He had become an accessory to a murder. He didn’t drive the getaway car, didn’t arrange the setup, didn’t provide the weapon, and didn’t know the victim. He had unwittingly provided an alibi for the murderer. And all because of a chance encounter. Out of the blue. It was, he thought, a kismet of the most unusual kind. It happened on a bridge, the Pont Neuf in Paris, on a cold, foggy night.
The provider of this alibi is a cellist. He is a member of the Brooklyn String Quartet, a successful ensemble specializing in complex avant-garde music. The quartet was in Paris to play a series of concerts at IRCAM, the world-famous venue for new music performance and composition. He was staying at the pied a terre of a friend on rue de Birague near Place Vosges. The rest of the quartet was housed in a hotel near the Pompidou Center where IRCAM is located.
He was overjoyed to return to the quartet after a six-month hiatus. He had taken a bereavement leave from the quartet after the death of his wife. Since he had been on the road for most of her illness, working to pay her medical bills, the whole ordeal had left him exhausted and demoralized. It had been a grueling slog of false hopes, failed treatments and finally a mercifully short but painful death in a hospice. For the first time in three years, he enjoyed being a full-time musician unencumbered by familial obligation. The quartet, founded when the four musicians were graduate students, had been together for twenty-five years. All the usual anniversary concerts, recordings, and command performances were on their schedule. The critics raved when he returned to the quartet for a command performance at Carnegie Hall. He was back and in top form. Music was exciting again for him.
After the quartet’s penultimate Paris concert, he decided to wonder the late-night rues and boulevards. The cold and intermittent rain showers kept flâneurs, boulevardiers, and tourists indoors. As his mother’s Cornish great-grandfather would say: “A winter’s fawg will freeze a dawg.” It was a dog freezing night in Paris. He was dressed in a long black leather coat, a two-meter long wool scarf and lined leather gloves. He wore a black beret at a raffish angle on his gray-flecked black hair. The slight yellow tint of his glasses helped him see in the fog.
He didn’t remember his route to the Pont Neuf, but he remembered his time on the bridge and what happened afterward. He had crossed over the Seine on another bridge and walked along the Left Bank and then crossed back to the Right Bank on the Pont Neuf. He was alone on the bridge until he crossed Il de la Cite, walking toward the right bank. In the fog, he thought he could make out a lone figure leaning over the railing on the upriver side of the bridge. In the quiet of the night, he heard a splash and saw the figure stand upright. The figure appeared to be a woman. She turned in his direction and sat on a large suitcase.
Approaching her he saw a woman in her mid-thirties dressed expensively: Burberry trench coat, Hermes scarf, a cranberry-colored beret, matching gloves, high-heeled blood-red boots. Now standing opposite her, he saw that she was beautiful: short dark hair, large expressive eyes, strong cheekbones, full lips, solid chin. Looking in her eyes, he could not tell if she was furious or fearful. He smiled and said bon soir. Her expression relaxed.
—Excusez-moi, he said, mais je suis perdu (Excuse me, but I am lost).
The woman looked nervous.
—Will you assist me, please, he continued in tourist French. The apartment where I’m staying is near Place Vosges.
—Oui, Of course, yes. I know Place Vosges. If you carry my suitcase, I will show you. There is a little neighborhood bar on the way. You can buy me a drink.
—Merci beaucoup. Bien sûr.
—Do you know the name of the rue?
—Rue de Biragk near Saint-Antoine.
—Biragk? Do you mean Birague?
—A difficult word for English speakers. Come this way. I know these arrondissements well.
Her suitcase was large and heavy, perhaps forty pounds. At one time, the suitcase had wheels, but they were missing and the handle was broken. Fortunately, he was wearing thick leather gloves. Ultimately, he cradled the suitcase with both arms. He wondered why such a stylishly dressed woman would have such a battered old suitcase. But he kept his counsel and let her guide him.
