Pascale Hervé stepped off the motorcycle and walked up to the police crime scene tape. A uniformed officer barred her way.
“Sergeant Patrice Laurent is expecting me,” she explained.
The man lifted his radio and asked for Patrice. Pascale’s curious gaze scanned her surroundings—old habits die hard, she thought to herself. This was one of the smart suburbs of Lodève and an unusual location for a fatality involving the police. The gentle afternoon sun illuminated well-to-do properties and the general sense of peace and tranquillity was at odds with the gaggle of police cars, crime scene investigators and the incongruous tape cordoning off the area from passers-by.
A few moments later Patrice arrived at the tape and told the man to let her through. “Pascale, how are you?” he asked, briefly embracing her.
“I am managing,” she said.
“I was sorry to hear about Guillaume. I would have come to the funeral, but I was called away. Work… You understand.”
She understood all too well, as that had been her working life until two years previously. Then semi-retirement and supposedly more time with Guillaume. Until prostate cancer took him before his time. The retirement never happened and she felt cheated. Angry, resentful, and, yes, cheated and now, so alone.
“What is it that you called me here for?” She asked, pushing the personal thoughts from her mind.
“Ah, yes, come here, I have something to show you.”
He led the way into the building and up the stairs to the first floor apartment. Inside was a scene of devastation. Smashed furniture lay discarded across the room along with the contents of cupboards and drawers. In the middle of the chaos, was the victim. He walked over to where the dead body lay and beckoned Pascale to join him. There was blood spread across the tiled floor and the broken body was contorted at an unnatural angle. A woman in her fifties, Pascale guessed. Surprised a burglar, perhaps, she thought. Going by the blood and the wound in her abdomen, stabbed. She gasped as she looked closer.
She reached for the woman’s arm and felt for a pulse. Nothing. But the eyes. She lifted a finger and moved it back and forth above the dead woman’s face and the eyes followed it. Reaching into her pocket she pulled out a small flashlight and shone it directly at the woman’s eyes and watched the pupils contract.
“Merde! Not again,” she breathed.
“So, you have seen this before,” Patrice said.
Pascale looked up at him. She had, but he shouldn’t be able to recall. It was all supposed to have been put right. No one should have remembered.
“I have this feeling…” he started. “This feeling that I’ve seen it before, but I cannot quite remember.”
Pascale stood. This wasn’t right. She clenched her fists and relaxed them, her normally tanned face now exhibiting a pallor.
“What do you remember?” she asked.
“I am not sure. Just that I have seen this undead thing before.”
He paused. “You know what it is, don’t you?”
“Unfortunately, I do. What bothers me is that you have a memory of this. You should not have remembered anything.”
“So what is it?”
She sighed. He wouldn’t believe her if she did tell him. “I have to go,” she said. “I need to see someone about this. Leave it with me.”
Patrice watched as she retreated. He heard her footsteps on the stairs.
He went over to the window and watched her as she walked across the grass and made her way back to the bike. She mounted it, pressed the starter button and was gone, the muffled exhaust sound all that she left. Patrice frowned. She knew something and it bothered him. It bothered him that she knew what it was that he was now dealing with. Why wouldn’t she tell him?
“Pah!” He said to himself. Then, “get the body to the morgue,” to the SOC investigator who happened to be in the room and caught the brunt of his irritation.
Pascale pulled the bike up at the side of the road and looked across to her right. She remembered this place. So long ago now, but it hadn’t changed. Sand blown in from the sea drifted across the road and she felt her foot slipping on it as she steadied the bike, placing the sidestand down and resting the machine’s weight on it before stepping off. She removed her helmet and placed it in one of the panniers before the sand had time to get into the mechanism. Already she could feel the grittiness on her face as the particles skipped along with the breeze.
