On Blackfriars Bridge

Done. Cooper didn’t wait to see the splash, but hoisted the rucksack onto his back and continued over the bridge to Blackfriars railway station. Keep walking, keep calm. He picked up a copy of the Metro newspaper with trembling hands, and boarded a northbound train.

At St Pancras he stood on the escalator, kicking the step in front, fighting the urge to run. In the Eurostar ticket queue, he directed his attention to the newpaper, plodding uncomprehending through stories about preparations for the London Olympics and a forthcoming train strike. Don’t think. Just keep going, get away. Think later. Or, better still, don’t think at all.

That had been three days ago. He’d holed up at a dingy hotel near the Pigalle, where the neon of the sex shops and the promise of the street girls was dulled with workaday grime. It was as good a place as any to catch his breath.

He had one of the girls, the first night, pumping away like an engine that needed cleaning. Her look afterwards had been cold, and she waved him away the next evening. She shook her head when he approached another girl, who retreated behind the tinsel doorway. Even the whores could tell, he thought.

He couldn’t stay in Paris. South America had been the plan, but he was scared to try the airport, and short on money. North Africa, then. A train to Marseilles, and a ferry. The French authorities were a damn sight more worried about who and what was coming into the port, than they were about who was getting out.

He counted the cash. Even with this crappy hotel, the pile of notes was diminishing. He allowed himself, just for a second, to imagine that the bag really had been full. A child’s trick, the top layer of notes with wads of blank paper beneath. A cheap trick. Well, they’d paid alright. She’d paid. He wished he’d been able to tell her how cheaply they’d sold her.

He rose from his bed to close the tatty orange curtains, and jumped. For a second, he thought he saw a face reflected in the window, looking over his shoulder. A girl’s face. He swivelled around to the empty room. Ridiculous. Nerves. But he couldn’t settle in the tiny room after that, couldn’t bring himself to lie down and sleep.

In the lobby, he took his key from the Arab guy slumped behind the desk, watching a fuzzy television.

‘You want a girl again tonight, my friend?’ The man had the insinuating look of pimps everywhere.

‘Dolores, she’s no good. I get you a good girl tonight. A young girl – yes?’

Cooper shook his head.

‘Where you from, Abdul?’

The man smiled, flashing a gold tooth. ‘Mohammed. From Algeria. And you are from London.’

Cooper leaned over the desk, thrusting his bullet head into the man’s face.

‘Why do you say that? What do you know about me? Who’s been asking?’

Mohammed withdrew, frightened.

‘Your voice, your accent, is all. Look, no-one is asking. I don’t talk to no-one. I don’t want to know your business. I just try to be helpful, yes?’

Cooper headed into the streets to get drunk. The drunker he was, the less he dreamt. He sat at the bar, sinking the tiny little beers two at a time, fingering the key in his pocket. Three days. Four, including today. He wasn’t far enough away. Time to get back on the move.

Cooper realised he’d been muttering aloud. The man next to him at the bar was staring at him, asking something in French. Cooper’s French was crap. He shrugged, tried to get on with his beer. The man gave him a shove, spilling the drink. Cooper was on his feet in seconds, squaring up, tensing his neck muscles.

‘You want some?’ he heard himself yelling, madly trying to take on the whole bar. A girl looked up from a table. The mixture of disgust and amusement reminded him of her. He looked again, but she’d leaned back to her friends.

A fist crunched into his jaw, catching him suddenly off guard. He fell, backwards, taking down bar stools and hitting his head. The floor of the bar was filthy, slick with spittle and spilled beer. He knelt, trying to get his balance, and looked up into the angry face of the bar man. He didn’t need good French to understand the message. Swearing, he left. Time to get out of Paris.

In the morning, he was back in the hotel lobby.

‘Alright. Listen, Abdul. I want to go to Algeria. I want to visit your beautiful country, yeah? But I need someone to get me the tickets, and I need someone to stay with when I get there. No bloody hotels. Not till I’m sorted out. Plenty in it for you. Stay with your cousin or something.’

Mohammed was all smiles again.

‘Sure, Mr London. No problem. You leave it with me.’

