Story by Marlene Claire Steele, Oralee O’Byrne, and Charles Levin
Written by Charles Levin
[Reader’s Note: Last month, I asked readers to suggest the second half of the plotline in a story I started Thanks to all those who contributed their very creative and fun ideas. I chose two from readers, Marlene and Lee, whose suggestions work with my characters and elevate the premise I set up into a strange mystery. The story features DHS Director Rich Little and Assistant Deputy Director, Michelle Hadar. Both significant characters in my thrillers NOT SO DEAD and NOT SO GONE.]
The early morning sunlight streams through the office tower’s tall windows. The sound of rush hour traffic six floors below pierces the silence. As she enters the Director’s office, Michelle spots the unopened package on Rich’s desk. “What’s that?” she asks, leaning forward.
“Probably a bomb,” Rich snickers. “I have lots of enemies.”
“I bet you do. But if our DHS mailroom downstairs can’t catch a stupid bomb, we’re all in trouble. Security scans for everything.”
Rich starts to remove the bow and rip the black paper wrapping off. Michelle instinctively takes a step back. “Like all dangerous things, they only have to happen once,” Rich says.
The unwrapped box is small, about four inches by six inches. Rich shakes it. Nothing. He smells it, “Hmm. Smells like burlap.” He slips it unopened into his government-issued metal top desk drawer and closes it with a clank, then asks, “What can I do for you, Michelle?”
drawer and closes it with a clank, then asks, “What can I do for you, Michelle?”
“What? You’re not going to open it? C’ mon,” she says. “You’re not even a little curious?”
“I have a busy schedule today. I’ll get to it later. Now, what did you need?”
“I can’t believe it. You, a DHS Deputy Director, former FBI agent, and LA Detective and no desire to investigate further? Maybe, some Viagra would help.”
“Didn’t need it last night, did I?” he winks at her, delighting in the sudden pink glow appearing on her cheeks. “I don’t get the Viagra crack? What does one thing have to do with another? I’m just prioritizing my work and … ”
“Open the freakin’ box,” she demands.
RIch slowly pulls on the drawer handle, “OK, OK. I was just having fun teasing you, “He reaches for the box, flips the top open, and removes a small burlap bag from inside. He holds it up, dangling by its drawstring. “Oh my goodness, it’s… it is a bag. What will they think of next?” He feigns putting it back in the drawer.
“Very funny,” Michelle says, growing irritated. “Just cut the crap and open it.”
Rich smiles, “You never used to use foul language. What’s gotten into you?”
“You’re obviously a bad influence on me. I’m just a visitor in a strange land doing my best.”
“I wouldn’t have hired you to work with me if I didn’t think you could hold your own.”
“And wanted to get into my pants,” she says with a sly grin.
“That part came much later after Anita passed. I’d never want to betray her or be accused of harassing you.”
“Then stop messing with me and let’s see what’s in that damn bag,” she says.
Rich opens the bag and peaks inside. His smile vanishes and he gasps… Hands trembling, he removes a gold wedding band.
Michelle seeing the blood drain from Rich’s face, speaks softly, “What is it Rich? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“I think I have.” He inspects the inside of the ring. Just a Chinese symbol – 永. It means ‘Forever.’ He and his wife used it as a signature to their many love letters to each other before they married and were assigned to far-flung field offices. “This was Anita’s ring.” A tear rolls down Rich’s cheek. “I wonder who sent this. A friend? An enemy? Is it a gift or a sick joke?”
Michelle’s heart weeps for him. “Let me see it.” He hands her the ring. “Beautiful. I know she was very special to you…”
“She was. Smart, funny, and warm like an early Spring day.” He seems to drift off to another place.
“Is there anything else in the bag?” Michelle says.
Rich snaps out of his reverie and feels around inside the bag. He pulls out a small photograph of a red-haired woman standing in front of a burning Notre Dame Cathedral pointing at the fire. “My God. It’s her!’ He drops the picture on his desk and slumps back in his chair.
Michelle picks it up, “She’s alive? Or this could be photoshopped. Hmm, she has the ring on in this picture.”
