Monday, 10 April 2017

6. The Oldest Trick In The Book by Jo Cameron-Symes

I was tired of Algiers. The heat was getting to me so I decided to visit the hotel bar. The lobby was incredibly busy. People were gathered around posters advertising a road race from Algiers to Cape Town. Interesting, I thought. I approached the bar and a jovial American turned to me and shook my hand. “Charlie Markman.” “MacRae” “Hello fella, here for the race?” “No, actually, but I may be interested.” “Well if you need a car then I’m the right man to speak to.” “I may partake actually.” “Partake! I like it! Fancy!” Getting slightly irritated at this point I shook the man’s hand again and wrote down the details of the next day’s test run.

The race track was incredibly raucous. Full of dust, petrol fumes and the incredibly loud din of engines. Amongst the spectators to my surprise I saw a familiar woman. “Megan? What are you doing here?” She appraised me coolly and drawled “Oh, hello. So, you like cars too, do you?” What was she doing here? “Where is James?” I asked. “Out there, on the track.” She remarked nonchalantly. “He’s a car enthusiast, you know, always has been.” “But why are you here?!” I asked. “I could ask the same of you!” she says sharply. “You’re supposed to be working!” Feeling scolded I replied, “Well, I’m interested in racing too. I was thinking of competing in the race.” “Well, good luck” she scoffed, “It’s a tricky course, think you’ll be able to manage it?” She sighed, lit a cigarette and shook her head at me as if she was extremely disappointed. She walked very close and leant towards me. “Just remember why you were hired. We are counting on you to deliver.” She blew her cigarette into my face and with that she was gone in a puff of smoke.

I was rattled by this encounter and decided to find James at once to find out what was going on. I rushed down the stairs towards the test track. In my haste, I collided with someone. “I’m so sorry,” I said, turning to discover a distraught, exquisitely beautiful, young woman. Dark, short hair, gamine features and huge brown eyes; ‘Audrey Hepburn’ I thought. “Are you ok?” I said and in a French accent she simply said “No” then suddenly dissolved into tears. She stumbled and placed her hand on my forearm. I was taken aback, but all thoughts of embarrassment dissolved as I vowed to help her. We sat down at a nearby table and I handed her my handkerchief. “Merci,” she said. “I mean, thank you” she smiled glassily. She sighed heavily. “I apologise for my behaviour, I’ve recently had quite a shock.” She looked up at me with her eyes pleading. “Can I help you at all? Do you need help in getting back to your hotel?” She bit her bottom lip as if in thought. “I am staying in my friend’s apartment. In a small village by the sea, just past Oran, along the coast road. I always need to be near to the sea. But Monsieur, do not worry. It will be a long way from your hotel, I’m sure. I’ll make it back somehow” and she stood. Why not kill two birds with one stone, I thought. “No, of course I can take you back. I can arrange to borrow one of these cars. I was here to test drive one anyway.” She looked up at me and for the first time her smile beamed brightly. 

We took Charlie’s powerful red Triumph TR3. Charlie was happy to give me the keys, especially when he saw that I was in the company of a beautiful woman. Driving along the coast road I asked for her name. “Valerie. And yours?” “MacRae” I said. “How formal!” she laughed. “I’m so sorry about earlier, I worked myself up into a terrible state, I’m sorry.” “No, don’t apologise.” “It was being there, at the racetrack. I shouldn’t have gone, my poor husband always loved motor racing.” She hugged herself tightly as if for reassurance. I admit, I momentarily forgot all about the mission, realised that I had completely forgot to find James, but no matter I thought. For today, this was my mission, to see this lady safe.

Valerie directed me off the main road to her apartment. It was a simple but beautiful affair, with huge windows and an attractive balcony. “Can I offer you a drink?” she said. “A glass of wine perhaps?” “Yes, thank you” I said “Perhaps a glass of water too, if it’s not too much trouble?” “Eau et vin! Comme si tu es le Christ!” she laughed sarcastically. “I suppose” I said surprised by her tone and change into French. Dehydrated from the heat, I gulped down the water too fast. I apologised and began to sip the wine which had an acrid tang. “What is this?” I said. “It’s rather strong!” Gesturing to the room she replied “It’s my friend’s wine from his family’s vineyard.” “His?” I said puzzled.  I had assumed that the apartment belonged to a female friend. “So which part of France are you from?” I asked “Oh, I’m not from France. I’m French-Canadian.” This surprised me too. Something about her seemed so Parisian. Her elegance maybe? I wasn’t sure. In fact, I was less sure of anything. Flushed with heat and dizziness, I tried to loosen my shirt collar. The room started to blur in and out of focus before my eyes. “I’m feeling quite unwell.” I said, trying to stand up. Then everything fell into darkness…

When I came to my head was in agony. The light was much softer and I was in an unfamiliar room. Then I remembered. Valerie! I searched the room but it was completely bare, no clothes, nothing in it at all. My car keys were also missing from my jacket pocket. I immediately grabbed my shoe and removed the small compartment where the documents were hidden. They too were gone, replaced with a note that said, “Search the bureau.” Cursing, I tore the drawers apart. Stuck to the underside of the top drawer, I found this message…

Caravelle? What could that mean?

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