My Paris ‘adventure’ started off happily enough. I reached the Eurostar terminal at Waterloo around 5.30 in the afternoon and found the whole place buzzing. From the excited looks on people’s faces, the snatches of conversation, the laughter, it was clear everyone was looking forward to spending the weekend in Paris as much as I was. But it was only after the train got underway that the butterflies in my stomach really got to work. I could barely sit still. If only Boom were here!
The journey did, however, have one slightly disconcerting episode. At some point I became aware that a man sitting a few seats further down the carriage was taking a rather unnatural interest in me. It was difficult to say exactly what the nature of that interest was; on the few occasions I looked in his direction I did not manage to catch his eye, yet I could not shake the feeling that he was watching me. Still, I would have thought no more of the matter if, on reaching the Gare du Nord, we had gone our separate ways. At first that seemed to be the case, but when I went down into the metro on the way to my hotel I saw him again. He was in the ticket hall making a call on his mobile and seemed completely unaware of my presence. But something—call it a sixth sense if you like—told me otherwise.
The Hotel Raphaël was a small, narrow affair on a small, narrow side street just off the main boulevard. Quirky but clean, it was more akin to a small town pension than a hotel. Not that I cared, for I did not intend spending much time within its walls anyway. I checked in and went up to my room on the first floor. After a quick shower and change of clothes I was on my way back down the stairs. I did not even bother to unpack properly, so keen was I to be out on the streets of Paris. I had long since made my plans for my first evening and took a metro straight to Montmartre.
I knew Montmartre was a clichéd tourist trap but that did not colour the way I viewed it. The first time I ever came to this great city (and indeed it has to be great to make you overlook the haughtiness and rudeness of many of its inhabitants) I fell in love with Montmartre, and only a fool would betray a first love. If you are able to see past all the over-commercialisation and the swarms of tourists, you can still get a sense of the magic it once held for all those artists and bohemians, especially if you take the trouble to explore its quieter corners.
I eventually made my way to the area at the foot of Sacré Coeur where people gather to enjoy the beautiful views over night time Paris. It was just as I remembered. There were street vendors selling thin plastic tubes filled with a luminous green liquid that you could knot and wear as a bracelet or necklace. I joined the throng and bought one. As I was tying mine on a girl handing out fliers came up. She said something in French I did not catch and when she saw I was an English speaker said:
‘Come to District Six. It’s cool!’
I looked at the flier she offered me. It was wildly eye-catching, emblazoned with an Eye of Horus radiating wavy lines that merged into swirling psychedelic text promoting what I assumed to be a night club. If the girl handing out the fliers was anything to go by (beautiful, stunningly cool and friendly– was that even possible?) the District Six was definitely the place to be.
‘Do you go there yourself?’ I asked.
She burst out laughing. ‘Of course! And tonight!’
‘Right! I might see you later.’
She gave me a charming smile before moving on.
I hung around Montmartre a little longer, then made my way down to the bottom of the butte and took a metro to my next port of call, Beaubourg. This is such a lively, uplifting area, day or night, and that evening it was alive with people taking advantage of the beautifully mild weather. I wandered around, window shopping, people watching and just drinking it all in. I was so happy to see that Paris still had the most wonderful buskers in the world. I smiled as I recalled one particular time, many years ago, when a ten-minute metro journey took nearly an hour, so captivated was I by the music I heard along the way. On my way to the Pompidou Centre I came across three musicians playing what they explained was Breton folk music. They all had strange stringed instruments and together created a sound that would have brought the gods down from Mount Olympus. I was hooked and lingered for a good while, but my joy was tinged with sadness, for I knew that once I moved on I would never hear that music again.
As everyone knows, the Pompidou Centre defies description, but it certainly gives a unique backdrop to the vast cobbled space that lies before it. It is a wonderful place for people to gather, sit around, chat, play music and just be a part of it all. For once I felt almost as if I was part of it all too. I went around listening to the soap box orators ranting on about just about every topic imaginable. Some of them actually made sense, but the ones who made no sense at all were the most entertaining.