“She died two years ago in a car accident, but she looks beautiful in this photo at the Cathedral fire which happened just a few months ago. She must still be alive. Come to think of it, she was so blown to bits when the car exploded that the ME could not get 100% positive ID. The ring and the picture prove she survived somehow. I’ve got to find her.”
“Rich don’t get your hopes up just yet but let me help you look.”
“No, I’ve got to do this myself. Besides you sort of have a conflict of interest.”
“Hey, I care about you and your happiness. Do you think I’m that selfish and petty?” Michelle smirks, “Besides, you’re not that great.”
He grimaces, “Thanks a lot. No, you are one of the most selfless people I’ve ever known and a great puzzle solver. I’m sorry about the crack.” He hesitates, “Would you go with me to Paris?”
Michelle is already tapping on her phone. “There’s a flight out of Dulles in two hours. If we hurry, we can make it. I’ll tell the boss we’re off on a time-sensitive mission. What do you want to do about the bodyjacking1 case we’ve been working? It’s hot and they just found another victim in New York.”
“Hand it off to Renata. She’s up-to-speed and we’ll be back in a couple of days… hopefully.” Rich puts the ring, the picture and a clean shirt in his briefcase and snaps it shut. “OK, let’s do this.”
The British Airways flight is running late, which gives Rich and Michelle much needed extra time to develop a plan and catch an hour or two’s sleep. The redeye lands at Charles De Gaulle at ten am. It’s raining in Paris, which is more common than not. A chill permeates the air, even though summer has just begun. Rich is studying his Paris map in the rear seat of the taxi. He scratches his head, “Where do we start?”
Michelle taps away on her phone. “Here’s our first stop.” She turns to the chauffeur de taxi, “Nous conduire à Rue Charles Divry.”
“I’m still not sure why you insisted on this as our first destination.”
“You’ll see. There was something in that picture of Anita at Notre Dame that made me think to check out this address. I think you’ll see why. Trust me. Meanwhile, tell me more about how you and Anita met.”
Rich smiles for the first time since the package arrived, “It will sound like a cliché, but we were at Quantico as young trainees together almost twenty years ago. She was a farm girl from the Midwest with a drive to fix the world and figured the FBI would be a good place to start. I was a troublemaker from New York. It seemed to me that I would land up on one side of the law or the other. While many of my friends chose crime, I figured I’d live longer on the other side. The first time I met her, I was taken by her glow, her intelligence, and her kindness. Don’t get me wrong, she could be tough as nails when she had to be and was better at everything than everyone else in the class. She seemed so beyond reach that my infatuation would never be requited. But, for some baffling reason, Anita saw something in me. Whatever she did see, she made it better. She made me better.”
“So I have her to thank for the man you are now?”
“I guess in a way you do.”
Thirty minutes later, the cab stops in front of the Cabinet de Medicine Chinoise. Rich stares at Michelle, “Now what?”
Rich pops open an umbrella and they exit the cab. Michelle hands the driver an extra fifty euro note. The driver opens the trunk and hands her a crowbar. “Merci beaucoup,” she says.
Rich shoots her a look, “What do you need that for?”
“You’ll see. I promise I won’t beat you with it.” Michelle is navigating by phone and rotates it like a compass, “Over here.” They cross the wet cobblestone street. “We’re here.”
“Where? We’re in the middle of the street,” Rich says.
Michelle looks both ways. Seemingly clear, she uses the crowbar to pry a manhole cover, “Help me with this,” she grunts.
Rich helps and the cover clanks to the side. Michelle reads his expression, “No, I’m not crazy. We’re going down. It’s the famous French catacombs where six million Parisians are buried. It was built in the 1700s to handle Paris’s overflowing cemeteries. So, they moved and consolidated all the remains of centuries of Parisians here. This is a secret entrance I found in the DHS street-detail database.”
“In for a dollar…” Rich says, descending the step ladder while balancing his briefcase. Michelle follows a few steps behind and struggles but leverages the crowbar to slide the manhole back into place. The tunnel goes pitch dark. She shakes her phone and the flashlight brightens their path.
