Summer writing circle assignment #5 – How I met Mr Wonderful

(This one needs a bit of explanation. The brief was as follows:

The following must/must not be in your text:

  1. At the start, your hero/heroine must already be in a tricky situation.
  2. He/she escapes from this, only to end up in an even worse situation (and perhaps yet another).
  3. There must be at least two changes of location in your text. You can move the action from Eslöv to Mexico City to Stockholm or from Narvic to the moon to a garage in southern France. Or from Möllevången to Värnhem to Rörsjöstaden in Malmö. From one room to another in the same house. DON’T describe how your hero/heroine has got there. It’s only important that there are changes of location.
  4. You may NOT use the following words: think, know, understand, realise, believe, want, remember, expect and other verbs that describe thoughts. Nor may you use the words “love”, “hate” or related words. (This means that instead of DESCRIBING your hero’s thought processes you must SHOW them with actions.)
  5. There should be an open ending and a title that makes the reader curious.

And all of this in two pages? Er… Well, mine overran a bit and even then I cut loads of stuff. But my God it was fun to write!)


How I met Mr Wonderful

As it starts to rain over a midnight Paris I’m hanging head down from the decorative twiddly bits on the roof of a hôtel particulier that’s seen better days.

This isn’t as bad as it sounds. Two minutes ago I was hanging by my fingertips from the guttering of a hôtel particulier etc. etc.

Fortunately all those hours doing CrossFit have really paid off, so I manage to extricate myself from that situation with only the loss of the red Jimmy Choos that caused my precipitous descent of the roof in the first place.

Now I’m merely caught on these bloody twiddly bits by the strap of my handbag. I could be in a much less dangerous position if I’d simply slip the strap off my shoulder and abandon it. But it’s an Alexander McQueen – limited edition, if you please – so if I let it slither out into the darkness over the murky waters of the Canal St Martin I might as well just chuck myself after it. Also, the rather trashy trinket I’ve just risked life and limb – not to mention virtue – to obtain almost certainly wouldn’t survive the fall.

No, I’m just going to have to… ladder my tights on the sharp little hooks clipping the roof tiles in place, dammit, before sliding myself slowly back over the roof ridge, every muscle straining to cling on, and then having another go.

Better. Now I’m sitting upright, gingerly straddling the extremely uncomfortable twiddly bits on the roof of a hôtel particulier

As the rain pours down on my ruined hair and almost certainly ruined Vivienne Westwood dress, I look out over the Paris skyline and wonder whether there might not be an easier way to earn a living.

***

At least this time the client – Mme Monnier – is suitably grateful when I return her property the following afternoon. In fact, for a few minutes I think I’m going to expire from being smothered in ermine and 24 Faubourg as she enfolds me in a surprisingly strong embrace, gushing about me being formidable and having saved the honneur de sa famille and so on. The honour of her family in this case being a rather risqué China shepherdess that Napoleon is reputed to have given to Josephine, and which Mme M unwisely showed to her latest toy boy, who promptly absconded with it. “Le petit con”, Mme M exclaims. And I express sympathy it’s easy to fabricate given the size of the fee she’s just paid me for recovering it.

I’m about to take my leave, perusing my mental wishlist for Galeries Lafayette, when she hands me a business card.

“A friend of mine. A very good friend”, she says with a lascivious wink. “An Italian Count. He needs the help of someone discreet, you know?”

I do indeed.

And that’s why, three nights later, I find myself jumping off the Orient Express as it thunders through the French countryside en route for Venice.

Some weeks would be better if they just didn’t happen.

***

It all starts so promisingly too. I ring the number on the card and speak to a male secretary. He’s a bit put out that I won’t give him my name, but when I explain about Mme M he suddenly sounds more cheerful.

“Ah yes, the discreet young lady”, he says. “The Count would like you to accompany him to Venice. Tonight. Leaving in three hours. On the Orient Express. At his expense, naturally.”

I try to sound like this is the kind of trip I take all the time.

“Er… OK… But I’m going to need a little more information before I…”

He interrupts me smoothly. “I’m afraid the Count has not taken me into his confidence on this matter, so I really cannot tell you any more. However, he desired me to inform you that he will pay the sum of €20,000 to accompany him to Venice and listen to his…”, here he coughs politely, “…problem, regardless of whether or not you ultimately accept the assignment.”