The Mediterranean air carried with it the tang of salt and seaweed and she breathed deeply, savouring its essence. Above, the gulls keened and squabbled. On the sandy beach were two deckchairs. They faced out to sea where the turquoise waves gently lapped the shore. She didn’t fully understand how she got here, as when she left Patrice, she had just ridden, expecting much the same thing to happen as had happened previously and sure enough, here she was. She looked down to the beach and saw the scythe leaning against one of the deckchairs, its occupant’s back to her, but she recognised the familiar outline.
She walked down to the deckchairs, her mind aware of the difficulty of walking on loose sand in motorcycle boots. As she drew level, Death turned and looked at her. Two glowing eyes bored into her soul.
“Ah, Pascale. Nice to see you again. Do sit down,” he gestured to the empty chair and she slumped into it.
Death reached down and lifted up a bottle of wine and proffered it to her. “Pégairolles,” he said. “You are partial, I recall.”
“Thankyou.” She took the bottle and poured some into a glass that Death had left by the deckchair. She took a sip and savoured the warm fruity flavour. “What are you up to?” She asked.
“Up to?” Death feigned confusion.
“You know what I mean. The undead bodies. We’ve been here before. That Christmas a few years back. When you thought it would be okay to go swanning off drinking and smoking and leave the work behind. That ‘up to’,” she said flatly.
“Ah, yes, that.” He took a sip of wine himself before fishing into his cape and pulling out a packet of cigarettes. He put one into his mouth and flicked a zippo, igniting the end. He drew deeply and breathed out a plume of smoke. “Yes, that.”
For a moment they sat in companionable silence, neither seeking to break the gentle mood of the bay and the sea breaking on the sandy shore. The gulls were still shrieking above, but otherwise it was peaceful. Death had all the time in the world, Pascale presumed and she was in no hurry to get him to speak, for she had time on her hands as well.
Eventually he broke the silence. “Tell me what happened.”
“Patrice called me to a crime scene.”
“So much for retirement then.”
“I think you know why. The undead.” She turned to look directly at him, eyeball to glowing eye socket. If she hoped to shame him into admitting any fault, she was to be disappointed. He took a drag on his cigarette, before snuffing out the dog end and dropping it on the sand and rubbing his foot on it, pushing it down into the sand and out of sight. Pascale frowned, but before she could chide him, he interjected. “I’m a supernatural being. It’s a supernatural cigarette, so no harm, eh?”
She laughed briefly. “So what is going on?”
I’m taking a holiday. One gets tired working all the hours, don’t you know?”
“I do, but you are a supernatural being. I would have thought such things didn’t apply to you. Besides. Patrice remembered last time.”
Death started and looked at her.
Ah, she thought. You didn’t expect that, did you?
Death took another sip of the wine before holding it up to the light. “A pleasant enough drink, but I prefer a single malt.” He returned to the subject. “Tell me.”
“The reason he called me was because he remembered something. He couldn’t recall all the detail, just that he remembered something like this before—undead bodies. And he knew that I had been involved. But you were supposed to tidy up. It would seem that you didn’t.”
Death sighed. “I didn’t expect that. Still, he won’t remember anything when I have gone back to correct things.”
“You had better. I could do without being called back.”
Death waved a hand in dismissal. “I will sort it out, don’t you worry.”
Pascale sipped the wine and looked across at him again. Something wasn’t quite right. “You summoned me here, didn’t you?”
Death smiled. She wondered how he did that, given that he had no flesh.
“You were always perceptive, Pascale. It’s what I like about you.”
“So all this was a ruse to get me here.” It was a statement rather than a question.
“The space time continuum is a sensitive thing. Little ripples spread out and I can feel them. Much like the spider in the centre of her web when the fly strikes it. I feel those tiny disturbances each and every one. And I detected yours.”
For a moment, she said nothing. Then eventually, “go on.”
“How is that retirement going?” He countered.
She sighed heavily and took another sip, savoured the liquid and swallowed.
“Not so good, then?”
“One of the benefits of being omniscient.”
She sighed again. “Retirement, everyone said, was a new beginning. A transition from the old to the new. A chance to take things a little more slowly, to savour time and to do things that I enjoy.”