Rich breathes heavily as they descend a seemingly endless number of rungs, “Are we there yet?”
“Grow a pair,” she snorts. “Honestly, sometimes I wonder how you got to be my boss.”
After climbing down a seemingly endless number of rungs, they finally reach the floor. Cold water drips from the now distant ceiling. A wet mildew odor pervades. Michelle sweeps the light side to side. The graying limestone walls are painted with colorful graffiti.
“Obviously, we’re not the first people who have been here, alive I mean,” Rich says.
“No we’re not, but that’s the idea. Head down the tunnel ahead.”
Rich adds his phone’s flashlight to the illumination. They walk roughly 100 meters and spot a light ahead, coming from an opening on the right wall. Reaching the opening, they behold a large cavernous room with rock benches. Skulls and human bones are stacked up and embedded in the side walls. The light seems to be streaming from an open grate in the street five stories above.
Michelle gently puts a hand on Rich’s shoulder, “You go in. I’ll wait here. Someone is waiting for you.” Michelle picks up Rich’s hesitation, “Trust me. I’ll be right here.”
He steps tentatively inside, scanning the walls and ceiling. The sound of someone’s footsteps. From a small side entrance, a red-haired woman appears. Rich rubs his eyes. This can’t be real. “Anita!”
“It’s me,” Anita says.
Dropping his briefcase, he runs to her. They hug ferociously like it’s the first and last time. Rich’s tears sprinkle Anita’s soft white blouse. He won’t let go. The warmth of her body and the scent of lavender overwhelms him. Finally, he reluctantly releases his grip and gazes deeply into her hazel eyes, “I don’t understand.”
“I couldn’t put you in danger, the danger I’ve been in. The car accident was real, but I wasn’t alone in the car and I didn’t completely die. I had some help, but I won’t go into that.”
Rich’s mind is a whirl, “What danger? You could have told me. I have resources. I could have helped.”
Anita strokes his cheek, “You’ve always been a fixer and a problem solver. That’s why you’re so good at your job. But you can’t fix this. Nobody can. They think I’m dead and it’s better if it stays that way.”
“Wait. Who’s they?”
“Michelle will explain as best she can when we’re done. She’s the one who delivered the ring and photo and brought you to me. She has been amazing. I love her almost as much as I do you.”
“Why can’t you explain? Why go through Michelle? I’m confused. This is crazy.”
“It’s the way it is and the way it has to be. I just wanted to be with you one last time before I move on.” Anita takes both his hands, “It was a huge risk, but it’s been worth it to see you one last time.”
“Last time? I’m not letting you go. How many times have we said, ‘We’re in this together?’ Let me in, please.”
“I can’t.” She presses her lips against his and gives him a long, lingering kiss. “I have to go now. Go to Michelle. Be with her. She loves you. Love her back. Marry her and live a long, happy life together.”
“No!” Rich shouts. Suddenly, Rich’s hands turn ice-cold. A truck drives over the grate high above, blocking the light and the chamber turns raven black.
When the light returns a few seconds later, Anita is gone. Rich freezes in stunned silence. He feels a hand on his shoulder and whips around, hoping it’s Anita. It’s not.
Michelle takes his arm and leads him from the chamber, “It will be OK. Let’s go now.”
Rich staggers and leans on the tunnel wall, “What just happened?”
Michelle kisses him lightly on the cheek, “I’ll explain everything in time. For now, let’s just go home.”
Readers Note: you may be wondering what happened to Anita and what the danger was. As a writer and a reader, I prefer stories and mysteries that aren’t tied up in a nice neat gift box (pun intended). I enjoy some ambiguity and a puzzle that the reader needs to ponder. However, there are clues as to “What just happened?” within the story. If you think you know the answer or have a theory, please share it in the Comments below. Many thanks to the readers who contributed their suggestions for the story’s ending in last month’s Write A Story With Me post. It’s been great fun.
Further reading: Forbidden Paris – The Secret World of the Parisian Catacombs
1Bodyjacking definition: To forcibly seize control of someone’s body, sometimes by replacing or exchanging minds.
… Read more about it in my upcoming thriller, NOT SO DONE.