I had expected the District Six to be in the sixth arrondissement, but for reasons I never fathomed, found it in a charming, tree-lined street somewhere in the eleventh. It seemed quite low-key for a club. There were a couple of people hanging around outside but no queue as such, though once I got closer to the entrance and heard the wondrous sounds emanating from within I could not get in fast enough. The club proper was in the cellar of the building and consisted of a number of smallish rooms with arched and vaulted brick ceilings. In lighting and decor it reminded me of the Golden Crown nightclub in the film The Prize, but with a more Swinging London feel to it, as most of the people in there looked as if they had just stepped out of a Mary Quant photo shoot from 1965. Sadly I was one of the few that did not.
As for the music, all I can say is that it was everything I had dreamed it would be. There was a live band playing on a small stage at one end of the dance floor. I cannot remember the name (I think it was something ending in –ettes) but I will never forget them or their groovy psychedelic light show! In fact they were more like two groups, one being a standards garage four piece, the other, the three girls who all sang lead: a trio of mischievous minxes that would have given Cindy and the Virgins a real run for their money. I got myself a drink and went to watch what turned out to be their last number of the evening. I still smile to myself whenever I recall those three having a whale of a time teasing the audience with the chorus: “Please stop! It’s much too much!”
After that the DJ played a wonderful mix of garage, sixties pop, freak-beat and psychedelia. I recognised very few of the songs but fell in love with each and every one of them. The District Six was pretty wild, but also whacky and even friendly in a way I was not used to. I felt I could actually approach people, say ‘Hi’ and have a chat without anyone thinking anything untoward. So that is what I did. I ended up talking to a couple students, Gilles and Jean-Pierre, who were doing design at one of the Paris universities. We got along really well and had a lot of things in common, but the longer I spent in their company the more lonely I felt. Being with them made me acutely aware that I was no longer a student, that I would never again enjoy that carefree, timeless existence whose magic cannot be appreciated until it has been lost.
By about three o’clock things were quietening down and we decided to call it a night. In the street outside the boys showed me where to hunt for a taxi, shook my hand warmly and bade me farewell. They then hopped on their bicycles (the favoured mode of transport amongst the District Six’s clientele, it seemed) and rode off into the night.
The next day I woke fairly late to a bright, sunny morning. As soon as I was ready I headed outside (breakfast time at the Hotel Raphaël offered an unreasonably narrow window of opportunity) and I soon found a charming little café nearby and treated myself to croissants pur beurre, still hot from the baker’s round the corner, and lashings of café crème. I had a lot to fit in that day yet I lingered because this little café, with its comings and goings, its clientele of locals who all knew each other, its gentle gossip about Mrs So-and-So who had just moved house and was now regretting it, was just as enchanting and just as meaningful to me as the Paris of my romantic imagination.
I finally got up, promising myself I would breakfast there again on the morrow. When I went to pay the owner was brusque rather than friendly—this was Paris after all—but then again he did not take delight in being openly hostile, much to his everlasting credit.
My first port of call was Ménilmontant, an area I had never been to before but one that had fascinated me for as long as I could remember. I really wanted to explore its cobbled streets, winding steps and passages to see if I could recognise anything from The Red Balloon, a film that had fired my imagination as a child. Not much of fifties Ménilmontant seemed to be left, but it was charming all the same, and my wanderings eventually brought me to another of my favourite Parisian phenomena, one of those small, leafy spaces each district seems to keep tucked away, a kind of a cross between a square and a park. Of course on a fine Saturday like this the place was crowded: people playing boules, parents out with young children, groups of old men hunched over some arcane card game and, in an impossibly cramped corner, a cacophony of boys playing football, performing feats of skill Pelé himself could only have dreamed of. All this was wonderful, but the true magic of this place lay in the way that in spite of everything that was going on you could still find a quiet corner, sit down and enter your own little world, while all the noise and bustle around you melted into a colourful yet soothing background.
