Category Archives: Crime Novels

The Black Sea – Chapter One – The Fall

The Black Sea by VP Von Hoehen

Cover

The Fall

“DERANGED SCIENTIST, TERRORIST, MURDERER, CON MAN, gangster, arms dealer, genius thief . . . there isn’t much you haven’t done, is there? Is it the dark and evil side? The bad guy that women hate to love, but fall for anyway?”

“A’, Miss Allen, you might ’ave stumbled upon the real me,” René quipped. “Per’aps I am a rogue at ’eart.”

Kate Allen was sitting on a high-backed armchair half, taking in the golden hue of the sun setting over Philadelphia through the bay windows and half the opulent reception room of René Socarov’s penthouse suite at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. As she took in the view of the city below, Étienne, the smartly clad PA who had greeted Kate when she arrived at the hotel to interview René, entered the room and called René in an urgent tone.

“Please excuse me, Miss Allen,” the French actor said and dis­appeared behind the internal doors.

After a couple of moments, René returned, let down the blinds a little to soften the direct sunlight flooding into the window bay. Then he slid elegantly back into his chair and turned his attention once more to Kate and the interview.

“Sorry, Miss Allen, I ’ate to be interrupted, but these media circuses are riddled with interruptions.” He hesitated, realizing his obvious faux-pas. “Forgive me. I didn’t mean to imply you area circus performer or anything of the sort.”

“Please, I understand perfectly,” Kate said sympathetically, knowing that “circus” was an apt description of the average media junket.

For a celebrity of René’s magnitude, it was nothing short of a miracle that she had been granted time alone with the star.

He smiled at her response and sipped at his water. Kate studied him quickly. His short and dark hair was shot through with just enough grey to show gravitas without compromising obvious good looks. The years had been very kind to him, she thought, and wondered how could everybody believe he had never been under the knife. She almost let out a sneer at the thought. René had grown up in a wealthy French family, and of course, he had always been accustomed to having things his way — public image included. Right now, René Socarov was doing nothing else but maneuvering his very public image exactly the way he wanted it. His perfectly attired, well-cut black Armani suit and the impeccable white shirt open at the collar were part of it.  He seemed to have acquired few wrinkles as a result of his persistent smile and his occasional sinfully sardonic laugh, but his face did not lack character. For a man of forty or “around forty”, he was truly in his prime.

The competitor magazine had said that a smile from René could put an entire room instantly at ease with his classic European manners. What else can she add to his description for her magazine? She mused that his manner was very kind and open. Even though this was probably his hundredth interview in the last week. His accent was intoxicating and made it easy to think of more questions to ask him. He certainly wasn’t rushing Kate out of the room and she certainly was going to take advantage of that. Twenty minutes into the interview, Kate knew she had enough information for a great article, already titled in her head: “René Socarov: the French Are Coming.” What else could be more suitable for the readership of WMA, a women’s lifestyle magazine published in the northeastern states?

The interview had overrun by some time, but René showed no sign of bringing it to a close. Étienne returned to the room and offered Kate another bottle of sparkling water, which she accepted with a smile.

Kate took a sip of her drink and looked around the room, while René stopped to light a cigarette. He had, of course, already offered one to Kate and asked her permission, noting that Americans are funny when it comes to smoking. She declined the offer, but nonetheless gave her assent politely — puzzled that even he would be allowed to light up indoors in this day and age.

She took a brief moment to review the long list of questions she had already asked René. The interview had been a breeze. René was articulate and expressed himself in short, clear, simple thoughtful answers — the perfect interviewee. Despite the ease of the interview though, Kate thought that, behind the good looks and considerate manner, he looked a little tired and a bit tense. The woman in her again.

The night before he had attended the national premiere of his movie, a movie that had been filmed in and around Philadelphia. René had had to deal not only with a demanding press, but also the scrutiny of the public, not to mention the customary pushing and pulling of his security brigade. He had signed autographs and smiled in a roguish, movie-star kind of way, but said little, if anything, to anyone, as he was managed through the crowds. What René didn’t attend to, Étienne did. Naturally, he left the public wanting more, as truly great stars do. The public had an insatiable appetite for anything related to René Socarov — the George Clooney with a French and sexy accent.

Kate was merely acting as one of many “go betweens” for the star and his fans. WMA was René’s link to the hundreds of thousands of women who read Kate’s publication and openly fawned over every move of celebrities like René.

