General Fiction posted August 9, 2018 Chapters: 1 2 -3- 4... 


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Chapter 3: The narrator becomes better acquainted with Helen

A chapter in the book The French Letter

At Parc Monceau

by tfawcus




Background
Chapter 1: The author finds a curious envelope in the Paris stamp market.
Chapter 2: He sees two women talking, then witnesses a tragic accident. His suspicions are raised.
I have always found walking conducive to thinking, and there is no doubt I had much to think about. I couldn't help feeling there was something strange about Helen's reaction, or lack of reaction, to the accident.

True, she had fainted from shock, but afterwards she appeared to show no concern over her friend's tragic fate. On the contrary, she was clearly intent upon getting away from the scene as quickly as possible, almost as if she was an accomplice in a crime. I recalled the other woman's thin smile and formal embrace. Perhaps they had not been friends after all.

In dragging me away with her, had she been deliberately trying to involve me? Was the forgotten bag just a ploy to make sure the police associated me with the scene? Why the terse note, adding a sense of mystery and suspense? A meeting? And two days later? Wouldn't a brief note of thanks and a return address have been more usual?

There seemed to be something of the art of the fly fisherman here - and perhaps I was the poor trout. I had certainly been hooked by her beauty. I confess that I was intrigued, and I could not brush off my increased heart rate as being due only to the warm day and the gentle incline. A cold tingle near the base of my spine gave away my anticipation, and an excitement I knew I should not be feeling.

I arrived early at Monceau, a little warm and flustered, and needing to compose myself. There was a café near the entrance to the park. Although it was still twenty-five minutes before noon, I ordered a snifter of cognac. French courage, I thought with a wry smile. While it was being poured, I slipped into the washroom, splashed a little cold water on my face and neck, and combed my hair. Satisfied with what I saw in the mirror, I took a seat in the corner, under the shadow of a glory vine.

Not many minutes later, I saw her arrive. There was a sensual sway to her step, a delicacy of movement and an understated elegance in the cut of her casual ivory blouse and red culottes. Only a blue beret was lacking to complete the patriotic colour scheme. She stopped at the entrance and glanced up and down the street before going in through the heavy wrought iron gates.

I gave her a few minutes start before I drained my brandy and followed.

Guy de Maupassant's bust is imposing, and set high on a pedestal, as befits a famous writer. A young woman in a flowing dress is draped around its base, lounging negligently on a settee as if in a dream. His muse perhaps - or an adoring reader? Certainly not "Butterball", the common prostitute and heroine of his most famous short story!

A voice behind me said, "I wonder which one has captured your attention, monsieur. Is it, perhaps, the lovely lady at his feet?”

I turned and saw the look of amusement in her eye. Being at a loss for a smart answer, I held out the brown paper parcel.

"Here, mademoiselle, your handbag."

"There's no need to take offence," she said with a disarming smile. "I'm really very grateful, you know. Please, come and join me at the café across the road. Perhaps you will allow me to buy you some lunch?"

I felt foolish, sensing that I had been caught on the wrong foot.

"That's kind," I said, "...but only if you will allow me to buy the wine."

"Perfect. Shall we go?"

As the waiter brought menus, she said, "I suppose you know a good deal about me, having been in possession of my handbag for forty-eight hours?"

I bridled and was about to protest, then I realised she was teasing me again.

"Mademoiselle! A gentleman would never take such an advantage," I said with a smile.

"Of course not!"

I knew she didn't believe me.

"Perhaps we could dispense with the 'mademoiselle'? We both know I'm not French. Call me Helen - unless you consider that too informal."

"Of course not, Miss Culverson, and you may call me Charles if you like." It was my turn to adopt a mocking tone.

After briefly consulting the menu, we both asked for a prawn salad. I ordered a moderately good Chablis to accompany it.

"What made you choose Parc Monceau for our meeting?"

"Oh, that's easy. I'm a freelance travel writer, and I'm putting together an article on the parks of Paris."

"Really? How interesting. And who is it for?"

"Horse and Hounds," she replied.

"Horse and Hou..?" I burst out laughing. "Oh, I see!"

Her reference to the famous scene between Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts in "Notting Hill" was not lost on me. It seemed she wasn't going to be drawn to give out more information about herself than she had to. I changed tack.

"What a strange coincidence. I, too, am a travel writer of sorts."

"I know. Who has not heard of the famous Charles Brandon?"

I confess I was surprised, but I did not protest. In fact, I was secretly flattered, as she had obviously intended.

"...and what are you researching at the moment?"

"The markets of Paris. There are some fascinating ones here. Only this morning I was at the Champs Elysée Stamp Market."

"I didn't know it still existed."

"It almost doesn't. There were only four stalls today. I can remember when there would have been ten times that number."

"That must have been a very long time ago!"

"It was," I answered shortly.

"Oh, dear! I didn't mean that," she said, smoothing my ruffled ego. "Did you find anything interesting to write about?"

I felt I needed to justify the high opinion she professed, and a simple 'No' seemed a lame response for a distinguished travel writer.

"Only this," I said. I took my notebook from my jacket pocket and showed her the envelope.

She studied it carefully, then turned to me and said, "Wow! How romantic is that? This has all the makings of a fascinating story. Perhaps we should investigate further."

We? I began to regret I had been foolish enough to share the find. I had a feeling that a strand had just been spun to draw me into a web. Yet, I realised I was still no closer to answering any of the questions disturbing my mind so I said, "Yes, perhaps we should."

"How about a trip down to Versailles tomorrow?" she said with a twinkle in her eye. "I could pick you up from your hotel if you like."

"You could, but I'm not staying at a hotel. I've taken lodgings in Montmartre for the month."

"Oh - whereabouts?"

"On Rue Gabrielle - quite close to the Louise Michel gardens."

"Oh yes, I know where you mean - that's where the funicular railway goes up to Sacré Coeur, isn't it? Another place to add to my list of public parks. Maybe I can mix work with pleasure."

Rather too enthusiastically, I responded, "All right then. How about breakfast at the Rendez-Vous des Amis? They open at ten o'clock."

"What an appropriate name - 'the meeting place of friends'! We shall be friends, shan't we?"

I smiled uncertainly, feeling an almost imperceptible tightening of the stomach.


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Image: The Statue of Guy de Maupassant in Parc Monceau
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