Within hours, Cooper was boarding another train, at the Gare du Lyon. Five days. If they’d found her, it’d be all over the media. He bought an English newspaper at the kiosk. Nothing. Officially, then, she was still missing. A Russian party girl in London, with a football club owning, oligarch daddy. Five days since he left. He refused to let his mind go there.

He heaved his rucksack onto the luggage rack.

‘Aren’t you coming back?’

He screamed. She lay along the rack, bundled up in the grey blanket, lips dry and chapped, blonde hair showing dark, greasy roots, her eyes looming large in her thin face.

‘Msieur? Is everything alright?’

Cooper whipped round to the concerned face of the train conductor.

‘Yeah. Sorry, got my finger trapped.’ He looked back again, but she was gone. Christ, get a grip, he told himself.

The journey took six hours, rolling interminably through acres of rain-washed farmland. He kept his eyes closed in the tunnels. Once, as he glanced at his reflection in the blacked-out window, he thought he saw her sitting next to him. He ate nothing; let the previous night’s beer roll and gurgle within him.

The ferry terminal bristled with sharp-featured policemen, sauntering the waiting area with sub-machine guns cocked. Men in jellabas, women in chadors, children in plastic shoes. A policeman with a sniffer dog circled him twice. Cooper stood stiffly, watching the animal growl and crouch. They moved on. Drugs, Cooper realised, they were looking for drug dealers. He forced himself through the crowd to the departures desk and waved his ticket.

The clerk seemed to take forever scrolling through the computer screen. A supervisor arrived to help. Just as Cooper was about to run, he was waved through.

‘Happy holidays, Mr Cooper!’ said the clerk. Cooper wasn’t sure whether he was being sarcastic.

On the crowded ferry, he pushed his way up to the top deck. The sky was dark again, and a moon pathway shimmered on the eerily smooth surface of the Mediterranean. He zipped up his thin leather jacket, shivering in the night air.

‘Lovely night, isn’t it, Dennis? Night five.’

He refused to turn his head, recognising the mocking Russian accent.

‘You’re not really there,’ he told her. He could smell the sweet tang of vomit on her breath and the sourness of her frightened sweat.

‘I miss you. You should come back to me. It’s not too late.’

Bloody well is, he thought, licking the salt from his dry lips. Five days, surely more than enough. But she’d been like that, wheedling him, flattering him. No doubt that was how she’d worked on her father, extracting money for her Knightsbridge flat, her Lamborghini, and her casino debts. Perhaps Daddy felt he’d spent enough on his little Princess.

Cooper had taken precautions. No-one else knew exactly where she was. He would handle the swap himself; the key and the address for the money. $10 million in cash – less than her old man paid for a good centre forward.

Leaning against the ferry’s rail, Cooper asked himself what else he could have done. He’d left the girl tied up in the blanket, locked into the abandoned workshop under the railway arches at Elephant and Castle. He’d walked to Blackfriars Bridge, to the central stone pulpit, as arranged. The man arrived a couple of minutes later, zipped into a black windcheater jacket. He’d placed the rucksack on the seat and the two men had stood, gazing out towards St Pauls.

Cooper unzipped the bag.

‘Key first,’ the man said. Cooper paused, then thrust his hand deep into the piles of notes, bringing up a fistful of plain paper. Before the man could react, he jammed it into his mouth and heaved him over the balustrade. The traffic kept flowing; the evening rush-hour crowds oblivious to the small murder that had just taken place. A thousand pairs of eyes, each directed to their own individual goal. Cooper checked the top layer of money, mind turning quickly through his options.

He held the key to the lock-up in his hand, thinking for a moment of her lying, tied up in the blanket, waiting for the rescue. Nothing but trouble, now. Quickly, he’d thrown it as far as it would go.

‘Come back to me,’ she said, taking hold of his arm. Cooper joined her, sitting on the rail of the ferry, feet swinging in the sea breeze. They sat for a moment in silence.

‘C’est l’homme!’

The French police were halfway up the companionway. So. That bloody Abdul. Cooper wasn’t surprised. What did surprise him was how litttle he cared. He watched them slither to a halt on the wet deck, eying him uncertainly.

Cooper shifted on the rail and looked down into the rippled dark. The policeman ran forward with a shout, as he slipped over the edge, down to meet her.

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