’t you?” smiled Liverpool.
“Ain’t that the truth” intoned Flat Cap.
“Look mate, between you and me? I’m not really into this sort of stuff. Myself? I’m more a whiskey and cigar man. These hands?” Liverpool smacked his right tattooed knuckles into the palm of his left.
“They prefer to cut the tips off Cubans, not widdle fingers like yours, eh?
Flat Cap punctuated Liverpool’s speech with a dry and bored statement “So give us what you found.”
“And any notes you might have made yeah? We really prefer not to have this sort of shit whizzing around the suburb.”
Alex coughed and tasted the metallic tang of his own blood. Defiance still glittered behind his emerald eyes, as his mind raced to salvage the situation.
“Look mate” said Liverpool gently, “We’re professionals you and I. Just give us what we want, and we’ll be on our way, like the darkness before dawn. We’re not gonna hurt ya. You don’t have to say nuthin if you prefer it. Just point, and we’ll take care of it for you. Easy as that sunshine.”
“By Order of the Peaky Fookin Blinders and all that rubbish” said Flat Cap with amusement.
Alex, stared at these two men, confused and wondering what the hell they meant, by Peaky Blinders, until it clicked that it was a pop culture reference.
“Mate, you’ve confused the bloke by that last statement” despaired Liverpool.
“Sorry mate. Thought it was a cool line to say.” demurred Flat Cap.
“Come on man, a bit of professionalism here.” tutted Liverpool.
Flat Cap raised his hands in a placatory manner.
“Right, so Mr Ryder. Where is it?”
Alex, feigning defeat, nodded to the study and Flat Cap went inside. Alex hid a smile, remembering that he religiously backed up the files on his personal google account whenever and wherever he could. Everything he worked on was always on the cloud. Even the CCTV footage and the Excel spreadsheet.
To his regret though, the laptop was probably going to be lost forever. Just another financial loss that he would have to live with. Perks of the job.
Flat Cap came out with the laptop and the notes that Alex had written down about the case. Thankfully the manilla folder that Eveline had given him was hidden in a hollowed desk drawer and he couldn’t see it in Flat Cap’s hand.
“Anything else?” said Liverpool to Flat Cap.
“Unlikely. His office is more sparse than a monastery.”
“Well, Mr Ryder, this is your first and final warning. Please don’t go peeking about again yeah? If you do, you’ll probably run into us again. I hate being a proper twat about it, but this is our job yeah? Here, as a gesture of good will, I’ll reset your nose.”
Liverpool grabbed Alex’s nose and with a sickening crunch, slammed it back into its proper place. Tears sprung to Alex’s green eyes and he kept the groan that was coming up, down in his throat.
“Next time, I’m afraid we won’t be so judicious OK? So please mate, for your own sake, just stay out of this.”
Liverpool placed a placating gentle glove hand on Alex’s shoulder and patted him gently.
“It’s only business mate. Perks of the job yeah?”
Alex nodded and agreed. “Perks of the job. Right.”
“Attaboy. I knew he would understand. Well, these tapes should loosen up soon, so keep struggling lad.”
Liverpool and Flat Cap gave Alex mock salutes and silently exited the house as suddenly as they came in.
Alex could only watch them go and wriggle uselessly against the duct tape.
“Shit” muttered Alex before he cynically decided that there wasn’t much point to struggling. After all, Eveline said she would be coming soon. So Alex allowed his head hang down, and took a nap.
It felt like ages later, but when he woke up, he saw Eveline staring at him, and her arm shaking him violently awake. He glanced at the elegant silver TAG Heuer watch on her arm and noted that he had only been sleeping for 25 minutes.
“Oh my god Alex. Are you OK? What happened? Who did this to you?” rushed Eveline as she checked over him, her hands running over his face and body.
“First things first. Can you get a knife and cut me loose first?” said Alex, exasperatedly.