I spent a while watching the old men playing cards, amused by the way they were getting more and more het up as the game went on. After satisfying myself that no-one in the world but they would ever get to the bottom of the rules, I decided it was time for lunch. I left the little park and soon found a bistro with an enticing set menu. I needed to fortify myself if I was going to do the rive gauche justice.
I like to cross to the rive gauche from the north side on foot, sometimes taking in the quiet, subtle Ile Saint-Louis on the way. On this occasion I went straight over and contented myself with perusing the stalls of the bouquinistes lining the riverbank. I bought a battered but venerable edition of Chateaubriand’s René, wondering if what was left of my French would ever allow me to read it. Still, I found the vaguely romantic gesture uplifting. I headed towards the Sorbonne, looking, as I always did for my ideal of a French student café, where earnest undergraduates in baggy (but cool) pullovers would be discussing art, politics and existentialist philosophy whilst Brel played in the background. As usual I did not find it, but I did find something just as poignant.
After about an hour I had already wandered a fair distance from the Quartier Latin. I found myself walking down a narrow street which had little to distinguish it until it suddenly widened out as the buildings on one side gave way to a high wall set further back from the road. About half way along the wall was a large open gateway revealing a courtyard and an official looking building I guessed was some sort of college or university faculty. This assumption was reinforced partly by the paved area in front of the wall which boasted three or four benches and a well-occupied bike rack, but mainly by the myriad of posters that were plastered to the wall on both sides of the gateway. Most were of the political call-to-arms variety or adverts for gigs and other events. There were also plenty of the smaller hand-made sheets you get in such places announcing items for sale or offering rooms to let in shared accommodation. These all had a fringe of telephone numbers cut into the bottom so you could tear one off leaving the rest of the sheet intact.
There was not much of that wall that was not bursting with words and images. The few patches not covered in posters were filled with spray-painted slogans which for some reason I found particularly magical. Of course we had had our share of political graffiti at Exeter, and though no right-minded person could object to the sentiments expressed by such truisms as Conservatism: the politics of greed, somehow it was not the same. There was an exuberance about
Vive l’Anarchie, a joyous abandon and at the same time a touching naivety that resonated deep within me. I was even more spell-bound by the personal messages written by hand in pen and chalk. Some of these were incomprehensible, either partly illegible or simply beyond my level of French, which only served to intensify their air of mystery. It felt as if each of these musings, each Nous nous sommes rencontrés et notre amour est né and Naima– pardonne-moi! was a fleeting, poignant glimpse into someone else’s life, someone else’s soul. Echoes from another world we cannot know.
I was snapped out of these reveries by the sound of activity coming from the direction of the college and looked up to see people spilling out. There is something about a group of students emerging from their final class of the day that is unmistakable. Many headed straight off as soon as they got through the gates, but quite a few lingered, chatting, laughing and simply enjoying the moment. Some of the girls smoked in the way that only French girls smoke. It was uplifting to be amongst people who were so happy and carefree, but I also felt, just as I had the night before, an intense pang of loneliness. I longed to be one of them, to experience once more what they were feeling at that moment, but I knew that would always be beyond my reach. Eventually they began to leave, in pairs and small groups, and as I watched the last few walk off into the bright afternoon sunshine I would have given anything to have been able to go with them.
On the way home I grabbed a sandwich and got back to the hotel in plenty of time to prepare for my meeting.
The Café Saint-Félix turned out to be a run-down sort of a place. At eight o’ clock it was pretty deserted, apart from a couple of locals who looked like off-duty bus drivers. I sat down and ordered a beer. I had been there about ten minutes when a man came in, went straight to the bar and said something in subdued tones to the barman, who nodded in my direction. Clearly this was the Professor, though I have to say he was very different to what I had been expecting. Instead of some doddering academic I was faced with a great big bear of a man with a deeply lined face that had a distinctly sinister slant. It reminded me of the face of Lon Chaney, Junior, and recalling that face makes me shudder to this day. I had already been worried about how the Professor was going to react to someone other than Boom turning up, and now that I saw what I was dealing with, I started worrying a whole lot more.