As they began walking, she took his arm. He could feel her right breast on his left arm. It felt ample and firm through his leather coat. She snuggled against him as if she were cold, though in hindsight, he thought she was intentionally inciting his sexual interest.
They did not speak.
—May I ask what you do? she said when he stopped to rest putting the suitcase on the sidewalk.
The way she phrased the question in French confused him.
—Do you mean, what I do for a living or what am I doing now?
—What is your vocation?
—I am a cellist and a recent widower.
—Strange coincidence, I am a recent widow.
—I am so sorry.
—Don’t be. He was a terrible husband. He beat me and was unfaithful to me, both with men and women. I should be sorry for you.
—No, cancer is a death sentence.
—Love can be a death sentence, too, monsieur.
He gave her a surprised look. He wondered where that came from.
—How long have you been a widow, she continued.
—Ten months. When did your husband die?
—Very recently. But now we are only a short walk to the bar I mentioned. Is the suitcase too heavy?
—No, just awkward.
They entered the bar. There was a small lively crowd for a weekday night. Most of the patrons were nattily dressed and well served. They looked like stockbrokers, but may have been furniture salesmen. An acoustic guitar and flute duo provided live music. The music was barely audible above the drunken din of the room.
—This bar seems friendly, he said in French. What may I order for you?
—Your Anglicized French is difficult, monsieur. What did you ask, please?
—What would you like to drink?
—A double whiskey, please. No ice. What are you having?
—The same. When the French say whiskey, they mean Scotch, oui?
He ordered two doubles, no ice, of the house’s best Scotch.
—Not many women like Scotch.
—My late husband drank only Scotch. I learned to like it. He was a sadistic, vicious animal—a satyr.
Well, that was a conversation stopper. They sat without talking. She looked relieved to be sitting in a warm place, but she didn’t remove her coat. She sipped her drink judiciously. Time passed. He ordered a second round. Still, they did not speak.
—After two double whiskeys, do you still want to walk me to my apartment? he asked.
—A deal is a deal.
—Yes, but …
—I will sleep with you.
—There is only one bed in the apartment.
—There are only two of us. Is there a problem?
They left the bar and continued walking.
—Brrr, she said, gripping his arm tighter.
—In America, we call this post drink cold, the bar chill factor. Drink in a warm bar and then go out into the cold night.
She had no idea what he was talking about. They arrived at his building. He put the suitcase on the sidewalk.
—Excuse me, but I must check the code for the door.
He pulled a piece of paper from his wallet and entered the code for the pedestrian door in the big gate. Inside the gate was a handsome square surrounded by four separate buildings. A fountain burbled in the center of the square. Once inside the gate, he entered the code for the entryway to the building where he was staying. In a darkened window, the concierge’s large cat watched them. The man waved at the cat. The cat did not blink.
The tiny elevator operated in the middle of the circular staircase. The elevator was so small they were pressed against each other. He could feel the heat of her body escaping her coat. Her pheromones excited him. When the elevator arrived at his floor, he unlocked the apartment door, reached in and turned on the light. He held the door open and she entered the apartment. They walked into a small dining area. A tiny kitchen and bathroom with toilet and shower filled one end of the room. The dining area had a cheap table with three chairs. A closet full of clothes occupied one wall. The larger room in the apartment was the bedroom, which housed a double bed, a small desk with a computer, a book case, a vibraphone and his cello in its case. He returned to the first floor to retrieve her red suitcase. He tapped on the door before entering. The woman had removed her coat and boots. She was combing her hair before the mirror on the closet door. She wore a tailored crimson wool suit and a cream-colored blouse with French cuffs. He saw that she was a stunner with a full figure. Heroic in the German or Scandinavian mold of a well-proportioned woman. In her stocking feet, she was nearly as tall as his six feet.
He was tired after teaching two master classes and performing a long taxing concert. This strange woman didn’t seem friendly, yet, she was offering to sleep with him. It was awkward. As desirable as she was, he wasn’t sure of her motives.
—Do you intend to stay the night?
—But, of course. Why do you think I am here?
