NOIR by Chris Green
It’s early evening. It is getting dark and the street lights are coming on. Apart from a solemn, middle-aged man dressed in black sitting near the door, Stacey is the only customer in Café Noir. She is uncomfortable because the man keeps staring at her. She cannot put her finger on what it is about him, but when she has had this feeling before, it has been a bad omen.
Stacey doesn’t often stop off on her way home from work. After a hard day at Trask and Wherry, she normally goes straight home. But she 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 G and T or two and a bite to eat. She had wondered if Annika might be at Café Noir, but she is not. She has probably gone to see that new film at CinePlex she was talking about.
Stacey has Taken, a psychological thriller Lucy lent her to make a start on while she enjoys a quiet drink. But she cannot concentrate. The stranger keeps up his vigil. She is not sure why, but she has a nagging suspicion her friend Trudi might know who he is, or at least how she can best handle it. Trudi used to be in the police. It would be good to have a chat with her, anyway. She is about to call but discovers the battery in her Samsung is low. She suspects it is 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. Best, she thinks, to leave the call for another time.
When Didier, the bar manager, slips out the back to check on something, the stranger makes his way over. Standing and silhouetted by the backlight, he looks even taller. He sweeps his hair back and Stacey 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. Is that a gun in his pocket or is he just ……..
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 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? More to the point, why is this man with piercing eyes talking about him as if she might be interested? It is not exactly a sparkling chat-up line.
‘Sakamoto gets up at 4 am and writes for five or six hours,’ the stranger says. He is edging closer, invading her personal space. ‘He never plans a story. 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? If he is doing it to scare me, he is succeeding.
Her phone displays an incoming call, along with the battery-low icon. She gets up and moves away from the table to answer it. It is Annika.
‘Hi Annika,’ she says. ‘Am I glad to hear your voice? Look! I’m in …… ‘
‘Why are you whispering?.’ says Annika. ‘Are you all right?’
‘I’m in Café Noir,’ says Stacey. ‘But there’s this creepy man in a dark coat with a scar down his cheek who has sat down with me. I’m not sure what to do. And my phone battery is about to go.’
‘I’ll drive around and pick you up, and you can come to the cinema with me. The film starts at eight.’
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 Five-Card Draw Poker? 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 to 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 is Stacey? 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 said 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 seemed to spend a long time getting ready before she went off to work.
Ronnie tries to phone her, 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 Stacey 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 scam calls they were getting. He could try a FaceTime call or WhatsApp on the laptop but these don’t work well with a Wi-Fi dongle.
Stacey finds herself in a dark, windowless space. She is lying on a rough carpet. She has been asleep. A deep sleep. She has no recollection of how she came to be here. She can hear a drip, drip, drip of water. She is not sure where this is coming from. The sound echoes. Perhaps it is not a drip. What else might it be? She cannot see a thing. There is no light. Every time she moves, she hits her head on something solid. The last thing she remembers, she was in Café Noir, wasn’t she? She thinks she may have heard jazz music 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. She had a gin and tonic. Perhaps the stranger must have put something in it, or maybe the barista in Café Noir. But why? And she has an inkling she was bundled into the back of a car. Or was this something that happened in a film she saw recently? Perhaps it was in the book she was reading. She remembers that the protagonist in Taken was also called Stacey, which seemed like an odd coincidence. But surely nothing more than this. That would constitute paranoia.
She shivers. 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. She had been led to understand that in a dark room, your eyes gradually become accustomed to the lack of light, and eventually you can detect shapes. This is not the case. It is black in here, like blindness is black. It’s like being buried alive. It would help if she could see something. Or would it? Would this make it worse? One thing is certain, she is not at home.
Surely, to be abandoned in an unfamiliar dark room is everyone’s deepest secret fear. She is terrified. A trickle of unhelpful what-ifs creeps in. What if she had gone home instead of stopping off at Café Noir? What if she had told the stranger to get lost? What if she hadn’t drunk the G and T? What if she hadn’t taken the job at Trask and Wherry? Giving mortgage advice is a little dull. And there are quite a lot of late meetings if she is honest.
And there are deeper regrets. 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.
She hears voices. Where are they coming from?
Ronnie is dazed. He has hardly slept. His phone rings. He makes a mental note to change the ringtone from Viva Las Vegas. Get rid of it even. People don’t have ringtones these days. He looks at the display. He does not recognise the number, but he is sure it must be Stacey.
‘Hi babes,’ he says coolly, eager to give the impression that he has not been worrying.
‘Aren’t you the cool one?’ says a vaguely familiar voice. ‘It’s Annika. Is Stacey 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 Annika. ‘I arranged to pick her up from Café Noir to go to the cinema, but I got held up in traffic and when I arrived, she wasn’t there. She must have given up on me or changed her mind. I didn’t even see the film in the end. And no, I’ve not been able to reach her on her phone.’
‘That’s OK. I’ll try Trudi.’
His call to Trudi goes to voicemail. 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 Stacey. 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 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 Stacey, so he decides to call in at 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.
‘I didn’t actually see them leave. We had a sudden rush about seven, and they must have left then, or they snuck off while I was out the back, but Yvette didn’t see them leave either. The fellow left a generous amount of cash on the table, though. Oh, Yvette found this book on the floor by the table.’
‘Taken by Marc Gospell – a dark psychological thriller. This examination of panic and paranoia blurs the boundaries between what is real and what is imagined. No, I don’t think that’s the sort of thing Stacey reads,’ Ronnie says. ‘But you still think it may have been her?’
‘From your description, yes,’ Didier says. ‘Look! Perhaps I shouldn’t say this, but the pair of them seemed to be quite cosy, tucked away in the corner. I would keep a closer eye on her if I were you.’
The voices are getting louder. Stacey hears the shuffle of feet. Shafts of light filter into the space where she finds herself. She rolls over. She seems to be lying in amongst a row of folding seats. This must be what she has been hitting her head on each time she moved.
‘What in Heaven’s name are you doing here?’ a woman’s voice says. ‘Are you OK?’
Stacey is too disorientated to reply.
‘Can you switch the main lights on, Dave,’ the woman calls out.
‘What is it, Magda?’ Dave calls back.
‘There’s someone lying on the floor between the seats. I think she may be injured.’
Stacey finds herself bathed in bright light. She shields her eyes against the glare.
‘Where am I?’ she finally manages to say. ‘Where is this? What’s going on?’
‘You’re in CinePlex,’ Magda says. ‘Screen 2.’
‘This is the cinema. You must have been here all night. ……. Do you remember anything about what happened? Are you in pain? Do I need to call an ambulance?’
‘I don’t know what happened,’ Stacey says. ‘I must have been unconscious.’
Dave joins Magda in the aisle. Their first aid skills do not appear to be advanced. They stand next to one another, looking perplexed.
‘I can’t see any blood,’ Dave says. ‘But we’d better get you checked out, anyway.’
As Dave and Magda lift her into an upright position, Stacey struggles to get a handle on how she came to be here. She remembers the café and the creepy man in black who sat with her, and has a vague recollection that she arranged to see a film with Annika. But the rest is a blur. Not even a blur, more of a blank. She cannot remember leaving the café. She cannot remember meeting up with Annika. She cannot remember getting to the cinema.
‘Perhaps you remember watching the film last night.’ Dave says.
‘It’s called Noir,’ says Magda. ‘It’s a black and white psychological horror film. It’s very scary in places. You wouldn’t be the first person to have been badly affected by it,’
‘Noir? No, I don’t remember that. I remember Café Noir.’
‘Don’t you remember anything else about last night?’ Dave asks.
‘Now you mention it, I recall my gin and tonic tasted strange,’ Stacey says. ‘Almonds, I think it was.’
Copyright © Chris Green 2021: All rights reserved