The Professor came straight over and addressed me in a strong French accent:
‘You are you Monsieur—’
‘Boom?’ I interrupted nervously. ‘No, er… no I’m not. Boom couldn’t come. Er, did you get the e-mail he sent you, Professor Haywood?’
‘No, no,’ he answered with what was either a smile or a grimace. Either way it was far from pretty. ‘I am not Professor ’Aywood. I am Claude.’
‘Claude? But, but where’s the Professor?’
The beast sat down opposite and stared at me. After a long, uncomfortable pause he broke the silence. Between his poor English and my poor French I managed to work out that the Professor had phoned this man Claude, an old friend who lived nearby, and asked him to come and let me know he been delayed on his way up to Paris. The Professor hoped to be arriving shortly, though there was a chance he might be delayed till the morning. He had suggested that I go back to Claude’s and wait till he phoned again. That way, if he was not able to make it that evening I could speak to him directly and we could arrange something for Sunday.
This all seemed reasonable enough, yet once again my sixth sense told me something was wrong. Of course if the Professor’s messenger had been a pretty young parisienne instead of an escapee from some forties horror movie, I would not have batted an eyelid. But it was not just Claude’s less than prepossessing demeanour that bothered me. There was something else, something that told me that leaving the café with this man was a very bad idea. And yet that is precisely what I did.
Claude’s apartment was in a fairly modern block that was about ten storeys high. He lived on the eighth floor. We went into the apartment and suddenly the deep unease I had felt the moment I first clapped eyes on him went right off the scale. I had hoped against hope that there would be a friendly and welcoming ‘Madame Claude’ waiting to greet me, but I could tell straightaway that he lived alone. I was shown into the living room and sat down.
‘You would like coffee?’ he asked.
I tried to smile but doubt I did a very good job. ‘Er, no thanks.’
He put the television on and went out, presumably to make a coffee for himself. The tasteless, depressing decor, which had clearly not been changed in years, made me feel even worse. But what was most disturbing was that the whole room was crammed full of grotesque examples of African tribal art. From what little I knew of the subject I could tell these were rare and very expensive artefacts. And they were not merely decorative pieces, either. No, these masks, daggers and other objects were obviously ju-jus, used in magic rituals and for God knows what else. But what would such a grisly collection be doing here? When the answer came I realised I was in mortal danger.
I jumped up but before I could make it to the door Claude came into the room.
‘Er, sorry Claude I have to be off now…’ I stammered, trying to sound as calm as possible. ‘I’ll erm, call the Professor tomorrow...’
‘No!’ he thundered, physically barring my way. ‘You wait! The Professor will phone soon!’
God knows how things would have played out had not the telephone, which was somewhere in the corridor, started ringing. Claude went to answer it and I could hear him speaking in urgent, hushed tones. Now was my one and only chance. The sitting room had a door to the balcony which I was relieved to find unlocked. I opened it as noiselessly as possible and stepped outside. If I was going to save myself I had to act fast. I was hoping that Claude’s balcony was connected to his next door neighbour’s, but alas it was not. The only means of escape was via the balcony of the flat above, but how could I get up there? There was nothing else for it- I would have to climb onto the balustrade and make a grab for the bottom of the one above. It was a highly dangerous manoeuvre, with little but my own sense of balance to stop me hurtling to my death. But that was nothing compared to what awaited me if I stayed in that hellish flat.