—So how do we do this? We haven’t even kissed. Barely talked.
—We undress and get into bed.
—But my head is so confused.
—Forget your head. Do you have a toothbrush?
—I have a new toothbrush still in the box.
—The only sink is in the kitchen. There is toothpaste on the counter.
This strange woman had a heavy suitcase, but no toothbrush? Unusual, but nothing so far about their encounter was usual.
—I would like to shower, she said. Is there a clean towel?
—Yes. Take this blue one. I will go to bed.
—No, when I finish showering, you must shower. I insist.
—Okay, but there is no door or curtain for the bathroom. For your privacy, I will use the computer in the bedroom.
When she came into the bedroom after her shower, she was wrapped in the blue towel. She used the towel to cover her full breasts, but she was naked from the navel down. He liked what he saw. What he saw was that her dark pubic hair was trimmed very short. A life-like bulbous black spider tattoo guarded her mons.
—Are you sure you want me to shower?
—Yes, I want you clean and fresh.
He showered, but the vision of her body gave him a stout erection. He toweled off and strode rampant into the bedroom.
—Turn off the lights, she said.
—I’ll leave this reading light on. I want to enjoy your figure.
He enjoyed the visual feast. She was a voluptuary. He gorged himself on her body. He left nothing untasted or probed. She moaned, growled, gasped, whimpered. She devoured all he could serve her. He was master of her, and she knew just how and where to satisfy all his desires. They fell asleep sated, her head nestled on his shoulder.
In the morning, she brought coffee, a sliced apple and goat cheese to the bed. Her nude body glowed in the early oblique sunlight. She sat cross-legged opposite him, her spider nestled in the valley between her lush thighs. He was becoming aroused.
—What is your name?
—Call me Ishmael.
—You’re joking. That’s from an American novel. If you are Ishmael, then I must be Queequeg.
—Ten points for you. What is your real name?
—Call me Claudia.
She pronounced her name Cloud-ia, not Clawed-ia.
—Claudia, he said, copying her pronunciation. A beautiful name.
—It means lame.
—Check it out, as you Americans say.
—You know we did everything but kiss on the lips. May I kiss your lips?
—No. If you kiss my mouth, you will love me. I don’t want you to love me.
—But after last night,
—Silly, man. I used you.
—I murdered my husband. You are now my alibi.
All his desire for a morning romp evaporated with her words: I murdered my husband.
—You must be joking, he laughed.
—No. It is not a joke. I murdered my husband.
—So, are you going to kill me?
—Will we be lovers?
—Maybe. Life can have strange turns of fate.
—I must dress and go to a rehearsal and a master class.
She pouted and combed her hair with her fingers. Her raised arms showed off her breasts to good effect. She could tell from his expression that she aroused him.
—Do you know how I disposed of my husband’s body?
—No, tell me. I’m all ears.
—I held a grand dinner party for thirty of his girlfriends and lovers. He was a sex addict. He would boast: “Eight to eighty, two legs or four, I fuck them all.” All those former lovers consumed his flesh in soups, antipasti, pasta, roasts, stews, aspics, and meat pies. A grand homo sapien buffet. I cooked his minced testicles in an aspic. I stuffed his penis with his chopped liver, onion, garlic and spices, then sliced it into rounds and served it on crackers for hors d’oeuvres. A dining room of sexual cannibals ate everything. Like black widow spiders, they ate their mate. They became him. You are after all, what you eat. A piece of my husband lives in the bodies of thirty of his favorites.
He stared at her in disbelief.
—That’s mythical. I think you’re lying. Your story is preposterous. I can’t believe you had a husband, or even that you murdered him. It’s a good story, Claudia, but I don’t buy it.
—Last night I shot the man who butchered my husband’s body and prepared the feast. My husband had accidently emasculated him in a bondage game. He wanted revenge worse than I did. You saw me drop the gun in the Seine. I can’t believe I didn’t see you walk onto the bridge.
—Where did you murder your accomplice?