Twenty grand for a night’s work? Either this is something well dodgy or… Or nothing. This is something well dodgy. Fortunately dodgy is my middle name. Except it’s Catherine, but you get the idea.

I arrive at the Gare de l’Est with five minutes to spare before the train departs, dressed in my finest but still looking like a pauper compared to all of the other passengers, of whom there seem to be many. Quite how the Count has found a berth for me at this late stage I don’t know.

A uniformed flunky intercepts me and my overnight bag and leads me onto the train and along a wood panelled corridor to my cabin. Here he points out the note from the Count which has been left on the table, together with an exquisite arrangement of pink orchids and a bottle of champagne sweating in an ice bucket. The note asks me to meet the Count in his cabin for supper in an hour’s time.

I decide that while I’m waiting a nice glass of bubbly is exactly what I need. Only one, though; I want to keep sharp for whatever this “problem” is.

So I watch the lights of Paris gradually thin then disappear outside the window and I sip my Krug, and finally I make my way to the Count’s cabin.

And it’s when the door opens I realise that I’m in deep, deep trouble.

Trouble in this case is maybe a little older than me and slightly over six feet tall, with greeny-blue eyes and hair that’s somewhere between caramel and blond, and white teeth and a smile and… Oh no. Not now. Not again.

And it’s made worse by the fact that he’s staring at me like he’s never seen a woman before. He stumbles over his own feet as he backs out of my way, and his voice takes a second to settle down as he invites me in. The door closes and we’re alone in the cabin. His presence overwhelms me, even though he’s standing several feet away. I can’t breathe. I’m too hot. My hands and feet feel enormous and I can tell my mouth is open but it won’t obey me when I try to close it.

“Andrew… er… Thurston”, he stammers, holding out his hand. And even though I know what’s going to happen, even though I’ve done this before too many times and always regretted it in the end… I take it. The electric shock turns into a singing in my ears and a numbness in my arms. We stand there, hand in hand, for hours – perhaps days – before he finally releases me and steps back. He turns away from me and fusses with some papers on a table. “I’m afraid the Count has been slightly delayed”, he says, and his voice is still uneven. Still with his back to me, he carries on speaking. “Please take a seat, Miss…?”

I almost fall into a chair, my knees buckling, admiring the muscles in the back of his neck above his suit collar, and for once I’m relieved that the Bloody Name Thing will give me a few minutes’ thinking time.

This is how the BNT goes:

Other person: “Miss…?”

Me: (resigned) “Lavish. Miss Lavish. Stella Lavish.”

Other person: (incredulous) “Stella Lavish?”

Here I watch out for the momentary dip of the eyes to my chest, which most definitely doesn’t live up to my name.

Me: (brusque) “Yes. People are called Lavish, you know.”

Other person: “I’m sorry, it’s just that it’s a bit…”

Me: “A bit too James Bond. Yes.”

I’ve been playing my part in this scene since I was about 15. So it’s a sign of exactly how disturbed I am by Mr Wonderful that I don’t initially spot how we’ve gone off script. Because he’s spun round to face me and he’s not doing incredulous, he sounds – not to put too fine a point on it – utterly bloody terrified.

“Stella Lavish?” He repeats it a couple of times, and I notice that his accent is suddenly a great deal less upper class. “You’re Stella Lavish?” I nod, and he looks at his watch, then starts patting his pockets urgently. “Shit”, he says, and now he’s definitely more Ivybridge than Oxbridge. “Oh fucking shit and hell. We’re dead. We’re both so fucking dead.” He opens a drawer in the desk, yanks out a small attaché case and then grabs me by the wrist, pulling me to my feet. “We’ve got to get out of here. Right now.”

“What? Why? What are you talking about?” I’m pulling away from him, but he’s stronger than I am, and he’s dragging me across to the door. He stops before he opens it, bends his head down to mine and hisses, “Did you do any due diligence on this guy at all? Do you have any idea who he really is?”

I stare at him. He sighs, and the way he flares his nostrils makes me quiver and consider reaching up and kissing him. But his next words change all that. “He’s Anders de Jong.”

Shit, shit, shit. Well I don’t know what his part in all this is, but he’s right about one thing. I’m definitely dead.

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