“Right. Sorry.” Walking over to the kitchen, Eveline pulled out the first knife she found in the knife slots, and cut Alex loose, who gasped as blood rushed back into his hands, pinpricks of pain erupting all over his nerves.
Eveline watched as Alex tore off strips of duct tape from his wrists and winced as he took a glass of water and rinsed the blood out of his mouth, the pain evident on his face.
Alex looked at her and shrugged. “This comes with a lot of jobs. I’ll explain everything soon. You got a laptop? They took mine.”
Eveline nodded and went back to her car, and took out her work laptop.
Powering it up, in Alex’s office, she listened as Alex explained what happened, why he was tied up and what he found in Joel’s house.
“And so that’s the basics. Did you know anything about where Joel was on the night of the murder?”
Eveline thought back to the case and replied “He said he had an alibi. That it was impossible to link him to the murder case, because he was somewhere else at the time. Joel even mentioned that he think he could get evidence that he wasn’t there, the night that Candice died.”
“Do you know what time Candice died?”
“It was 8.10pm. Reports stated she died with 4 stab wounds in her abdomen. The knife that was used apparently corresponded to the ones in Joel’s kitchen.”
Alex frowned and checked the virtual gallery he took. Sure enough, there was an empty slot in the knife holder on the bench.
Angered that he had missed it, Alex stayed silent for a moment.
Eveline, with a hint of nervousness in her voice, asked “What did you want to show me? Why did you need my laptop?”
Alex, still angered missed the tone. “When I was searching Joel’s house, I found something. It was in my laptop, but I backed it up on my google drive. It was an SD card with just 2 files on them. An excel spreadsheet and CCTV footage. I’ll show you the footage first, because that is what proves Joel’s innocence. He was meeting someone the same night that, the prostitute Candice died.”
“Which reminds me, what’s so special about Candice?” queried Alex.
“She was his favourite.” replied Eveline with a strange quick dismissiveness.
“Do you know which brothel she belonged to?”
“The Pink Palace.”
Alex raised an eyebrow and made a note on his phone.
“OK, well, here …” Alex spun the laptop around to the point where Joel was wielding the cylindrical sphere and he frowned when he saw Eveline gasp at the footage.
He waited for her to finish, and crossed his arms before asking her direct.
“What do you know about the Cezanne?”
Eveline looked down.
“Enough” she said softly.
“I don’t need to show you the excel spreadsheet do I? Joel already told you about it all already.”
“What excel spreadsheet?” asked Eveline confused.
“It’s the blueprint to the Ashmolean Job.” said Alex with a smile on his face. “I didn’t know I was chasing an art thief. It’s very bizarre that he kept this kind of evidence. But then, it was his greatest job. A proper turn of the century heist.”
“But what I can’t figure …” said Alex wonderingly, “is where you fit in all of this, Eveline. What’s your real relationship to Joel? If that is, of course, his real name.”
Eveline stayed silent. Alex, stared at her, questioning why all the sudden, he was feeling more and more attracted to this sad woman in front of him, her hands in her lap, tears streaming down her cheeks.
Damn it thought Alex. Every time.
He stood up, grabbed his peacoat and placed it over her shoulders.
He sat on the desk in front of her, his face close.
“Tell me the truth Eveline. I can’t help you, if you don’t.”
Eveline sighed and looked up at Alex. His green eyes piercing through hers.
“I don’t know his full name. He just goes by Francois.”
Eveline’s voice became softer as memory grew stronger.
“I met him a year ago through a mutual girlfriend. I had just gotten out of a 5 year relationship and was desperate for something new …”
“At first, he was shy and awkward, but once I got to know him a bit better, he showed me that was all an act. The real Francois, is genuinely confident and smart. He’s … everything a European man is meant to be.”
Alex’s eyes narrowed in slight jealousy.
Eveline gave a bitter laugh. “He promised me a lot. Some he delivered. A lot he didn’t. But on our first holiday together to Europe, he showed me the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and made jokes about the security of the place. I remember being so confused as to how much he knew about the place. So later that night, I googled it and put two and two together.”