—I shot him before you came on the bridge. The fish are eating him now. Before you helped me, he carried my suitcase.
This woman is a cold-blooded murderess and a sexual cannibal, thought the man. Or she tells a good though improbable story. He rose to dress for work. She walked to him and put his hands on her bare breasts. She fondled him. It worked. The morning sex was as good as last night’s.
—Will you be here when I return tonight? I want to hear more of your fabulous story.
—I will call about dinner arrangements. If you leave, make sure the door is locked. Here is my mobile telephone number. Call me. I want to see you tonight.
He gathered his cello. She gave him three air kisses pressing her breasts into his body and then hugged him flicking her tongue in his ear.
At five that afternoon, he telephoned the apartment to invite her to dinner. She didn’t answer, even when he yelled, “Claudia, pick-up!” into the answering machine.
After a post-concert party, he returned to the apartment on Rue de Birague. Claudia was not there. She had tidied the apartment and washed the dishes. The only vestige of her having been in the apartment was the faint whiff of her perfume and her suitcase under the dining table.
She left a note: Ishmael, Dinner in Manhattoes in two weeks. Queequeg
He undressed and went to bed. The sheets were heavy with the musk of their ruts. His dreams were erotic. He reminded himself that in the morning, he would have to pay the concierge to launder the bedding and towels. Tomorrow, the quartet departed on the TGV to Amsterdam from Gare du Nord. There was an afternoon rehearsal with the composer of a new quartet. Tide, time and trains wait for no man.
He woke from a sound sleep after two hours. He had to find out what was in Claudia’s suitcase. It closed by zippers whose tabs inserted into a tiny combination lock. He knew people were lazy about spinning the dials on these types of locks, so he wrote down the four numbers that were displayed. He remembered that Claudia was left-handed so she probably would move the left-most dial one digit higher or lower. He moved the dial from 2 to 3. The lock opened.
He unzipped the suitcase hoping to find some identifying documents or papers. Instead, he gasped and stepped back. Inside was a skeleton. All the bloody bones, except the head, were packed in one vacuum-sealed plastic bag. Some of the long bones were sawn in half to fit in the plastic bag. The ribcage was separated at the sternum and the ribs broken and torn from the spine. The head was tightly wrapped in a separate plastic vacuum bag. The head retained the skin, eyes, and hair. The flesh had a greenish cast underneath the tight plastic wrap. The bulging eyes were visible in the eye-slits of a masquerade mask. A brass-studded choke collar circled the severed neck. The mouth was open in what looked like an arrested scream, or the last failed gasp for air of a suffocating man. He could see where the roof of the mouth had been punctured to suck out the brain. There was no odor or hint of decay. It was a fresh corpse. Cuffs, chains, whips, prods, and collars were packed around the bags of bones. He felt nauseous, he had not breathed since opening the suitcase.
He slammed the suitcase shut, ran to the bathroom and retched. When he had recovered, and cleaned his face, he found a bottle of brandy in the kitchen. He took two long pulls and sat on a chair staring at the suitcase. He fully expected to hear a voice.
If these were her husband’s bones, did Claudia kill him as she claimed? Did she murder him while he was bound in some sex game? Could he believe that she served his body to her husband’s mistresses and lovers? What an ironic revenge. He tried to imagine Claudia making an aspic of her husband’s testicles. He wondered what the guests thought they were eating. How long had she planned the murder? Was he the next victim? She probably still carried his seed in her body from this morning’s tryst. Would Claudia one day mince his testicles for an aspic? He found it hard to believe that this sophisticated woman was not only capable of mariticide, but also of staging a Grand Guignol cannibalistic dinner party. Sick as the whole affair was, it showed imagination, humor, even dash.