Kate’s hand cramped as she continued to take notes. It was a physiological response to how many times she had asked the very same question for the very same purpose: celebrity interviews. Lately, her hands were cramping more and more. Her best friend, Bea, had even, half-jokingly and half-seriously, given her a flexi­ball to help her cope with the constant cramps in her hand. “What does Bea know about hand cramps, of all things?” she wondered as she was desperately trying to keep up with the notes describing René Socarov. Do pediatricians treat hand cramps? Hmm, no. Do English aristocrats? Her best friend, Lady Beatrice Spencer, knew nothing about hand cramps, she concluded, as she wiped one eyebrow. She put her pen down.

René’s phone beeped and, seeking Kate’s assent, he scanned the text message he received and rapidly typed a reply. Kate finished reviewing her notes and turned her attention to the suite. It was a stunning Art Deco room refurbished down to the smallest detail. The overall effect was elegance from a bygone era, elegance that fitted René’s style to a T.

“Miss Allen, we are getting along famously, I wonder, would you care to join me in a light meal — an early supper?”

René had finished texting and Kate’s fleeting thoughts were easily interrupted. She almost jumped.

“Yeah . . . yes, that would be very nice,” she rushed.

She immediately regretted not having spent more time at the mirror, preparing for this interview, even as she quashed the thought with an inward roll of her eyes. Once again, she had to rely on the information from the enemy’s magazine. Of course, René had a long-term girlfriend. Of course, he was notoriously faithful to her. It was part of his well-manufactured public image that women such as WMA readers loved to see. Being a Frenchman, he was almost expected to be flirtatious, which he delivered with every opportunity.

Kate preferred pants to dresses, shirts to blouses, flats to high heels, but she liked to think that she was never anything less than well-presented. Kate’s style was simple, yet functional. She wore low-heeled brown leather shoes, a chocolate cashmere sweater over a pink shirt with a button-down collar and beige chinos. Her long and straight, copper blond hair was worn in a no-nonsense ponytail.

“What might I order for you?”

“Uh, normally I have something like soup or salad, but whatever you are having is fine with me.”

“Zen, if you agree, two Caesar salads. And to drink?”

“A Diet Coke would be fine, thank you.”

René called out to Étienne and asked him to order the food.

“O, and pommes frites please, for two.”

Étienne glided out of the room to place the order.

“Étienne seems very efficient. How long has he worked for you, René?”

“Only about eighteen months, but I ’ave known ’im since ’e was a child.”

“He seems to enjoy working for you. I have met the PAs of many stars over the years and last night, at your premiere, he was certainly charming and delightful in carrying out his duties. He really seems to love his job.”

“Really? ’ow kind of you to say so. No one ever says anyzing about staff, so it is good to ’ear that someone appreciates ’is work.”

René’s response left Kate feeling pleased that she had mentioned Étienne.

“It is gratifying to ’ear such zings. If you don’t mind, I shall tell ’im zat you said so, after you ’ave gone.”

The mention of her departure reminded Kate how much her interview had exceeded the de rigueur fifteen minutes; it was now closing in on two hours and she was about to join him for a meal, too. He must be exhausted, she thought, he had been doing inter­views all day and hers must be the last. Perhaps she shouldn’t have agreed to join him for supper, but she knew her boss, Thelma, would be thrilled with this result and furious if she hadn’t. The interview was part of a major studio’s effort to promote René’s new film, The Crest of the Wave. A mediocre film at best, she thought, but she understood that she, like most of the other press, would support the film with cleverly worded phrases in exchange for the sales and advertising revenue that came from interviews such as this one. That was the way Hollywood worked, and restructuring Hollywood was not within Kate’s remit, even though at times she wished it were.

She knew exactly why she was here and, even though her aspi­rations might have been higher than a silly little WMA, doing fluffy fan interviews, Kate reluctantly accepted her place in the pecking order.

Conscious that the interview was drawing to an end, Kate made an effort to ask a few final questions that would elicit good copy for her story.

“So what makes you think this film will appeal to American audiences, René?” asked Kate, knowing that it all had to do with his sex appeal.

René responded with a wink.

“Dare I ask if American audiences are capable of appreciating a good film? I suppose we are about to see.”

“That sounds a little crass for someone like you. Do you really want me to print that?”

“Hmm, per’aps no, Americans can’t always find it wizin to laugh a little bit at zemselves, can zey? Yes, let’s keep zat remark just between you and me.” He winked again. “Let’s just say that America loves a good film and zat zis is a good film. How’s zat?” he offered as though asking Kate’s permission with a slight smirk on his face.

“Better, but not exactly a page turner,” she replied.

“It isn’t a book we are writing here — are we, Mrs Allen? Or is it Miss Allen?”

He smiled slyly.

“Kate, just Kate is fine,” she deflected his flirtation graciously.

