NOIR by Chris Green
It’s early evening and it is beginning to get dark. The street lights are just coming on. Apart from a middle-aged man in a black coat sitting near the door, Bianca is the only customer in Café Noir. She is uncomfortable because the man keeps staring at her. She feels there is something familiar about him, but she cannot put her finger on what it is. She has had this feeling on occasions before and it has turned out to be a bad omen.
Bianca doesn’t usually stop off on her way home from work. After a hard day at Trask and Wherry, she normally goes straight home, but she has had a late meeting, and anyway it is Ronnie’s poker night. There is no sense in getting home much before eleven on Ronnie’s poker night, so she has dropped in for a glass or two of Prosecco to unwind and perhaps a bite to eat, before she goes home. She had wondered if she might see Cathy at Café Noir, but she is not here. She has probably gone to see the film that is on at the Odeon. The one with Hugh Jackman, that she has been talking about. Still, she has the novel that Louise lent her to get on with while she enjoys a quiet drink. Black Veil, a tense thriller.
The half familiar stranger in the black coat keeps up his vigil. Bianca has a nagging suspicion that there might be some connection with her friend Trudi. Might Trudi know who he is? It would be good to have a chat with her anyway to put her mind at rest. She is about to make the call, but she finds that the battery on her Samsung is flat. She suspects it is probably to do with all the background apps that she has installed to check on what background apps are running. At least, this is what Derek at work told her last week when the same thing happened.
Didier, the bar manager has just slipped behind the counter to fetch her a menu when the man makes his way over. Standing, and silhouetted by the backlight, he looks even taller. He sweeps his hair back and Bianca notices he has a scar running up his left cheek. Other than this he has a symmetrical face, reminiscent of a matinee idol from the fifties, so much so that he almost appears to be in black and white. Without asking her if it is OK to do so, he takes a seat at her table. She waits for him to introduce himself, but instead, he starts talking about Ryu Sakomoto. He talks about Sakomoto’s regular themes of journeys into the unknown and the external nature of evil.
‘He feeds on modern-day paranoia,’ he says. ‘That concern we all have that something terrible is about to happen.’
Who is Ryu Sakamoto, she wonders? Is he a film director? Like David Lynch perhaps. A painter? More to the point, why is this man with the piercing eyes talking about him as if she might be interested? It is not exactly a sparkling chat up line.
‘Sakamoto gets up at 4am and writes for five or six hours,’ says the stranger. He is edging closer, invading her personal space.
Ah! So he’s a writer then, she thinks, this Sakamoto. Perhaps Ronnie has read something of his. Ronnie likes authors with foreign-sounding names. There’s that one who wrote The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Larsson is it? Sven? Steig? Steig Larsson. Not that he ever finishes a book. They just lie open face down on his bedside cabinet.
‘Sakamoto never plans a story,’ the man continues. ‘He lets it unfold by itself. He doesn’t know who did it until the end of the story.’
Who did what, she wonders. Why is he telling me this?
Ronnie Kemp is not used to losing at poker, but tonight he has lost hundreds. How often does a full house, aces over kings, get beaten? And losing hands to Tim Little. Tim is the most transparent poker player for miles around. If Tim were a better player, Ronnie might have suspected that he was cheating. After all, what are the odds of landing four queens in 5 Card Draw? It would be stretching the imagination though to see Tim as a bottom dealer or hand mucker. These tricks are strictly for professional card sharps.
But, what a fool he was to then try and bluff his way out of trouble in the next hand with a pair of jacks. This had cost him another ton. When things are not going your way, they have a tendency to go from bad to worse. Isn’t that known as Murphy’s Law or something? Whatever, it’s right, Ronnie reflects. This is exactly how Lady Luck seems to work. In the last few hands of the evening, the best he could manage was two pairs, fives on threes. How are you supposed to win with hands like that? He would have liked to have continued the session a little longer, but Bill, Phil and Tim understandably wanted to call it a day. They were all well up on the night, and all at his expense.
And where the blazes is Bianca? It’s nearly midnight. She should be home by now. She never said she would be late, but he has to admit they don’t communicate well first thing in the morning. They don’t sit down at the breakfast table or anything like that. Perhaps she did say something. Did he imagine it, or did she pack some bottom drawer lingerie before she left? For a clandestine liaison perhaps, or even an overnight stay? He can’t remember exactly, but she did seem to spend a long time getting ready before she went off to work.
Ronnie tries to phone her on his Experia, but he finds his battery is flat. All the resource hungry battery saving apps draining it probably. That’s what Sid Hacker, the techie at work had told him the last time this happened. Perhaps Bianca has been trying to call him. He has no means of calling her now as they no longer have a landline. He cancelled this a while ago because of the volume of nuisance calls they were getting. Accident claims, mis-sold PPI and solar panels, mostly. Oh, and payday loans. He could try a Facebook call but these don’t work well with a wi-fi dongle.
Bianca finds herself in a dark room, windowless and foetid. She has been asleep. A deep sleep. She can hear a drip, drip, drip of water. She is not sure if it is coming from inside the room or outside the room. She is unable to see a thing. There is no light at all. She can’t even make out where the door might be. The floor that she has been lying on feels cold. She has no idea where she might be and has no recollection of how she came to be here.
