Alex Ryder walked in, his heartbeat abnormally fast, his mind whirring at a thousand thoughts a minute, and his hands clenched into fists.
Liverpool guided Alex into the centre of the apartment, which was spacious, and had two connecting rooms; a bedroom and a bathroom. Like most modern designs, it was all about clean lines, a simple contrasting colour theme (black, white, grey, with a splash of dark brown) and slightly dull aesthetics.
It was as sterile an environment as it could get.
Flat Cap sat on a couch nearby, inspecting a small suppressed pistol, his hands at ease with the weapon.
“Easy mate. Our boss will be with us temporarily. He’s just dealing with a Frenchman at the moment. Why don’t you take a seat?” said Liverpool cordially.
Flat Cap pulled a chair from the nearby kitchen and slid it into the centre of the room.
“Don’t worry. We won’t hurt you. We just want to talk.” intoned Flat Cap candidly.
Alex sat down, wondering where the hell Eveline could be. Thinking to himself, how he allowed this to happen.
Liverpool and Flat Cap watched with amusement, at Alex’s fury. Liverpool even placed a placating hand on Alex’s shoulder.
“It’s alright mate. Everything will be explained soon.”
A knock at the door stiffened both men.
Liverpool checked the peephole, whilst Flat Cap hid the pistol behind his leg.
Motioning the all-clear, Flat Cap relaxed and Liverpool opened the door to reveal a mountain of a man.
At an imposing 2 metres tall, with a muscular frame, and dark eyes, the Jackal looked like if a bodybuilder was smashed into a scholar, his face was avuncular and intelligent, with soft brown eyes and a wry smile playing across his lips.
Expensive glasses were perched atop a sharply bridged nose, and the Jackal dressed more like a university professor out on a forest stroll than a highly trained, and lethal mercenary.
A dark brown tweed coat bedecked the muscular body, with a striped blue/green soft wool scarf tied loosely around his neck. A handsome classic umbrella was held loosely in his huge tanned hand, and in the other, gripped a large briefcase.
The Jackal, when he spoke, had a soft deep voice, his tone and inflection curiously flat. He spoke English, but without any trace of an accent. Not Australian, not English like his henchmen, and certainly not American.
It was a truly neutral accent. A voice you would hear in a strange forgettable dream.
“Alex Ryder. Private Investigator. I’ve been following your hunt with great interest. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Alex said nothing, as the Jackal came in, and gently placed the briefcase on the kitchen table, and grabbed a chair to sit in front of Alex.
“I must say, when I came after the former Francois Dujardin, I didn’t expect that there would be so many players involved in this … quest for a Cezanne.” said the Jackal with slightly bemusement.
Alex’s emerald eyes narrowed at the use of the word “former.”
“Oh yes. He … won’t be joining us. He has lost his usefulness. A pity. I would have liked to have seen the little stash that he kept hidden away. But I find myself unable to crack the code.”
The Jackal reached behind him and grabbed the briefcase off the table, and popped it open to reveal a convincing fake of The View Auvers-sur-Oise.
Alex stared at it. So this was the tiny 46cm by 55cm painting that had everyone searching and upturning Melbourne for.
“I think both you and I are aware this is a fake. The late Mr Dujardin kept two copies of this lovely painting. He commissioned a fake one so that he could actually keep one in his house, however, he never did so. He kept both in his vault.”
“How do you know it’s a fake?” asked Alex, curious despite himself, drawn in by the landscape.
“It lacks Paul Cezanne’s signature here, in the bottom left corner. Plus the brushwork is a little bit sloppier than the real one. However, the artist did an overall good job. I am impressed. A lesser student might not have been able to tell the difference.” said the Jackal softly.
Placing the replica away gently, the Jackal handed the briefcase to Liverpool who took it away.
“You may be wondering, what this all has to do with you, Mr Ryder. Well, the thing is … Ms Eveline Winston has actually double-crossed you. She sent you here, and promised Francois Dujardin that she would wait for him in this very room as well.”
Alex swallowed hard and felt fury like he had never experienced before.
“We actually were very surprised that you turned up. We knew that Dujardin was meeting us at the Central Pier, but I am sure you can imagine our shock when Ms Winston wasn’t in this room, that we found this room empty.”
“We were vastly disappointed of course, that you turned up. But it does allow us to dot the i and cross the ts.” smiled the Jackal.
“I already have Ms Winston’s phone number. I’ve tracked it. It’s at the bottom of the Docklands pier. So I doubt we’ll see any more of her.” said the Jackal with cold amusement.
A trace of emotion crept into the Jackal’s voice.
“I’ve spent the better part of a year chasing this painting, Mr Ryder. It has always been my desire to secure a Master’s work for myself. I will only ask you this once.”
“Do you know where it is?”
Alex ran through all the clues and decided to tell the truth. Survival was paramount here, not his revenge or anger.
“No, I don’t.”
The Jackal’s copper brown eyes scanned analytically over Alex’s emeralds.
Nodding to himself, he stood up and motioned to Flat Cap.
Alex squeezed his eyes shut.
Soft chuckles erupted from Flat Cap and Liverpool, which prompted Alex to open his eyes again.
To his surprise, his laptop was in his lap.
The Jackal looked at Alex seriously.
“I believe you. I suppose my only way to the Cezanne is to find Eveline hmm?”
Alex nodded wordlessly, fear and shock still burning through his system.
“Thank you for your assistance Mr Ryder. I don’t need the access Mr Dujardin’s stash. However, if you would indulge me, how do you solve his encryption?”
Alex took a ragged breath and softly replied “Caesar’s cipher.”
The Jackal smiled coldly and looked up momentarily.
“Ah yes. Niagara Lane. Most clever.” he whispered.
With a cold nod, the Jackal left the room, and Liverpool and Flat Cap, smiling in his wake, gave mock salutes to Alex and disappeared with the mercenary.
Alex stared at the open door, before rousing himself and grabbing his laptop and wondering what the hell just happened.
Tucking his laptop under his peacoat, Alex was about to leave, when he realised that the Jackal had left the fake painting behind.
You’re not going to get paid anyway. To hell with it. thought Alex, and he grabbed the briefcase, opened it, and tucked his laptop under to stop it from getting wet from the rain and then left the accursed Docklands to head home, on a lonely tram ride, with another precious cargo on his lap.
~ A month later.
The Atrium on 35 was Alex’s favourite haunt. A drink there was an affront to his bank account, but he had recently solved another case, involving a cheating husband and his concerned wife, so the bank app showed that he was flush with funds for now.
It wasn’t going to last long at the rate he was burning through classic cocktails at the Atrium, but the spectre of Eveline, and the Cezanne still lingered in his mind, so he needed more.
Set inside one of Melbourne’s most exclusive hotels, the Sofitel, the Atrium on 35 was a luxuriously quiet and elegant bar, that mixed Arabesque elements into its interior design and boasted the best toilets with a view in the entire of Melbourne.
Going into a toilet, was like stepping into a room made of glass, and it offered spectacular views of the MCG, and Parliament, often stunning patrons who were about to relieve themselves, only to be distracted by the magnificent scenery.
The Atrium on 35 itself was decorated by gorgeous gold diaphanous silk that hung from invisible wires, creating waves above the seated occupants, and beautiful amber honey lighting from the enormous roof above, lending the entire proceedings with a rich, private vibe.
The bar itself was circular, and it served classic cocktails, like Mojitos or New York Sours to grateful hotel patrons or diners who had just left the No35 Restaurants. Alex was a well known patron, the manager often reserving a private space near the edge of the bar, so that he could enjoy his drinks alone and in silence.
Nursing a neat whiskey, Alex stared at the amber liquid, forlornly considering the case that nearly killed him and robbed him of his dignity.
His paranoia was also at an all-time high, his nightmares often involving Flat Cap and Liverpool following him, causing him to always check behind him and walk around the block twice, before meeting anyone now.
Worse, Eveline’s blue eyes still haunted him, the scent of her perfume, the soft warmth of her curvaecous body and the taste of her crimson lips tormenting him with their broken promises whenever he tried to sleep.
As Alex took another sip, and tried to chase the buzz, his phone vibrated next to him.
Hoping it was a new case, Alex opened the message and frowned.
It was his bank, telling him that a lump sum had just been deposited into his account.
Enough to cover 9 month worth of bills.
Enough to grant him opportunities to eat out more and afford better clothes.
Enough to live like a stable person.
His phone vibrated again. An unknown number. No identity.
Alex thumbed the text open, his heart beating quicker as he recognised the tone. He heard her soft voice in his mind as he read the text.
As promised, here is the money I signed off to you, plus a little bonus.
No doubt, you’re probably wondering whether I meant anything of the last text I sent to you.
Some of it rang true at the time. But you know how it is. I don’t think anyone else understood that about me. You did, just for a little bit. That was enough.
You won’t hear from me again.
But I am grateful.
Alex’s finger hovered over the delete trash-can icon … but he ultimately didn’t press it.
Instead he locked the phone, took another sip of his whiskey and thought about the fake Cezanne that hung over his office.
He knew whose signature deserved to be on that painting.
Feeling the demons subside a little bit, Alex could sense that closure was all he really needed, even if it came from a cold bitch like Eveline Winston.
Studying the amber liquid in his glass, Alex gave a rueful smile and raised his glass in an imaginary salute.
Bye bye, blackbird. Enjoy the view.
That concludes my first attempt at writing a proper short story in a long, long time.
I hope you’ve all enjoyed what has essentially been a live-crafting of a first draft for a story.
I know there are plenty of errors, from “past/present senses” switching, and probably numerous spelling mistakes, as I wrote this on a far less precise keyboard at work, whilst serving customers at my retail job.
However, I am overall pleased with how everything turned out. I wanted it to end on a bittersweet note, as is the common thread with most crime noir stories, especially the ones by the great Raymond Chandler, who, whether I realised it or not, had a huge influence on my writing style for this story.
I will write a reflection piece that dives deeper into the crafting of this story, but for now, this note is about this final part, which proved really difficult to write and tie up.
I actually had to think hard and write down notes for this chapter, something unheard of me, as usually I follow whatever hops into my mind. I rarely ever script things in advance, I tend to let things unravel.
So this chapter was a bit uncharacteristic of my writing style and approach.
I originally had Eveline tied up in the room, and somehow Alex would contrive to rescue her and himself from the Jackal, Flat Cap and Liverpool.
But that didn’t fit the narrative, the whole “explosive” ending that I felt cheapened and made it too Hollywood.
Instead, I dove deeper into Eveline’s character, what type of person she is. If she truly is the femme fatale I wanted her to be, it only made sense that she would double-cross Alex in the end with the bait.
Alex, still in love with what might have been between them, would go and be confronted by a cleverer villain in the Jackal.
After all, she only sleeps with Alex, because she wants to manipulate him and Francois into working for her. But there is a strange connection there, so hence she gives him the money in the end.
I will explain in deeper details about characters and how I originally planned it all out, in my reflection piece!
However, a big thank you for all who have been reading along so far. I hope it’s been entertaining and that this ending wasn’t too much of a bust for you.