I got carefully onto the balustrade, using one of its corners so I would have a better balance, and reached up to the base of the balcony above. The railings were metal and gave me plenty to hold on to, which was something of a life-saver, because just as I was about to haul myself up Claude threw the balcony door open and with a blood-curdling howl came rushing at me. Gripping the rail extra tightly with both hands I swung myself and kicked the onrushing monster clean in the chest, sending him sprawling backwards. I managed to pull myself up without much difficulty- the amount of adrenaline pumping through me at that moment gave me a strength and a focus I had never known before, but just as I was scrambling over the rail to safety an elderly woman in a dressing gown and curlers came out onto the balcony. She took one look at me, screamed blue murder and ran back into the flat. I went after her, hoping to explain I was not the acrobatic serial killer she thought I was, but the poor woman had already fled the apartment and was banging on the door of the flat opposite, screaming to be let in. She screamed even louder when she saw me emerge through her front door, but all I could think of was getting the hell out of there before Claude appeared. I made for the staircase that was located at the side of the lifts and ran down the steps so fast I bounced off the walls at the bottom of each flight.
Once I got out of the apartment block I carried on running until I was exhausted. I found a quiet alleyway and nipped into it to give myself time to recover. I was doubled over in pain but slowly that eased and I got my breath back. When I came back out into the street it took me a while to get my bearings but I eventually found my way back to the hotel. I staggered up to my room and collapsed onto the bed. I was in a severe state of shock and started shaking uncontrollably as my mind raced over what I had just been through. And then, amidst all the anguish and confusion, a single terrifying thought came shining through: it was the Professor who had recommended this hotel. They knew where to find me!
I threw all my belongings into my rucksack and rushed downstairs. I had reached the corridor leading to the lobby when I heard voices. I stopped, just in time. From where I was I could see the reception desk and two men speaking to the receptionist. They had their backs to me but I immediately recognised the great hulking figure of Claude. No doubt his companion was dear old Professor Haywood. These people clearly did not like to waste time. I moved slowly back into the corridor. As usual the door to the hotel kitchen was open and seeing it was deserted, I went straight in looking for another way out. At the far end of the kitchen was a doorway I could see led to the laundry room. I crossed over to it and was overjoyed to find an external door beyond the washing machines and tumble dryers. It was locked and bolted, but the key was in the door and within a matter of seconds I was outside. ‘Outside’ turned out to be an impossibly cramped courtyard, which for one horrible moment I thought was completely enclosed. But then I spotted it- a narrow passageway by the bins. After a few twists and turns I found myself on a busy thoroughfare I recognised as being round the corner from the hotel entrance. I headed in the opposite direction, just about managing to resist the urge to run.
After a good twenty minutes I felt I had put a fair distance between myself and my pursuers and found a reassuringly crowded cafe. I sat down and ordered a large cognac. I gulped it down in one and immediately ordered another. At first I felt better but then I started to shake uncontrollably again, as I recalled the fate I had so narrowly avoided. I had been incredibly lucky. It was seeing Claude’s collection of ju-jus that had saved me, because they had brought to mind a shocking murder trial I had once read about. The case involved a group of Italian satanists who had carried out a series of ritualistic killings incorporating elements of African black magic known as muti.
When I compared what I had just been through with the modus operandi of the Italian satanists it was clear Claude and Professor Haywood were involved in something similar. The Italians would start by trawling the internet for potential victims, typically someone young, single and if possible a loner or misfit. They favoured shared interest websites and chat rooms. A likely target would be befriended by one of the group masquerading as a kindred spirit (usually of the opposite sex) and carefully cultivated over time. When the group were satisfied they had gained the target’s full trust, the ‘friend’ would invite the target to come and visit them for a long weekend. I noted grimly that the Italians always chose people from neighbouring countries– their last victim had been Austrian.
The fake friend would recommend a modest hotel in a big city—and the group were careful never to use the same city twice—and arrange to meet the target somewhere nearby, a café or bar for example. This first meeting was a key part of the group’s strategy, a kind of ‘firebreak’ used to make sure nothing was amiss. If the intended victim turned up with someone else or the ‘friend’ was suspicious the police might be involved, then the operation was called off with no risk to the group, since no crime had been committed at this stage. At least nothing provable.
