A Penguin Comes to Tea

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Hidden Secrets

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Everyone was staring at me as my wife handed me the painting she had pulled off the wall then removed the carved wooden cylinder that was taped to the back of the canvas and hid it in her pocket, while the guard waved his arms and babbled into his radio.
“Quick, we must get out of here before they stop us!” she said, heading towards the exit, and she elbowed her way past gaping tourists and the gesticulating guard, intent on reaching the street and the next stage of the search.
I spared a glance at the museum staff, who were already re-hanging the painting, and the guard, still talking into his radio, wondering how many times a week they had to endure these crazy re-enactions then followed my wife down the back stairs of the Louvre and out onto the streets of Paris where the rain splashed onto glistening cobblestones and the traffic sped by, horns honking, oblivious to our plight.
“We must travel to the east,” Marlene said, consulting her booklet. “That’s where we can find somebody to decipher this puzzle. And we only have six hours before they’ll be onto us.”
I looked back at the famous museum, half expecting to see commandos rushing out of the glass pyramid to take us captive but instead I saw a park cleaner sweeping up the debris from the morning’s visitors and I felt a tinge of regret: my first time in the Louvre and I had not even had a chance to see the Mona Lisa. As I watched the even strokes of the broom the man turned and stared straight at me.
I panicked, even though I knew he was probably just a park cleaner, but all the same I had no desire to be captured by the other side so I hailed a cab and, without looking back, I pushed my wife inside and slammed the door.
“Versailles,” I said, giving the name of the first place that came into my mind.
“No, not Versailles,” squawked my wife, thrusting a map under the driver’s nose. “Here! Ici! We want to go here, I mean, ici!”
The taxi sped off into the traffic and I sank back onto the seat, wondering how I had ever agreed to this nonsense.
It had all started a year ago when my wife suggested we should go on a tour of the Scottish highlands. Imagining that we would be striding across moors stalking grouse and dining on haggis in famous castles, I readily agreed, only to discover that my wife had other plans: retracing the footsteps of the hero in one of her romance novels. To my amazement, the publishing company, who obviously could spot a money-making stunt, had created a tour that took fans to all the places mentioned in this book and for the two weeks of our journey I had to endure a gaggle of ladies, my wife included, clucking over the site of the wedding chapel where they were married, the inn where they fought off the redcoats, the cave where they were held prisoner and other unremarkable locations, with not a grouse, haggis or castle in sight. To make matters worse, the tour guide, dressed in a kilt, had played the role of one of the characters, causing the ladies to swoon and blush and behave like heart-struck teenagers all through the trip.
“We are not going to Scotland again,” I declared upon our return to the safety of our house and the sanctity of my study, “next year we’ll go to Paris or Rome.”
While I went back to my business my wife undertook her own research. She was so pleased with the results of the romantic rendezvous that she wondered what other books had spawned tours of the locations the characters had visited and she found a company that specialises in re-enactments of fiction. Not only can you visit the location where the hero walked, you can experience the story for yourself, solving clues along the way, emerging victorious at the end, no doubt with a pre-printed merit certificate signed by the author and a 50% off voucher for a repeat experience.
Romance books are not normally filled with action, at least, not the sort that you can recreate in public, but spy novels and thrillers are perfect fodder for re-enactment scenarios and since the idea was first floated a host of companies had sprung up to provide the thrill of the chase, as it were, with safety clauses built into the contract. I was glad that my wife did not like to read Stephen King novels, but she was a keen fan of Dan Brown, which is why after breakfast this morning we had found ourselves outside the Louvre, eagerly anticipating solving the mysteries of the Da Vinci code.
Well, when I say eagerly, I mean Marlene, of course; I would much rather have spent the morning in the Impressionists gallery, but it was her dream vacation, so I agreed to tag along.
It was not going to be exactly like the book, otherwise the punters could just read up on the precise locations and solutions to the mysteries and there would be no fun in the experience – if you could call racing around Paris fun. Instead, the tour company had devised a series of puzzles that were loosely based on the book but changed with each tour so that you could not give away the clues to the next unsuspecting victims.
I wondered if the tour companies wrote their own scripts or employed a team of mystery writers to do it for them. Perhaps there was a job opportunity there; I could write clues sending the participants to my brother’s hotel.
“Who comes up with these questions?” I asked once the taxi had stopped swerving round corners like a Formula-1 racer, and I had an opportunity to examine the carved cylinder, a small wooden tube which was covered in symbols like a scientific journal.
“The Illuminati of course,” said my besotted wife, grabbing the cylinder from me, “and Dan Brown is helping us to expose them.”
I rolled my eyes and wondered if there would be any decent beer in Versailles, or wherever we were going, or perhaps a small drinking establishment that I could park myself in while my wife indulged her fantasy but suddenly the side window shattered and something whistled past my head and embedded itself in the side of the car.
“They found us!” said the driver, swearing under his breath and accelerating hard.
“Who? What?” I stammered, bending down so that my shoulders touched my knees.
“They’re after this,” said my wife, tucking the cylinder into her ample bosom and sliding down the seat.
“Can you lose them?” she asked the taxi driver.