Kate felt she was being very gracious with René, given how much she had come to deplore knowing winks. He was only getting away with it because of his suave French manners. Her ex­ boyfriend, Jimmy, used to wink at her all the time, as if to say, “Do you get it? Do you get it?” Of course she “got it”, he wasn’t that bright to begin with. She remembered what her grandmother had always told her, smart girls scare even the smartest of boys.

Focusing her attention on the conversation with René, she broke into a broad smile.

“You are being way too forward and obvious for a man who is very attached. I know you have a beautiful girlfriend, and just as you don’t need to stereotype Americans, you also don’t need to play the French stereotype of the womanizer either — you are famously faithful, despite the reputation of your countrymen.”

“Whatever are you talking about? We, Frenchmen, are obliged to be charming in the presence of beautiful women — it is the essence of being a Frenchman. Flirt is such an ugly word, isn’t it? But, alas, it is the cross we bear for being the most romantic people in za world.”

“Can I use that as a direct quote?” Kate enjoyed this banter with her subject. She did in fact find him clever — and charming.

“Of course. I wouldn’t want you to zink me boorish.” He smiled devilishly. “I’ll leave that for you Americans — you know — but of course, I am joking again.” “Off the record, agreed? You really don’t like America or

Americans, do you?”

She realized that she was beginning to sound a bit defensive.

“No, please don’t zink that, Kate. I love America, I love Americans . . .”

“Yes, I am sure some of your best friends are — ”

René’s cell phone rang and, as he picked it up off the table, Kate could see he recognized the number immediately. He excused himself and answered the call.

“Bonsoir, ma chérie. ’ow I miss you. I don’t want talk in French because I have a journalist in the room.”

René stood up and moved off to the bedroom as he spoke and, by the time he entered his bedroom, he was speaking only in French. She quietly went over her notes while sipping her water and admiring the room some more. She couldn’t help but overhear the conversation in the other room and, for a moment, wondered why René hadn’t bothered to close the door for privacy. She grimaced at the thought that he had assumed, correctly, that she would not be able to follow a conversation in

French. Not that she would eavesdrop on such a conversation in any event.

René’s conversation was clearly with his girlfriend, the myste­rious Céline — of whom little was ever been printed in the press other than her status as a very beautiful Parisian socialite. Kate smiled again, half listening and almost being drawn in by the romantic tone now in René’s voice. Although he was speaking in French, Kate could understand the occasional word and phrase. In any case, the sound of a voice in love is unmistakably interna­tional.

Kate looked out of the window as her mind drifted briefly to love. She wondered if she could ever fall in love again. Her rela­tionship with Jimmy had been a mistake from the start. She glanced down from the darkening sky to the table, where the small digital recorder lay. The recorder, ironically, had been a gift from Jimmy. He had given it to Kate on her last birthday, when they were still together. Kate still hated to think that her falling in love with Jimmy had been only a matter of convenience — to fill in a missing piece in her life she felt she was “supposed” to have. It comes with working for women’s magazines.

Despite the reminder of Jimmy, she kept using the recorder. It was, after all, useful for her work, allowing her to continue the flow of an interview without interruption and leaving her hands free to take notes. It crossed Kate’s mind that one of the great things about working at a women’s magazine was that you didn’t have to put up with men like Jimmy — covertly misogynist — but it all came out in the end.

René’s beguiling murmur continued to flow from the room next door. Even though the words weren’t meant for her ears, she couldn’t help but feel slightly seduced by them. Was there still a gap to be filled in her heart? She shook inwardly. Maybe it’s time for her to move on and step up to a proper newspaper soon.

René reverted to English as he reached the end of the call and moved toward the reception room once more.

“So, I will see you at your place in Paris after I drop my bags off and ’ave a shower. I can’t tell you ’ow much I am looking forward to spending some quiet time with you. This promotional tour ’as really been too long — much too long. I feel like I ’aven’t slept in weeks. I love you too, my dear. I will see you soon. Chill the champagne. Bonsoir. Je t’aime.”

René slid back into his chair once more.

“Forgive me the interruption, Kate, but sometimes I zink Céline is busier zen me,” René commented apologetically. “I ’ave been trying to speak to ’er for two days. Look, I ’ave left the phone in the ozer room.”

Kate nodded politely, it was a nice gesture, although they were both aware that that made no difference. If it rang again, he would almost certainly have to answer it. It was his personal cell. Normal calls would surely go through Étienne first — he was after all René’s gatekeeper.

“There is nothing to forgive. I should let you get some rest.”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that we needed to rush. And we have just ordered our supper. Seldom do I feel as comfortable with journalists as I do with you. Per’aps during lunch you will permit me to ask some questions about your life. Quid pro quo, Clarice,” he said, doing a horribly French impersonation of Anthony Hopkins’ character.

It was amusing and Kate found it impossible not to agree to stay.