“Did you confront him straight away?” interjected Alex.
“No” replied Eveline. “I knew I had this on him now. I wanted to save this for the right moment.”
Alex scoffed to himself. “What a lawyer you are.”
“I’m a good one” shot back Eveline. “I didn’t work my way out of a shithole for nothing. You don’t know what I’ve been through to make it to where I am now.”
Alex raised his hands in an act of surrender to calm her down and concede the point.
“Anyway, you would have done the same.” said Eveline defensively. “Francois opened a new world for me. There was no way I would have shut it down early. I had everything I wanted for the first time in my life. I didn’t care he was an art thief. I just wanted him to love me.”
Alex looked around at his sparse house, the lack of trappings and decor and privately agreed. He would have done the same. Living on the edge of ruin wasn’t a lifestyle, it was a cycle that never ended.
To break free of that cycle would be liberating.
“Anyway, about a month ago, he came to me, telling me about a mercenary that knew about his past. Francois desperately needed money and he only had the Cezanne left. The mercenary offered him 11 million. Francois agonised over it for days. He really didn’t want to part with the painting.”
“Did you know who the mercenary is?” asked Alex slightly urgently.
“Francois never told me.” said Eveline. “He just said that somehow the mercenary tracked him down somehow and that if Francois didn’t do as he was told, he would kill someone close to him.”
“When Francois heard about that, he told me to go into hiding. So I went to Brisbane to stay for a while with my aunt before coming back. But when I did, Francois had disappeared and his case actually turned up at my legal department. He was contacting us remotely, saying that he did not kill Candice, the prostitute he must have been seeing behind my back.”
Eveline said with hatred “I didn’t know about Candice of course, but …”
“You were too far in.” said Alex quietly.
Eveline nodded. “What Francois did, doesn’t matter anymore. All that matters is that Cezanne. So I investigated the case for a week. But I couldn’t find anything.”
“And that brings you to my doorstep, promising money you don’t have.” said Alex amused.
Eveline looked up at Alex. The feminine sapphires locked into the masculine emeralds with a strange intensity.
“You need to help me find it Alex. If we find the painting, then we can both be free.” Eveline grasped Alex hands imploringly. “I promise you, if we find the painting, then the money will allow us to disappear. We won’t have to worry about anything.”
Alex felt his resolve weakening. His paranoia screamed at him, but he cast it aside. He wanted to feel liberated. He needed a break from the prison he had created for himself.
Alex searched for words to answer Eveline’s pleas. “OK. Let’s find this Cezanne.”
Eveline gasped and hugged him, her arms tight around him. Alex’s mind flashed an image of a pen signing another contract, in servitude to this beautiful, desperate lawyer.
“Thank you Alex.” she whispered.
Then, in a moment of desperate spontaneity, she kissed him.
Alex, reeling from the recent injuries, emotions and revelations, pushed her back momentarily. Looking at the half closed eyes, the sensual lips and the glistening tracks that her tears left down her cheeks, Alex gave in and pulled her close.
They scrabbled at each other, tearing clothes off in a frantic bid to release something that they both held tight within.
At 3088 words, this is the longest chapter I’ve written. This was done, because I needed to follow the structure I’ve written for myself, as well as believably build up to the final climax of this chapter (pun fully intended).
In particular, this is Eveline’s chapter. I wanted to flesh her out as a character, to give her motivation and go beyond the cool, cold professional that I originally set her out to be.
She had to be vulnerable, yet manipulative, as per the femme fatale style that she always was meant to inhabit in this narrative. For those fans of film noir if you read a bit deeper into her actions and words, it should all be familiar tropes.
I was going to delve deeper into writing a proper sex scene, but I liked how I ended it too much, so I decided to scrap it, in service to the story.
Part 4 will be coming soon.