“Oui, oui, madame!” said the driver, nodding his head enthusiastically and taking a sharp left turn.
I wondered if he was part of the re-enactment or whether he just happened to be there at the right time, but surely they could not just shoot at any random taxi; it would have to be all pre-arranged, and given the forms we had signed, and the liability we had waived, not to mention the insurance we had been obliged to take out, this was probably all planned.
There were no more shots but I was not taking any chances with my head so I stayed crouched on the floor, wondering how they had found us. As I wriggled around, trying to avoid the pieces of broken window glass I felt something hard in my back pocket and pulled it out. We had each been issued photo ID passes which had got us into the Louvre in advance of the crowds of tourists but as I examined the barcode and felt the weight of the plastic I realised that the ID must also be a tracking device.
I was tempted to throw the thing out of the window and tell Marlene we would finish this tour on our own, but then I realised we would have a lot of explaining to do to the local police, and we would have no protection, if you can call a flimsy piece of plastic protection, should the re-enactment villains persist in pursuing us.
The taxi came to a stop, engine idling, no doubt for a quick getaway, and the driver reached behind him and opened the door.
“Notre Dame!” he said, pointing at the famous church, whose spires towered above us.
It was either the right place or Marlene was desperate to get out of the taxi because she practically fell onto the pavement and pulled me out after her, then the taxi sped off without waiting for payment. That was one part of this adventure that I did like.
“Now what?” I asked.
“We go inside the church,” she said, consulting her booklet, “and find the Keeper of the Key.”
“Oh,” I said, none the wiser, thinking for the hundredth time that I really should have read the novel before I came along on this caper. “And how do we recognise him?”
But Marlene had already turned and was striding towards the church door, ignoring the line of tourists waiting to climb the tower hoping for a glimpse of the ghost of Quasimodo. I gave them an apologetic shrug and hurried after her.
In the cool interior of the church I took a moment to adjust my eyes to the gloom that was pierced by coloured motes of light from the stained glass windows high above. My footsteps echoed a measured beat on the stone floor, contrasting with the clicking of my wife’s heels as she hurried away from me down the centre of the church. As she passed one of the side chapels a man wearing a long red robe stepped out from the shadows and beckoned to her. She moved towards him and after a moment she pulled the cylinder out from her blouse and passed it to him.
I had to dodge around a large group of tourists, each listening to the history of the church on individual hand held speakers, and when I caught up with Marlene the man in the robe was examining the cylinder as if it were an aged bottle of wine.
“I thought we were supposed to keep that,” I said, “and don’t we need a key?”
“It’s okay,” said Marlene, “this is Monsignor Philippe. He’s going to help us decipher the code.”
Just then a flash of light blinded my eyes as one of the tourists snapped a photograph of the carved pillar behind me. I stepped backward, blinking, and trod on the foot of an elderly lady who grimaced and bent over, massaging her toes.
“Sorry, er pardon, Madame,” I said, while a stream of visitors pushed past me.
A man took the limping lady’s arm and escorted her away, while she scowled and shook her fist at me and the tourists moved on to the next statue, clutching their portable audio guides. I looked around for Marlene and saw she was turning back and forth, searching for something.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“He’s gone!” she said, “Monsignor took the cypher and vanished!”
“Isn’t he supposed to do that?” I asked, beginning to feel a bit worried.
“No! He was supposed to help us solve the puzzle and lead us to the next clue.”
I looked around the vast cavern of the church but there were no men in robes, no lost keys or ciphers and no likely looking bestselling authors lurking nearby.
“Maybe he’s double crossed us,” I suggested. “Don’t the books usually have a good guy who turns out to be a bad guy?”
“But that’s not until day three,” Marlene wailed, “It says so in the booklet. Here; I’ll show you.”
She reached into her bag for the re-enactment booklet, the set of instructions for the game which also contained the emergency number to call if something went wrong and the details of how to quit if you were not satisfied. It was not there.
“I had it a minute ago,” she cried, “I was consulting the diagram of the church layout. It was right next to my ID card.”
With a gasp Marlene looked up. “My ID card’s gone too!”
“What do you mean gone?” I asked, putting my hand into my pocket, but even as I spoke I knew what had happened.
We had been robbed. Ether by the re-enactment company or by common Parisian pickpockets, but either way we were lost in a strange city with no identification, no money, no phone and no belongings.
“What shall we do?” Marlene sobbed as I stood looking at the flecks of dust floating in the shafts of coloured light that angled towards the floor from the lofty windows.
“Do? We’re in Paris; we’re going to stroll arm in arm along the Seine and later we’ll sit at a small café and have a delicious meal.”
“But, what about our plans, and the re-enactment and our money and everything?”
“Oh, I’m sure we can change our plans,” I said, putting my arm around my wife, “I can get my brother to wire some funds and as for re-enactment, we could try re-enacting our engagement, and then we could go and really tour the Louvre.”
As we walked out of the church, holding hands for the first time in many years, I caught sight of the woman whose foot I had stood on and she smiled at me, slightly inclining her head. I winked at her, then steered my wife towards the riverbank and our real holiday.
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