Last thing she remembers, she was in Café Noir, wasn’t she? Or was this an occasion some time ago? She thinks she may have heard jazz playing earlier, but it could have been a dream. The tall stranger with the piercing eyes and the facial scar. Was he part of the dream too? He was talking about some writer …… and then there was the drink. The drink that he bought her tasted odd. She can remember the taste. It was like ……. like almonds. This must have been last night. She can’t have been asleep any longer than that. Surely. Not in these uncomfortable conditions. She shivers. She is so cold. She has a raging thirst. She needs a drink. She needs the toilet. She needs to freshen up. She needs to know where she is. She needs light. Bianca had been led to understand that in a dark room, your eyes gradually become accustomed to the level of light, or lack of, and eventually you can begin to detect shapes. She finds that this is not the case. This is black. Like blindness is black. This must be underground.
As the gravity of her situation begins to dawn on her, she is terrified. Surely, to be abandoned in an unfamiliar dark room is everyone’s deepest secret fear. It’s suggestive of the grave. It is time for those unavoidable what ifs. What if she hadn’t accepted that drink? What if she had thought to charge her phone, or better still not installed those rogue apps? What if she had gone home instead of stopping off at Café Noir? What if she hadn’t taken the job at Trask and Wherry? Giving mortgage advice is, after all, a little dull. And there are quite a lot of late meetings if she is honest. Those deeper regrets start to creep in. Why hadn’t she had picked a more suitable partner than Ronnie? Someone a little more cultured. Someone with a little more understanding. Ronnie was always going to be a gambler. Why hadn’t she married Boyd Fleming? Boyd had worshipped her. Boyd would have taken proper care of her. Boyd has prospects. Or John Trilby. Someone honest. Someone dependable.
God! She might never get out of here. This might be it. Why hadn’t she taken that opportunity to go to Australia when she was younger? Her brother owns land out there. He is an entrepreneur. Ostrich farms or something along those lines. He could have set her up in business. Not in ostrich farming perhaps, but something more girly. He did offer to put up some money. ‘Anytime you want to come over,’ he had said. ‘You’d love it over here. All the wide open spaces.’ If only she had taken him up on it.
Ronnie is dazed. He has hardly slept. His phone rings. He makes a mental note to change the ringtone from Viva Las Vegas. He takes a look at the display. It is a number he doesn’t recognise, but he is sure it must be Bianca.
‘Hi babes,’ he says coolly, anxious to give the impression that he has not been worrying.
‘Aren’t you the cool one,’ says a vaguely familiar voice. ‘It’s Cathy. Is Bianca there? I’ve been trying to get hold of her, but her phone seems to be dead.’
‘No,’ says Ronnie. ‘She didn’t come home last night. I was wondering if she might be with you.’
‘No. She’s not with me,’ says Cathy. ‘I did say that I might see her at Café Noir last night but it was a loose arrangement. I went to the cinema instead. I expect she’s lost her phone again. She’s probably at Trudi’s.’
‘I’ll try Trudi in a bit then,’ says Ronnie.
‘How did the poker go?’ says Cathy. ‘Bianca said that it was your poker night.’
‘OK,’ he says. Professional card players, he has been told, never let on that they have made a loss. Something to do with positive thinking.
He manages to find Trudi’s number and gives her a call. It goes on to voice mail. He leaves a message, trying to sound casual.
A minute or two later, Trudi returns the call.
‘Hello,’ she says. ‘You called my number.’
‘Yes,’ says Ronnie. ‘It’s Ronnie. I was wondering if you had heard from Bianca. I’m having a little trouble locating her.’
‘No, Ronnie. I haven’t seen her,’ she says. ‘Look. I’d love to stay and chat, but I’m at the lights at the moment. And they are about to change. I’ll tell her that you’re trying to catch her if she phones me.’
Café Noir is not the sort of place that Ronnie normally frequents. He finds it a bit twee. He prefers the more earthy atmosphere of The Black Horse or The Fat Ox, but by lunchtime, there is still no word from Bianca, so he decides to call in to Café Noir on his way to BetterBet.
Didier asks him to describe his wife and following on from Ronnie’s description says that although he cannot be sure, he has the feeling that she was in last night and that she left with a tall man in a black coat.
‘Perhaps I shouldn’t say this,’ he adds. ‘But they did seem to be quite cosy tucked away there in the corner. I would keep an eye on her if I were you.’
While Physics doesn’t actually state that it is impossible for someone to walk through a solid wall, it discourages you strongly from believing that it can happen. Pauli’s exclusion principle and all that. But, this is exactly what appears to take place. One moment Bianca is alone in the darkened room and the next moment she finds she is not. The man in the black coat and the piercing eyes stands before her. Is that a lamp? There is a bright light coming from somewhere. With her eyes shielded against the sudden illumination, she takes in her surroundings. A quick scan of the room reveals four stone walls but there is no windows and no door. No, that’s not right. Is it a room at all? Nothing seems to stay in place. It’s like a digital television picture that is breaking up. Or words dancing on a printed page. The man moves slowly towards her. Is that a gun in his pocket or is he just ……..
A sound she recognises is trying to break through the silence. It takes Bianca a few moments to realise that it is coming from the table in front of her. It is her phone. It is displaying incoming call along with the battery critically low icon. She puts down the thriller she is reading and answers it. It is Cathy.
‘Hi Cathy,’ she says, ‘Am I glad to hear a ……… a familiar voice? Look! I’m in …… ‘
‘Are you all right?’ says Cathy. ‘You seem in a bit of a state.’
‘I’m in Café Noir,’ says Bianca, regaining her composure. ‘But there’s this creepy man in a dark coat with a scar down his cheek who keeps staring at me. I have been trying to hide myself behind a book, hoping that he will take the hint. But, he looks as if he’s going to come over. He is coming over. You know what. I think I will come to the cinema with you after all.’
‘You’d better hurry then. The film starts at 8:20.’
‘I’ll be ri …..… ‘
© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved