E.J. Floyd didn’t put a bullet in his head. He wasn’t as a result found face down in a pool of blood. He didn’t tie a rope to a wooden rafter in his country house in the Jura hills and let his body drop and convulse before it became limp. He didn’t throw himself into the waters of the Seine. Days later no one found his body washed up on the banks down river.
He didn’t jump out the window of his sixth floor nineteenth century apartment near the old Bibliothèque Nationale.
The old woman with the spotted beagle didn’t subsequently find him on the glistening asphalt after a fresh downpour, broken boned and splatter brained.
On his lit blog ‘A Moveable Feast,’ Floyd said he would do all of these things, but he did none of them.
No, E.J. Floyd simply disappeared.
One afternoon on an unusually sunny Parisian day in mid-November, he took the metro near his office at Havre-Caumartin, got off at Gare de Lyon and boarded a high-speed train headed for Marseille. He was never seen again.
The day before his disappearance, on his thirty-fifth birthday, Floyd received a phone call from a certain Monsieur Benaoui. He was sitting in his office at Larousse Publishing where he headed the English language division. He was awaiting the call. That morning he put on the bow tie, purple dress shirt and suspenders Pippa, his wife, had given him for Christmas some years earlier. When the phone rang, he answered.
“C’est Floyd à l’appareil.”
“Monsieur Floyd. All is ready. I left the keys under the flowerpot next to the back door of the house. Bonne chance.”
“Monsieur Benaoui,” he said. But he had hung up.
He stepped outside his office to look around. There was nothing unusual.
He went back into his office and called his assistant. She wasn’t at her desk, so he left a message.
“Listen, I’ll be leaving shortly for the lunch meeting and won’t return for the day. You can forward my calls to my cell phone.”
He grabbed his coat and went downstairs. At the corner of rue Godot du Mauroy he stopped in the tabac and bought a pack of cigarettes, Benson and Hedges Black. Outside he opened the pack, lit a cigarette and stood for a moment smoking. He perched the cigarette on his lips and pushed his hands though his thin blond hair. The dark half-moons beneath his blue eyes had grown puffy from lack of sleep and masked even further his once Adonic complexion.
A woman approached him from the side. He turned and was startled to see her so close. She held a young girl by the hand.
“Oh, pardon, excusez-moi,” she said.
“What?” Floyd said in English.
“Vous ne parlez pas.” She stopped in mid-sentence, as if confused. “Désolée de vous déranger,” she said before sidestepping him and walking away, her head down.
Floyd froze, suddenly sure that the woman was Pippa, and followed her for half a block before realizing from her gait that it wasn’t her. The young girl turned and stared at him with puppy eyes.
He looked around. Nobody seemed to have noticed the episode. He walked briskly to the metro station and stopped to finish his cigarette but decided instead to take a cab to his apartment. When he arrived, he checked the mailbox but there was nothing. He walked up the six flights of stairs because the elevator wasn’t working and opened the door to his apartment. It was cold inside. He went over to the electric heater and turned it on. But it wasn’t working. He tried turning on the light without success. He checked the meter: the electricity was down. He was losing track of bills.
On the kitchen table he had left a small canister of Lexotanil. He opened it, cracked one ribbed baton in half and let it dissolve under his tongue to calm his nerves. His hands were shaking slightly in the overhead lamplight. He rubbed his palms together in a tight grip. He leaned up against the island in the kitchen and lit another cigarette. He inhaled deeply. Outside it began to rain.
Il pleut sur la ville comme il pleut dans mon coeur. Verlaine, he thought and laughed to himself.
People told him it would take time, maybe two years, for him to move on, for the wounds to heal. But almost three years had passed and still he had the most horrific dreams, still he thought about the event everyday. He could not help himself from passing in front of the apartment building where it happened. He could not move on. Pippa’s death, regardless of the circumstances, was unbearable.
He had attempted suicide with pills. Just to stop the pain. But it was a failed attempt that left him in the hospital for a week.
He recounted the whole episode on his blog. The response was mixed. Some empathized. Others found him pathetic. They were unsure if Floyd was serious or not, whether what he had written was some sort of parody on the words of an author. They were expecting him to snap back with his usual playful zeal and sarcasm.
The first time they met, Pippa was reading one of her poems at a gathering of friends at the Village Voice bookstore on rue Princesse, and he stood in the back bathing in her aura. A lightening rod ran through his spine, and before he could reason, before he could muster the willpower to walk away, he felt thrust upon her in reckless pursuit, a force greater than himself that always won, however he may have tried. He mastered only the ability to keep his sang froid while unraveling his pack of cards. But he knew she was different, Pippa, that quiet English girl, with the light gait, small eyes, brown hair. In the end, they both agreed to it. They both fell into it, together, and neither ever imagined it could last, indeed, it should last. But it did, for a while, until Floyd met the man who would be their undoing.
Frédéric was a professional acquaintance, a writer of sorts, who had pushed bachelorhood well into his forties. They never became friends, real friends, that is, Floyd being just too intimidated by Frédéric’s dark seductive persona. He introduced Pippa to him one evening at a soirée, peu importe où, and his charm was riveting, (Floyd should have known, indeed he did know), and she was enchanted, and Floyd knew from the outset that this man was the Frenchman of her dormant obsession. Or so he read in Pippa’s diary.
The doorbell rang. He checked his watch. It was one o’clock. He let him in.
They stood in the kitchen looking at each other.
“Are you sure you can do this?” The man said. He had a thick Parisian drawl.
“No. But I don’t see any other way.”
“I can do it if you wish. For a little more money of course.”
“Just give me what I need.”
The man hesitated. “You are weak. It will destroy you.”
“I’m already destroyed. Just give me what I need, I said.”
The man pulled out a small hemp bag hidden in his coat pocket and slid it on the table.
“She was cheating on you, no? What do you care?”
“I didn’t ask for your opinion.” Floyd said, tightening his jaw.
A silence fell over the room.
“It has a silencer. I will pick it up in Marseille at the agreed location,” the man said. He gave a languid smile as he took the envelope Floyd had left on the table for him and went to the door. As he was about to exit he uttered ‘pauvre con’ just loud enough for Floyd to hear him.
He stood looking at the bag on the table. He checked his watch. He opened the bag. Everything seemed to be there. They had given him lessons on how to use it. But every time he held it in his palm it felt heavy. Like a piece of industrial equipment. Something from the analog era that survived the digital age. It was cool in his grip, had a dull shine, and one dark eye. It was too late for the lighter model.
He walked over to the console in the living room and took one, two, three shots of bourbon, and popped another pill in his mouth.
He returned to the kitchen, took everything, bag and all, and descended the stairwell with a heavy gait. He had about two hours to kill before the train departed. He wanted to calm himself. The alcohol and pills were working but slowly.
As a student in Paris, Floyd often strolled the literary itineraries of writer’s he loved. Later, on weekends and in his spare time, he led literary walks around the city. As he thought of those walks now, he turned left onto rue Drouot and headed north until he reached rue du Faubourg Montmatre and found himself walking on his onetime Henry Miller route, rue de Clichy, rue Scribe, rue Lamartine, Place Pigalle. He felt comforted for a moment in the knowledge that he could somehow be connected to something bigger than himself. That he was more than a thing consumed by fantasy and guilt. Then almost in spite of himself, he recalled the line from The Tropic of Cancer he had been repeating to himself half-garbled throughout his ordeal: Paris is a whore. From a distance she seems beautiful, you can't wait until you have her in your arms. But once you get close you feel empty, disgusted, tricked.
A deep pressure rose from his gut and he felt weak. He breathed heavily. The damp air turning his breath to vapor.
He stepped inside a doorway and pretended to cough and sneeze. How many times had she told him in those last days that he was weak?
He wiped his eyes with a used tissue he found in his jacket pocket and made his way to Gare de l’Est. He purchased a ticket for Chantilly and boarded the train at 15:00 hours. There were only a few people. He slouched down in one of the reclining seats across from the toilet. He began to feel queasy and closed his eyes for the trip.
At Chantilly terminus, he waited until all the passengers had emptied the train. With the conductor’s whistle, he stepped onto the platform and headed out to the street walking around the circumference of the station to avoid crossing anyone.
The sun was already beginning to set and the temperature was sinking beneath a brush of gathering clouds. He wished he had taken his car. But he had decided against it in the fear that someone might identify him, when the police began inquiring.
He walked through the side streets and made his way to the Forêt de Chantilly in the direction of the house. The autumn leaves were strewn on the ground engulfing the undergrowth the further he penetrated the forest. The trek seemed longer than he remembered. He had practiced in advance, taking the train, walking through the forest, going through everything in detail. But it had been summer, the weather warmer, the ground dry.
He wished he’d been born into a primitive tribe with centuries’ old regulations and punishments, where wise elders execute clean, effortless vengeance.
He crouched down behind a tree about one hundred meters from the house. Floyd leaned against the tree and looked closer.
Something was wrong. A golden light emanated from within the house. A dark-haired, slender woman stood talking to a young girl, a child, maybe six years old. Who was the woman? He shook his head: a major miscalculation on his part. He was not alone. They must have just met.
The woman seemed to be scolding the girl for something. The child got up from the chair at the table where she was sitting and ran out of the room. The woman yelled something in the fleeing girl’s direction before leaning against the sink behind her and shaking her head, her right hand on her forehead.
Everything seemed so familiar, just as he had described it in his blog. Yes, he was a genius.
She turned her face in his direction briefly and turned away. Floyd again thought that it was Pippa, and the girl from the street, her puppy eyes grown stubborn. There was a long pause of inactivity before Frédéric walked into the kitchen. They spoke and he caressed her cheek and she left the room with a smile. Frédéric walked up to the kitchen window, hands on his hips, and looked in his direction. Floyd froze. He was certain he was staring right at him.
It was that same face he saw at the trial. A face that had shown no emotion until the acquittal, when it broke out in a smile. Frédéric had been nowhere near his building or apartment when Floyd’s wife died, the investigators said, and they could find no evidence that he had somehow been connected to her death. In his report, the coroner had said only that her heart stopped beating, a valve problem, adding that she was pregnant.
Floyd was never more certain than now as he fixed that face from a distance.
The girl ran into the room with her coat on and started hopping in place, talking to Frédéric. He turned around and smiled an adult smile meant for a child. The woman came in shortly afterward wearing a dark winter coat and carrying a heavy jacket that Frédéric took from her and put on. They walked out of the kitchen and for a moment there was no movement, no sound. Not even a shadow.
He peered out from his crouching position behind the tree, anxious and gripping the warm steel in his pocket. His eyes darted in all directions but there was nothing happening anywhere within his visual field. He held his breath and looked behind him. The forest was darkening in the penumbra of dusk. He looked back at the house.
He had no thoughts or quotes in his head to accompany him.
The lights went off inside. He didn’t recall that part of the story.
He could see little and began to panic, when the sound of a car ignition broke the silence. The headlights went on and the vehicle seemed to be moving along the front of the house in a driveway, shifting gears between reverse and forward. The gravel beneath the wheels crackled like popcorn on a fire on a warm wintry night and brought tears to his eyes. The engine revved and soon the headlights were moving steadily through the trees on the main road.
The silence resumed. The wind shuffled the trees. The leaves scurried onto the lawn between him and the house like children at play.
Fifteen minutes passed in stillness. He checked his watch and looked around him. The house remained dark. There were no cars on the road. He waited, another fifteen minutes, but still he couldn’t budge. A half hour passed. He looked around him and checked his watch. Night had fallen. He had never known how dark the woods could get.
He gripped the gun in his pocket and stood almost hugging the tree. He closed his eyes. But he could find nothing inside that wasn’t anger. He seized it, came out from behind the tree and walked across the grass to the back door. The key was under the flowerpot. Something was right. He almost wished it wasn’t. He stood and jerked his back straight up against the house wall. He looked around. His pulse was electric.
Suddenly he found himself praying.
He walked around both sides of the house. Everything was dark and there were no other homes nearby. He returned to the back, opened the screen door and inserted the key in the lock. The door opened with a slight creak. He stuck his head in, looked around and quickly entered and closed the door.
There was a strong scent, a woman’s perfume. The tiled floor seemed to glisten in the lightless room. Calming himself, he focused in the dark and noticed there was no furniture. He walked to the kitchen. There was a table but the countertops were empty, the walls clean. In the front room, nothing again. Not even a nail in the wall or string on the floor. A lonely light bulb hung from the ceiling. He stopped in his astonishment and listened to make sure he was alone. He started to breathe normally.
As he stood alone in what once was his living room, now stripped of all human vestige, the windows, doors and staircase seemed to be winking at him through some strange telepathic resonance reserved for non-living things, the sensation initially putting him at ease until the realization of where he was and why he was there overcame him. For a moment, he could have believed everything that had happened was all fiction. A story he had written.
He returned to the kitchen and with his hand inadvertently touched the sink edge where the woman had been leaning. It was still warm, and the perfumed scent still strong. Just like Pippa’s. He walked back to the front room and was about to walk up the stairs when he stopped. The silence was thundering. He pulled out the piece in his pocket, gripped it and felt its power for the first time. He addressed each step with caution, one by one, until he reached the landing. It was dark with strips of shadow falling from the open bedroom doors. He went to each room, quickly opened and shut the light. But in each there was nothing.
He stood in the middle of the main bedroom with the lights off. He dug his hand into his pocket and pulled out the silencer. He placed it neatly on the muzzle with a light squeak of metal.
An almost stealth like calm came over him. He walked over to the window and looked out at the woods. There, in the wind and the darkness and a now cloudless sky, he saw the moon make its way over the treetops, its light touching his pupils and blanketing the room. He perceived his face reflected in the windowpane, and was startled at how much he actually resembled Pippa.
His story had changed and at some point became her story.
He put the gun to his temple. The muzzle was cold, colder then he would have imagined. He stuck the barrel in his mouth, seized by the absurd notion that somehow the pain would be less if the gun were warm.
He pressed his finger on the trigger.
Pippa stared at him from the windowpane.
“Who are you?” Floyd asked.
“I’m your wife, Pippa,” she said with a perky smile, “and always will be.”
“So what do I do?”
“Your wish list. Don’t forget your wish list, mon amour. Bullet in the head. Check. Hanging from the rafters. Check. Body washed on the banks of the Seine. Check. Jump out the window. Check.”
She blinked each time she said Check. Her eyes sparkled.
“Oh, almost forgot: Death by Water.” This time she winked. “You can only choose one, Fred. Or should I say once?” and she squealed with girly amusement. “Go ahead, choose! Why wait when everyone is waiting?”
She moved from the windowpane, walked passed him and descended the stairs, her heels clopping lightly on each step. Holding her hand was the young girl. She turned and with her puppy eyes smiled. The smile of a young girl meant for an adult.
He ran after her. As he said he would.
When Floyd did not show up at work for two days with no news, the office informed the gendarmes.
In their investigation, they only found out that E.J. Floyd had left work early for a lunch meeting that never took place. They were not sure where he spent the rest of the afternoon, although someone did see him in the vicinity of his apartment at some point around 14 hundred hours. They knew from a credit card transaction that he had purchased train tickets for Marseille for the following day. They found his cell phone in his apartment with no trace of anything suspicious. There was no further activity on his blog. A Monsieur Benaoui, even a number of them, was tracked down but none, it was concluded, could be implicated.
The SNCF railroad authorities confirmed that E.J. Floyd was present in his seat on the train and that he got off at his final destination in Marseille.