Alex stared at the grimy screen, a borrowed pen in his mouth, as he looked at the precious excel sheet.
He had lost his laptop and now his phone to Francois and Eveline. This left him with no choice but to spend a dollar at the nearest 24 hour gaming lounge.
All around him, the cacophony of mechanical keyboards, and optical mouses rattled away, as young men tapped away at their computers, oblivious to the private investigator searching for a Cezanne.
The room smelt rough, with cheap deodorant, spicy 2-minute noodles and arid energy drinks suffusing the atmosphere.
Chairs squeaked as gamers rocked back and forth, thoroughly engaged in their virtual world; numbers, lights and colours flashing across their tired, intent faces.
Alex jotted down on his notepad, and finally broke the 4 cryptic sentences and the strange caption that ran across the first Excel sheet. He arranged the letters and in a grid, fascinated as he saw one of the first examples of cryptography come to brilliantly to life, Roman ingenuity at its most innovative.
To solve the cipher, Alex merely arranged the long sentences atop of one another and read down.
Alex added in the spaces.
31 NIAGARA LANE BASEMENT ALCOVE COMBINATION 31 12 99 ASH M
VIEW OF AUVES SUR OISE CZ
Logging off the PC, Alex dashed out, and began his run from QV to the small, cobblestone alleyway, that held the Cezanne.
Alex ran down Londsdale street, the small decline in the topography of Melbourne assisting his speed. Buses blurred past him, as did hundreds of waiting passengers. A couple in a ramen shop, stopped slurping noodles for a second, as they beheld Alex in a full blown sprint, blast past their window and nearly careen into a mother with a pram.
Tram drivers pealed angrily as Alex sped across the tracks on Swanston St, and was now surging his way past Uniqlo and the iconic skyway that linked the two major shopping hubs, Emporium and Melbourne Central above him.
Two blocks were covered in less than 5 minutes, as Alex panted his way down, through Elizabeth Street and then up a small incline towards Niagara Lane.
A young, pretty girl, exiting the local Korean grocer, gave a muffled scream of surprise behind her face mask, as Alex shot his way up, nearly scattering her groceries everywhere.
Alex saw the blue and white sign ahead and performed a hard left turn at Club Retro, the loud disco music blasting the eardrums of a surprised bouncer who wondered why so many people were going down this alleyway.
Breathing hard, Alex pulled a powerful, rugged torch from the inside of his peacoat, and began to scan the alleyway.
Atypical of Melbournian alleyways, Niagara Lane was paved with uneven cobblestones that had a distinctive inward slant towards the middle, that allowed for drainage.
The lane itself, was wide, and featured several unique entrances to apartments, shops, and obscure law firms and private clubs. Small alcoves dug into the walls of the alleyway, with little concrete lips where people liked to smoke, obscuring the curious windows that allowed voyeuristic snapshots into basements.
31 Niagara Lane was signalled by a circular frame that proclaimed in faded gold text: 31.
To his disappointment, Alex was too late. The elaborate door, an imposing wooden modern design, was ajar, and the amber light inside left on, because doubtless Francois and Eveline had already absconded the premises.
However, clues needed to be found, so Alex found himself switching off his torch and wandering down the old concrete steps into a veritable valuables stash.
A shelf lined the wall on his left, a stout beautiful mahogany study table in the centre, against the back wall, and on his right, littered on tables, the floor and rudimentary shelves, were artworks and stolen antiquities. The rustic brick interior was beautifully lit and shadowed by an art-deco lamp, that cast a cheerful amber light over the entire cache.
Alex whistled to himself. Take one, no one will know it’s missing. said a voice in Alex’s head. I wouldn’t know what to do with one. answered Alex, as he held up an Impressionist piece.
Alex kept his eye on the open door behind him, as he looked around, paranoid that Flat Cap and Liverpool would enter and mess everything up. When he finally came to the back desk, he noted the wall safe next to it. It was locked.
Remembering the deciphered code, Alex keyed the code 311299 ASHM into the keypad and watched as the door slowly sung open on its hinges.
He was surprised by the sight of his phone lying there, in place of the Cezanne it would have held.
Frowning, he used his thumb to unlock the phone and saw that he had received a text message from Eveline.
I swear to you, that what happened between us, wasn’t nothing. There is something there, I promise.
Francois and I are on our way to the Docklands, at the Central Pier. I didn’t tell Francois did, but when you used my laptop to access the files, I actually solved the cipher before we met and I already took the painting with me.
Francois is currently holding a fake one, and just before the meeting with the Jackal I will disappear.
If there is anything between you and me, if you feel the same way, please meet me at Astra Apartment 79.
