I stopped by the reception desk and asked the clerk if I had any messages. She handed me a brown legal sized envelope. I took the envelope and the briefcase up to my room.
The envelope contained a telex confirmation of a deposit of ten thousand USD in an account at the Bank of Jura and a slip of paper with a six digit number on it, which when subtracted from my date of birth would give me the number lock combination for the briefcase. I laughed when I worked it out. It was 04-01-13 which would have translated to anyone who served in Africa in the French Foreign Legion in the ‘80’s as Black Horse 13. The unit Steve, Dave, and I served in.
The briefcase had an encrypted flash drive, and I had a corresponding code key flash drive. I set the encryption programme up on my laptop and typed in another code to allow a read only access to the files on the flash drive. The drive had several dummy files on it relating to benign engineering projects in West Africa, which would decode into the actual files relating to the project. Nobody who looked at it without the encryption keys would make anything sinister of it.
The first one was marked, ‘Project Valerie’. I opened the file and sat back on the bed and read it.
It was a proposal to Steve for creating a cartel of security interests under two separate brands, both owned by Black Horse Group. One company would vie for contracts with the standing government ministers and the other would seek contracts or provide personal security for the opposition leaders. Each company would share information with each other and, on occasion, kill lesser members of each other’s clients’ staff in order to increase demand, thus increasing prices for the contractors. It seemed economically simplistic and viable. We were starting a war and backing both sides.
If you took out the chaos factor of the project being led on either end by two total psychopaths who distrusted each other to a molecular level, and then removed the morality aspect of shooting West African politicians who were generally corrupt at almost a genetic level, it was a pretty good business plan.
The second file was codenamed KZ. I read it. It was a summary of incidents with Black Horse clients in Africa and Europe where KZ group had attempted to undermine Black Horse business relationships by either backing opposition attempts or doing the shooting themselves.
It was going to be a very interesting year. Russians. I should stock up on extra ammo.
I closed the files and reset the encryption keys before deleting the cache and history on my laptop, and I took the lift down to the hotel gym.
That afternoon I bought some newspapers, walked down to the Vieux Port and took a table on the terrace of La Samaritan overlooking the harbour. It was the best place to catch the afternoon autumn sun and avoid the cold breeze on the water. I waited until the adjacent tables were empty and I dialled her number. No answer. I left a message.
She called less than twenty minutes later. ‘Jefferson, you pig! Why did you call me? I told you to never speak to me again...’
‘Nicole, it’s very nice to hear your voice again. I am in town until tomorrow evening and I thought we should talk. Over dinner, perhaps.’
‘You incredible, arrogant asshole! You don’t mean ‘talk’, you mean ‘screw’ and you expect me to drop everything and run when you beckon?’
I shifted the phone to my other ear and looked at a rugby article in L’Equipe, the national sports newspaper. Rugby Toulouse were not expecting a good year and Guy Noyes was under continued pressure to get results.
‘Say seven o’clock at Bar de la Marine for drinks and then dinner at Chez Vincent? Do you have any surgery tomorrow?’ I offered, as I looked at a write up on the impact of English rugby players at Toulon.
‘No, I would never go with you to Chez Vincent. Take me somewhere nice...you are a pig...and I hate you. I am not on shift tomorrow and I am not doing surgery anymore. I lecture now. You never pay any attention to me unless I am naked...’ and she hung up.
I took the last sip of the espresso. It was the bitter, full, best part. I stood up, left a ten by the cup and nodded to the waiter as I manoeuvred past the other tables and on to the quay.
I pulled out my phone and confirmed the dinner reservation for two I had made earlier at Le Caribou, her favourite.
Bar de la Marine is a Marseilles institution. It was run by a former sergeant in the 8th RIPMa, an elite Marine Parachute Infantry regiment.
These days, Marcel spent most of his afternoons at a corner table drinking wine and telling lies with his old comrades while his three sons ran the place. Marcel’s unit and my own 13DBLE enjoyed a rivalry of epic proportions for which Marcel and I both carried scars from bar fights long ago.
The bar wasn’t crowded. A few people sat outside at the tables enjoying the early evening. I walked in and shook hands with Marcel and ignored his opening barrage of abuse which constitutes as a greeting in his world. I shook hands with his entourage and joked with them about a reunion of Napoleon’s Old Guard.
I ordered a draft beer at the bar and sat outside at a table near the low hedge border of the terrace. People upwind of me were smoking and the smoke blew across in my direction. I thought about shooting them but I had just cleaned my pistol.