If all was well the two people would spend a pleasant evening getting to know each other. The following day the ‘friend’ would get in touch again, saying they had both been invited to spend a couple of days at the family home in the country. The unsuspecting victim would check out of the hotel and be driven to some isolated location. Once in the clutches of the satanists they would be overpowered, bound, gagged and dragged off to a dark cellar. Then they would be strapped to a bed and subjected to the most horrific torture imaginable, because the rituals of muti magic require the use of body parts removed from a human sacrifice. And for the magic to be truly powerful, the parts have to be taken whilst the donor is alive and fully conscious. After enduring day after day of terrible suffering, the victim would eventually die through blood loss and shock, and their body would be chopped up, incinerated and carefully disposed of.
Cases like this were very difficult to unravel– indeed the Italians were only caught after one of their number alerted the authorities. For one thing the nature and lifestyle of the victims meant it was usually a good while before anyone realised they were actually missing. Even then, there was little reason for anyone to suspect foul play. And by the time the authorities did become involved, the trail would have gone cold. The bogus friend’s equally bogus e-mail account would have been closed down long before and even if the missing person was traced to the hotel in Italy, there would little to indicate what had become of them after that.
As a third cognac started to have its desired effect I considered how my turning up instead of Boom had thrown a fair-sized spanner in the works. The Professor and his chums had slipped up badly, closing down their e-mail account too soon, which meant they had not received Boom’s final message informing them of our change of plans. No wonder Claude had looked so shocked when he found out who I was! And yet the more I thought about it, the more it occurred to me that things simply did not add up. Surely our meeting in the café would have been the point when Claude saw that something had gone wrong and decided to not to proceed any further? Even if he thought I was telling the truth and this was no kind of police set-up, he still would not have liked the idea of Boom being back over in England, knowing where I was and probably expecting a progress report in the near future. No, he should have called the whole thing off there and then. And he certainly would not have invited me back to his own flat!
Clearly I was missing something important, but what? I cast my mind back over every detail of Boom’s dealings with Professor Haywood. Eventually I got back to the time he first told me about the Professor’s e-mail. Now that was something I was not going to forget in a hurry! It was the day he was furious with me for looking at his research on the Order of the Crimson Chalice... And then it hit me. Of course! I was not dealing with a set of crazed ritual killers at all. It was the O.C.C. who were behind all of this! With this realisation everything fell into place with an almost mesmerising clarity. It was now clear why Boom’s contact from within the Order had suddenly gone quiet: his activities had been discovered and he had been silenced. It was straight afterwards that the O.C.C. had got in touch (in the guise of ‘Professor Haywood’) and invited Boom over to Paris. No doubt they intended to find out how much he knew and whether he had divulged his secret to anyone else. Once they had the information they were after—I shuddered when I thought of the means they would use to get it—he too would have been silenced. My turning up instead would not have thrown them one little bit; they would have simply subjected me to the treatment they already had lined up for Boom. By some miracle I had managed to escape but that still left Boom, completely unaware of the danger he was in. International borders were no obstacle to people like this. And they did not leave loose ends. I needed to warn Boom fast.
I went outside and tried ringing him on his mobile but it was switched off. In desperation I tried his home number. After a couple of rings a female voice said:
‘Is Boom there? I need to speak to him, it’s urgent!’
‘I’m sorry, what do you want?’ Was that a slight foreign accent I could detect?
‘Boom! Boom!’ I cried, beside myself with anxiety and frustration. ‘Who is this?’
I heard her place her hand over the receiver and some muffled dialogue in the background. It was quite a while before she got back to me.
‘You want to speak to Mark?’
‘Mark?’ I shuddered. No-one who knew Boom ever called him Mark.
‘Hold the line please.’
I did not hold the line, I rang off. Because I now knew Boom was dead.