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REVELATION


Come with me, I want to show you something.

Are you sure its safe? Madeline asked. Isnt it private property?

A rich old guy used to own it, but he died. Now some Swiss property developers want to turn it into a hotel, but the mayor wont allow them. Hes probably holding out for a bigger bribe, and until he gets it, the place stays empty. Give me your hand. He outstretched his arm and hauled her onto the granite wall beside him. Be careful of this plant, he warned, indicating the purple bougainvillea that had overgrown the garden of the chateau. It has pairs of sharp thorns. He placed his hands around her waist and lifted her into the long grass. The ground slopes down to the sea. Hold onto me.

The sun had just sunk behind the cliffs, and Ryan had passed out in his hotel room, exhausted after a day spent racing up and down the shingle beach with Johann. Madeline allowed Johanns hand to stay on her waist even after she had steadied herself.

The chateaus vermilion tiled roof had partially collapsed.

Olive trees and agaves had broken through the plaster on the ground-floor walls. The grand old house had been empty for many years. Between the pines and date palms she could glimpse an indigo triangle of ocean. Rotting tangerines littered the grassy slope. Their sharp citrus scent made her mouth water.

Over here, you have to see this. He pushed back the branches and allowed her to climb through. There, in a small clearing behind the chateau, was a white stone summerhouse, its roof decorated with stencilled fleurs-de-lis clipped from green tin. A band might have played there on warm summer evenings. He climbed up the steps of the rotunda and swayed from side to side, his head tilted. Listen, you can almost hear the accordion playing.

I dont hear anything. She laughed, joining him.

No, really, there is music all around us. There are ghosts in the trees. Look. He pointed upward and she smiled in surprise. Fireflies. They always gather here at dusk.

How do you know this place? she asked.

I came here as a child. I was forbidden to visit the chateau-the old man was still living here then. He was a wealthy member of the old Monaco family, a genuine Grimaldi, but- He tapped the side of his head. Crazy, you know? One day I found a crack in the wall and climbed through. My mother could not find me. It became my secret place. Everyone needs such a place, where they can be alone with their thoughts.

In London she was hardly ever alone, passing her days in the steam of tumble dryers and nights in the warm beery fug of the bar, rushing from the Laundromat to pick Ryan up from school or coming in at midnight to release her neighbour from guardian duty. She had never made enough time for herself. Now, though, perhaps there was a chance. She picked up his hand and held it in hers. They sat beside each other on the dusty bandstand floor, and he lightly touched the nape of her neck with tanned fingers. Great grey-blue clouds hung low, leaving a golden ribbon of light above the line of the sea. Their backs prickled with cold. He wanted to give her his jacket, but she refused.

Lets go back, Johann.

It is early yet. I think one day I will come to your hotel and you will have moved back to England.

Then lets not go to my hotel. Ryan will be fine for a while. Lets go to your place.

His hesitation made her wonder if shed been too forward, but she had not felt a mans touch for a long time, and she sensed a need in him matched by her own. Finally he seemed to reach an agreement with himself and rose, hauling her to her feet. They climbed back to the car, and headed away from the Basse Comiche into the hills. High in the Savaric cliffs the roads were covered with plumes of gravel, stones washed down from the rocks above. Gradually the route narrowed, until it was little more than the width of a car. He stopped before a tall steel gate, tucking the Mercedes beneath the overhanging pine boughs, and helped her out. The long-stemmed birds-of-paradise surrounding the house had lost their tough orange petals, but the plant borders had been meticulously maintained. No lights showed in the single-storey building of peach stucco that lay ahead.

There was something clandestine about his behaviour, and she was compelled to ask, Are we supposed to be here?

Its fine, really, its not a problem. The house belongs to an old friend who only stays between June and September. The rest of the year its empty. He let me have the keys. Come on.

He had trouble remembering where the lights were, and then only turned on one of the lamps in the lounge. The walls were covered with stag antlers. There were a pair of leather wing-backed armchairs and a bearskin rug on the floor that she suspected had been cut from creatures tracked by the owner. She smelled pine and polish and old leather. It was hard to imagine that a young man like Johann would know anyone who lived in this way; this was an old hunters house. He left the window shutters closed, and flicked on a gas fire filled with artificial logs.

While she warmed herself, he found cut-crystal glasses arranged on a walnut drinks cabinet and poured out two brandies. Soon I think the snows will come, he told her, even here.

And Ill have to go back home, she admitted. The first part of my support money came through today. I was expecting more, but its enough for me and Ryan to live on for a little while.

So you will stay?

No, it wouldnt last long if I did that. I have to go back to my flat in London. I dont have any wealthy friends like you. She looked around the shadowy lounge and drew her legs up, feeling the warmth of the fire on her skin.

When he kissed her, she tasted brandy on his tongue. It remained in her mouth as his lips moved down to her neck, his hands avoiding the swell of her breasts but slipping around her back in a tight grip, as if he was scared of ever letting her go, as if he might never be able to find her again. He removed his shirt without thought, shrugging it from his shoulders as though the material was burning his skin.

He lowered himself onto his knees before her, taking her to the floor, moving smoothly, almost gracefully above her.

His arms were tanned darker below the biceps, and she could discern a faint scent of sweat released by the warmth of his chest. He was so tender and careful that she wondered if he had somehow guessed her past suffering at the hands of men.