Alex frowned at the implications of the message.
Don’t do it said his mind.
Alex turned off the lamp in the treasure trove, and closed the door behind him as he re-entered the alleyway. Marking it in his mind, Alex felt torn between desire and paranoia.
Gritting his teeth, and knowing he had to see it to the end, Alex cut through more alleyways and made his way onto Bourke St, where he caught the 86 tram to Waterfront City, Docklands.
The tram was packed, filled with Melbournians who were quiet, silent and wet. Almost everyone had earphones in, their heads and hands subtly moving to the beat of their music. Alex watched as nearly three-quarters of the entire tram population got off at Southern Cross Station, Victoria’s most advanced looking train station, a mass of steel, glass and plastic, modern design at its finest.
He watched as people ducked for cover, as a deluge of water came rushing in, the soft howl of the wind abruptly cut short by the tram’s closing doors.
Enjoy this. thought Alex. In less than 10 minutes you’ll be doing the same thing as everyone else out there.
The tram slowly rolled past the huge Melbourne Police Station, the uniforms inside completely unaware of the treasure hunt that was happening in their precinct, before accelerating across a bridge that offered a spectacular view of the ever-pretty, but forever quiet Docklands.
The Docklands was evidence that no matter how much money is injected into an area, it is the people that drive popularity, not the other way around.
Despite the local government’s best efforts to drive the people into the area, from renovating the area into a glistening architectural hub of modern designs, creating Harbour Town with its affordable shops, and the huge Melbourne Star Ferris Wheel, no one lived there.
Apartments were highly affordable for those who worked in the city, but its emptiness, lack of activity and the freezing chill that came in from the ocean caused the entire area to be disliked.
There was something strange and artificial about Docklands, as if it tried to capture everything Melbourne in an area, but failed to truly replicate its essence and unique style.
However it was pretty despite its artificial charm. The huge West Gate Bridge towered over the area, Melbourne’s very own Brooklyn Bridge, complete with imposing concrete towers that glittered red to warn incoming aircraft of its’ height.
The water was tranquil and still, playing host to dozens of expensive boats, and even a restaurant boat moored at the Central Pier.
It was an area that spoke to those who enjoyed solitude. The urban sprawl, the modern designs, the silent shops and the lack of people on the streets, created a strange ethereal atmosphere, that made you think you were alone in a pandemic that caused everyone on Earth to disappear.
Alex recalled all of this from his experience and time, as the tram slowly descended the bridge. He also wondered about how many bodies were going to be dropped into the docks before the end of the night.
Patting himself down, he knew that he had nothing to truly protect himself with. All he had was a pen, a notepad and his powerful flashlight.
A pitiful collection.
Sighing, he waited for the tram to stop, before walking out, the shimmering water reflecting moonlight across his face. Rain lashed away at him, and Alex popped the collar of his peacoat and began to make his way across, ignoring the Central Pier, where the deal between the Jackal and Francois was taking place.
He was walking directly towards a uniquely unattractive apartment complex, its’ white exterior marred by thousands of hole cut into its shell, to allow for windows and balconies. It was triangular in shape, but curved at all the sharp edges, creating a rounded effect to the entire structure.
The Astra Apartments was also in one of the quietest areas of Docklands, with barely any souls walking the streets after work hours. It was a place where empty shop windows featured nothing but promises to be filled and residents were eager to get home and never leave.
Alex ducked for cover under overhangs and the shadows of buildings whenever he could, trying to get less wet, as the rain intensified and his thoughts threatened to overwhelm him.
His silhouette presented a strange sight, under the bright lights and rain, a lonely figure on the streets of an empty city.
When Alex finally reached the Astra Apartments, he buzzed the apartment number, 79, the designation indicating the 7th floor, 9th room.
The electronic doors silently slid open, and Alex was greeted by ambient music, soft white lighting and modern aesthetics.
Calling for a lift, he could feel his heartbeat grow quicker and quicker, as he wondered whether he truly would see Eveline waiting for him.
Padding quietly across carpeted flooring, and an empty hallway, Alex knocked on door 79 and waited for the reveal.
A smile and a thick Liverpool accent greeted him.
“‘Hello luv. Come on in, we’re just about to fix tonight’s entertainment.” said Liverpool jovially.
You ever write a story and find that it’s hard to wrap things up?
That’s what I’m going through.
If the finale is horrible, I apologise in advance.
If the final is decent, I too apologise in advance, because I should have made it perfect.
The end of the story is paramount to the success of whether people think it’s good or not.
I spent most of this part setting the stage for the finale.
Let’s hope it all pays off.