He felt betrayed and dirty. This morning he didn’t shower because he wanted to keep Claudia’s scents on his body as a reminder of the pleasures they had given each other. Now he wanted to wash off her dried secretions and scent. The woman was a murderess and a psychopath. But then how perverted and deviant was the man whose bones were in the suitcase? Maybe Claudia and her husband were both deviants? Did she kill her husband as just desserts for years of torture and abuse? Nothing in their love-making indicated a desire for pain or torture. She was a compliant lover, willingly engaging in all forms of sexual pleasure. The more he thought about it, the more confused he became. As horrible as her crime was, he still desired her. The memory of her uninhibited sexuality clouded his thoughts. Just how closely were murder and sex related? He collapsed on the bed confused by desire and horror. He fell asleep and dreamt of a choking death at the height of orgasm. The nightmare and his ejaculation woke him gasping for air. His heart pounded in his chest. He panicked.
It suddenly dawned on him that he had a worse problem than a one night stand with a murderess. Now he had to dispose of the red suitcase and its grisly cargo. He couldn’t leave it here. He couldn’t take it with him. He was trapped. Whatever possessed him to talk to Claudia on the Pont Neuf?
He took a shower, made coffee, and watched the clock move closer and closer to his departure time. There had to be a way of anonymously disposing of this macabre package without leaving any clues the police could use to trace the red suitcase back to him or Claudia. He had to do it before Paris awoke. Whether the police would discover the identity of the man was another question. But that was Claudia’s problem, not his.
He paced the apartment. His eyes fell on his friend’s battery powered metronome.
—Eureka! he said aloud. He would put a ticking metronome in the suitcase and abandon it in the nearest metro station. The police will impound it and blow it up thinking it was a time bomb. But what if someone sees me carrying the suitcase? Or I’m captured on a surveillance camera?
He searched the apartment. On a shelf, high above the bed, was a large black trunk. When his friend traveled with his vibraphone, this trunk carried the resonator tubes. It would be an awkward chore dragging the wheeled trunk four or five blocks to a Metro station. He best reconnoiter the neighborhood.
When he stepped out of the building and turned down rue de Biraque toward rue Saint-Antoine, he saw the solution. There on the corner was a public toilet. He would put Claudia’s suitcase in his friend’s trunk. Drag it to the corner, enter the toilet, remove Claudia’s suitcase, leave the toilet with the now empty trunk. The self-cleaning toilet room would blast-wash the suitcase erasing any fingerprints. He returned to the apartment and put the plan into action. He put on his leather gloves, wiped the metronome of fingerprints. He put the metronome on 60 ticks per minute, loaded it in the suitcase, relocked Claudia’s suitcase, and packed it in the black trunk. He put the trunk in the elevator, sent it to the ground floor. He walked down the stairs and met the trunk. He saw no one on his trip to or from the public toilet. Well, I guess I am Ishmael now, he thought. I’ve slept with a Queequeg and her satchel of bones.
When the man Claudia called Ishmael returned to the apartment, he stowed the black trunk and packed his carry-on suitcase. He could not fit in the elevator with his cello case, so he took the stairs down to the entrance. He was not prepared for what he found.
Half the building’s residents were gathered by the open outer door of the building. Gendarmes were everywhere. He found Madame Concierge and handed over the key to his friend’s apartment and gave her twenty euros to wash the towels and bedding. He watched a robot remove the red suitcase from the toilet and place it in a bomb-proof box on an armored truck. As soon as the truck left the scene, the gendarmes let people onto the street. He found his taxi. The driver raced to Gare du Nord. He boarded the Amsterdam TVG minutes before it pulled out of the station.
Passing by a television in the lobby of his Amsterdam hotel, he stopped and watched a CNN video clip of the Paris bomb squad robot removing Claudia’s suitcase from the pay toilet and then, later, blowing it up in a field outside of the city. The newscaster said that Paris police, after the destruction of the suitcase, reported there was a body in the suitcase. Police suspected the corpse was probably the victim of a gang feud.
The man called Ishmael, smiled and walked into the hotel bar. He ordered a double Scotch from the bartender whose name was Rachel.
—To Queequeg, he said to himself. He downed his drink in one gulp and quit the bar. In two weeks, he would dine with Claudia.