The intensity of her arousal surprised her, because it was caused by anothers desire. She had not expected or even wanted this, but now that her need had been unmasked, she gave way to it. It was absurdly picturesque, making love on the floor of a strangers house, lying on an animal skin before a fire, a scene made even more artificial by the fact that the flame effect was fake, but his anxiety to please her was real enough, and she relaxed, closing her eyes as he placed a hand at the base of her spine, raising her hips to slide down her jeans. Water dripped metronomically somewhere far above them. She heard the wind rising outside, and rain falling softly in the pines. Her senses felt heightened. A shudder of air passed between them, as if the spirits of earlier inhabitants were crossing the room.

He made love to her in silence, his smooth dry hands guiding, moving, pressing down firmly, as though every action had to be performed in a certain manner. The rain fell harder. The house creaked. The heat within her raised the pulse of her heart, shortening her breath. The steady rustle of leaves sounded like static. He held her gaze, never breaking the link he had established between them, holding her in place, the entire act controlled for her benefit.

Some time later, when he pulled away from her, she felt cool air returning to the room as a diagonal bar of light widened across the floor, and a shower tap was turned on. It was an old mans house, where everything was within easy reach.

She sat up slowly, gathering her thoughts, looking around for her clothes. He had folded them neatly on the edge of the sofa while she dozed. She rose and dressed, waiting for him to finish, but the sound of the shower continued. He had folded his own clothes, too, topping them with the satchel she had never seen away from his side.

She had no intention to pry, simply wanted to understand more about him because he had told her so little, and then the satchels flap was at her fingertips. Inside she saw nothing unusual at first: a wallet, small change, some loose scraps of paper with scrawled phone numbers, a small monochrome photograph of a stern old woman, a bundle tied with a rubber band and seated in an open envelope.

She took the bundle out and tipped it to the firelight.

Almost too frightened to look, she opened her fingers to see what she was holding. A French passport and a matching identity card bearing his photograph, two French credit cards, a chequebook, all in the same name, Johann Bellocq. She turned back to the passport and read Date of Birth: 1966, passport issued in Marseilles. Johann had been raised here in the Alpes-Maritimes, he had told her so himself.

She had faintly suspected from the outset that he might not operate within the boundaries of the law: his reluctance to reveal so little hard information about himself, the clandestine way in which he seemed to move around, the changing cars, the borrowed houses-nothing added up. Johann kept his passport in his jacket at all times. He had shown it to her. This had to be another one. In that case, whose identity was he carrying about with him?

A dropping sensation filled her stomach. Bellocq was not his real name at all. He was who? A liar, a thief. The credit cards were issued from two different banks. Suddenly his absence of character started to make sense. The betrayals had been small, a slip about his childhood, the corrected mention of a place, an interrupted recollection, the hasty dismissal of a memory, the constant guarding of his feelings-perhaps the only real part had been his desire for her. He saw something in her, some damage, some sense of kindred spirit

A familiar rising panic sent her to the stack of photographs lying beneath the passport in the bundle. She flicked through them with widening eyes and horrified realisation, until she became aware that the shower had stopped running. He would dry himself and come to find her.

She rose to her feet and desperately looked about for her purse, surprised to discover how shaky she felt. He would not be able to stop her leaving. Uncertain of what to do, she hesitated, listening as the shower door opened and shut. The upper half of the room was deeply shadowed. He had turned off the light, so that the false flames of the fire provided the only illumination. She would have to get out of the village. It was dangerous to stay a minute more.

For a second she thought she saw an outflung arm clad in brown wool, the palm turned up, fingers splayed, lying behind the sofa. Unable to look, she prayed it was just a log that had rolled from the fire. Whose house was this? Not Johanns, nor any friends. He had stolen the car and found house keys, had entered a strangers home and come back for her. For all she knew he had murdered someone in their bed, made love to her while the corpse lay upstairs

She had not meant to cry out, but she did, and he came running for her. He sat beside her, gripping her hand. He tried to calm her fears, then told her of his childhood, how he had come to kill his mother, how even the local gendarmes had turned a blind eye because they had known what the old woman was like and how he had been sent away to the nuns for five long years, until he could come to terms with the weight of his crime.

For the first time in his life he was completely honest, telling her everything, because he loved her and wanted her to forgive him. Because he wanted to be with her forever, no matter what she thought of his past, even though it meant telling her how he survived from day to day, moving from town to town, from life to life

Then he stared into her eyes.

She knew all about his past even before he told her; for a certain kind of man, the problems always began with a bad childhood. She listened to his story very carefully, because she was afraid of him. He was an amalgam of every damaged soul she had ever met. She knew that if she managed to get away, she would have to tell someone about him, and his history would become part of her story.

As she sat before the great stone fireplace in the Villa de lOuest, shivering with fear and cold, listening intently, she forced herself to imagine how terrible his childhood had been, and tried to forgive him for what he had become, but found she could not. Matricide, she thought, the ultimate crime against woman. The idea, coupled with the knowledge that she had made love to him, sickened and shamed her. She thought of the photographs, and bile rose in her throat.

He had taken her hand and was saying something about her being the only woman he could ever trust with his burden, and never wanting to let her go. She tried to wriggle her fingers free, panic shortening her breath, terror soaring in her heart. But even as she tried to escape, she suddenly saw that she might never be free of him.


EMBARKATION | White Corridor | LACUNA