“You implied nothing and you need your rest. I understand perfectly.”

René’s face had become more relaxed — even more attractive. He excused himself again and sat down.

“Please continue, Kate.”

They returned to the interview. Kate was curious about Céline. She wanted to know more about her, partly for the magazine and partly to satisfy her own interest. She wanted to know something more personal about her, strictly off the record. She smiled, trying to imagine what it would be like to live your life in Céline’s shoes.

Étienne entered the room and informed René of yet another call, this time on the hotel phone.

“I beg your pardon but it seems urgent,” Étienne’s tone was stressed.

Seemingly irritated, René got up to take the call in the bedroom, once again leaving the door ajar as Étienne slipped away.

***

Within seconds, the tone of René’s voice became terse. Feeling a little awkward listening in this time, Kate got up and began to walk around the large reception room. As she passed by the door of the bedroom, she saw his back turned to her and heard him talking animatedly. She paced up around the room, stopping by the huge dining table and admiring the intricate flower display of the centerpiece. When was the last time she received flowers? It must have been Bea again for her last birthday. She felt a weight pressed against her heart at the thought. Maybe she did need a man in her life, but now she needed to focus on getting the hell on with her life and with her silly little job.

She stared at the clock on the tower of Philadelphia City Hall, looking incredibly close to the bay window of the penthouse, for a full two minutes. A bird sat on William Penn’s statue and broke her stream of life-inventory thoughts.

A moment later, there was a knock at the door, but Étienne was nowhere to be seen. Feeling uncomfortable about answering the door without permission, although she realized that it was probably room service, she ignored it at first. Then an angry looking René briefly put his head around the door and motioned that Kate should answer it. She crossed quickly to the door and looked through the spy hole to see that it was indeed room service.

She opened the door and invited the waiter in, telling him to set the trolley next to the dining room table where she assumed René and she would be dining. The waiter carefully prepared the table for the meal, gingerly moving the floral centerpiece on one of the side tables. When he had finished, she signed the bill and gave him a five-dollar tip, wondering how much René would usually tip. The waiter closed the door behind him as René returned to the room.

She looked straight at him, noting that his expression was now grim and his hands were trembling. His charming and warm face gained a harsh tone, as if in pain. He went over to Kate, who was still standing by the dining room table.

Nonetheless he swept his hand over the table.

“I see our meal has arrived. Shall we sit down and eat?” he said rather perfunctorily. They sat, but René did not speak again, instead he glared distractedly at the empty space where the flowers had been, and then started rubbing his temples. Kate was nonplussed and unsure of what to do, if anything. Her time on the

showbiz beat for WMA meant she was accustomed to tempes­tuous star behavior, but this seemed to be something else.

A few moments passed before René said, lacking focus, “Kate, please forgive me. I am afraid …I apologize. I must end zis now. I have lost my appetite and, I zink, I need to lie down. Do you ’ave enough to finish your article?”

He didn’t even wait for Kate to answer.

“If not, Étienne will see to it that you get anything else you need. I truly beg your pardon, per’aps we will ’ave another occasion on which we can share a meal and just chat.”

His demeanor was so changed that Kate wondered who had been on that call and what could have been discussed, that could upset him so much. Her instinct was to ask, but she checked it. Kate wanted to remain professional and, in light of the abrupt change in the atmosphere between them, she was wary of annoying René when the interview itself had gone so well.

Instead, she agreed she had everything she needed, responding simply to his apologies.

“Not at all, please, think nothing of it. You have very kindly given me an extraordinarily long interview and I know that you are tired.”

“Zank you for your gracious understanding, Kate.”

Taken aback by the abrupt end to proceedings, she hurried over to the table in the bay window to shut off the recorder and began to gather up her things.

As she prepared to leave, René stepped closer to Kate and grabbed her hands. He drew her near as if to give her the two kisses of a traditional European farewell, but then he brushed past her cheek and whispered in her ear, holding her steady so that she would listen.

“If something happens to me, please find Andreas.”

Then he kissed her cheeks with hasty courtesy and tried to smile as he moved her gently, but forcibly, toward the door.

“It ’as been a pleasure to meet you, Miss Allen. I am sorry to end on this note. I trust you will forgive me.”

***

Her head was spinning with questions, but she didn’t feel able to ask what the hell was going on. She felt her heart racing as though she shared René’s sudden distress in some way. She was worried about him, though she had no idea why. The interview was over without another word or pleasantry; Kate was guided firmly through the door and into the hotel corridor beyond.

She felt like she had been thrown out of a fast moving car.

The Black Sea is available on Kindle and in hardback in a limited number of copies.

The next two chapter will also be published on the VP Von Hoehen blog in the coming weeks.

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