Nicole arrived about 7:45. Her taxi pulled up just outside and she threw her long legs out of the door and emerged. She looked around the terrace and pointed me out to the taxi driver. He shrugged and came over. I reached over the low hedge terrace border and paid him off. Nicole slowly walked around to the sidewalk entrance.
She was wearing a dark blue dress and an absurd pair of heels. The dress seemed to have no back to it. She looked fantastic. Her hair had a dark lustre to it and seemed silky, almost liquid as she moved her head.
She stopped to speak to people she knew and I watched how they reacted to her. She was easily the most beautiful person there. But she seemed oblivious to the effect her looks had on people, and enjoyed the conversations. Her smile was natural and quick and the more she spoke, the more her eyes sparkled.
I noticed that my breathing had almost stopped. She still had the same lightning bolt effect as she always had on me when I saw her. I stood up as she arrived at the table and kissed her three times. I caught her scent which was a mix of her and her perfume. It was distracting and wonderful. She held my gaze and for a moment, we just stood there silently reacquainting ourselves with each other.
‘Hello pig,’ she said softly, as she pretended to smooth my jacket lapel. ‘Why do you ignore me so long?’
‘I’m not ignoring you now,’ I said.
‘No, you are not,’ she said.
After a long silent moment enjoying each other’s gaze, she sat down.
We had breakfast fourteen hours later on the terrace of her flat. It was more like a window box than a terrace. Two door-length windows opened out onto a small balcony in front of her table. It revealed an astonishing view of the Mediterranean Sea over a few terracotta tiled rooftops.
She was wearing my dress shirt and her hair fell over her face every few minutes. I loved the view from her place along the Anse de Malmousque.
The morning sun in late autumn was lower than in summer and created a sparkling jewel effect on the sea. The same sun was shining on Nicole and I could see the beginnings of lines on her face. She was no longer a young woman but more in her middle prime. The lines made her more attractive to me.
I watched her tear a corner off of her croissant and nibble at it. She licked a bit of orange marmalade off of the back of the spoon and smiled when she noticed me watching her. And I could, for a brief moment, see what she must have looked like as a young woman.
She abruptly stood up and cleared away the cups and plates. She returned with a straight razor, a towel and some shaving foam and sat on my lap straddling me. She draped the towel on my bare shoulder and began to lather my face, occasionally batting away my hands as I moved them around under the dress shirt she was wearing.
I watched her focus as she went to work with the razor. Short, practiced, movements complimented the expression of total concentration on her face. My concentration was increasing as well. She finished and surveyed my face dabbing here and there with her thumb or the towel.
When she was satisfied with the shave, I could actually see the change in her expression as her focus moved from the shave to me. The reason for the shave soon became evident.
While she showered, I checked my watch and looked out at the sea again. Her flat was the only place I ever felt right. My flight home departed in a few hours. The thought of it broke the spell and the moment was gone…
...Later that afternoon she picked me up from my hotel after insisting on driving me to the airport. The bell man put my bags in the boot of her Alfa and I got in the passenger side. She had hit third gear before I managed to fight the g-force and get my seatbelt on.
‘When will you be back from Africa? How long can it take to look at a hole in the ground? Your job, it sounds so boring,’ she said as we screamed around a bend, undertook a lorry carrying steel and shot past a BMW with Parisian plates.
I could barely hear her over the roar of the engines and the honking horns of cars and trucks she had just cut up. She was once again angry, as was her way when it came time for us to part ways. She would pick an argument with me at the airport and then send me shitty text messages once again ending our relationship and blaming me for it all.
Her life was single-minded passion, be it surgery, dancing, driving or sex, she did it as if it was going to be the last thing she ever did. This was not a comforting thought as she gear braked, changed three lanes, and charged off the exit ramp to the airport.
‘I am giving a lecture to some doctors from Medicine Sans Frontieres next week. Maybe I will go to Africa with them. Maybe I should go to these places and see what you find so fucking interesting,’ she hissed as the car jarred to a stop in front of the terminal.
She got out of the car and stomped impatiently towards the back of the car where I was unloading my bags. She put her arms around me and kissed me savagely. She caressed my cheek with her hand as some tears welled up in her eyes and she turned and walked back to the driver’s seat.
She turned around again, marched up to me, and slapped my face hard. Then she stomped back to the driver’s seat, started the car up, and said, ‘Fuck you, Jefferson. You are a total pig and I will never see you again,’ before blasting off again.
An astonished baggage porter who had witnessed the whole scene shrugged his shoulders at me.
I looked at him and said, ‘Oink’.