She drifted into silence as she took another sip of the Pégairolles. Even the taste of the wine brought a lump to her throat. This place carried memories of a time long gone, a happier time.
“But Guillaume died.”
“Yes. Guillaume died. And you would have known that when you encouraged me to choose life, to grasp it by the throat, to squeeze every drop of essence from it, to live, to love and to thrive. Two years later, I am alone, empty and heartbroken. Have you any idea what it is like to wake in an empty bed knowing that this is to be another day without that person you spent your life with? To go to bed at night knowing that you leave yet another day between you and them as they fade into the past, out of reach forever, an echo in your mind? Do you? Do you?!”
“No. I cannot. But I do not always see what is to happen. It doesn’t work that way. I get notified and I go to collect the dead. I do not have their lives at my fingertips. The space time continuum is about a feeling, not certainty. I was not to know that it would be so soon and for that, I am sorry, really I am.”
“I thought you were omniscient.”
Death shrugged. “Well, I see things. Feel them more like, but I am not aware of every tiny detail—it’s more of an overview, if you like. Perhaps, mostly omniscient…”
She snapped her head round to treat him to one of her stares. “How on earth can you be mostly omniscient? Either you are or you are not.”
Death remained unruffled. “I am a supernatural being…”
“Your go-to response when caught out,” she said flatly.
They lapsed into silence again as Death realised that she was right, but didn’t pursue the matter. She would tell him what was on her mind eventually and he was content to let the conversation evolve organically. Of all the mortals that he had dealings with, it was Pascale who had caused him the most difficulty and it troubled him, despite his liking for her.
“I can’t go on like this,” she was saying, bringing him back from his reverie.
“I understand. But while you are alive, there is hope. There is a future. You may find another.”
“I do not want another. It will never be the same.”
“No, not the same, but you can enjoy a different life.”
“All I see is darkness. An emptiness that stretches out before me. I could live for decades yet and I cannot cope.”
Death fished in his cape and pulled out his smartphone. He tapped at the screen. “Hmmm.”
“What does “hmmm” mean?”
“Well, decades is not so very far off.”
Pascale watched the waves drifting into the shore, myriad points of light dancing on the surface. Even this place wasn’t right. It was exactly as she remembered it. And that was the point. Since then it had changed as commerce moved in and took advantage of the tourism opportunities. Now it had ice cream parlours and burger vans, shops selling plastic tat for the visitors, and the beach should have been full of the latter not to mention litter, she thought irritably. Here, though, in this moment, it was exactly as it had been on the long ride south that day thirty years ago. Just an empty cove with the Mediterranean lapping at the soft silvery sand. Even the sun remained where it was, somewhere in the late afternoon. By now it should have moved westwards and lower over the horizon, yet it remained frozen in time and space. A space that existed only in her memory.
“Time heals,” Death was saying.
“Trite, clichéd nonsense,” she snapped. “Time merely opens up the wound. Time pulls me further away while he is stuck in the ever disappearing past, lost beyond reach, while I move further away into the future, desolate, broken, lonely and longing for peace. Time has done no healing for me. Time has merely made my loss more acute. Every night I go to bed hoping that I will not wake to face another futile day.”
“So what do you expect of me?”
“Take me as you were supposed to all that time ago. Put right the anomaly that you manipulated. I am ready now. There is nothing left here for me.”
Death sighed one of his sonorous, universe shaking sighs. “I cannot.”
“Why? You managed to change things once before. You should have taken me long ago, before all this pain. But you changed time. If you did it then, why can you not do it now?”
“It is precisely because I did it then, that I cannot do it now. Those ripples…” He lapsed into silence.
“What about them?”
“I am not the only one who can feel them, my dear. I have made subtle changes and no one has noticed, but if I keep doing it, sooner or later they will and I will be in a great deal of trouble. I simply cannot take the risk again.”
They lapsed into an awkward silence, sipping wine and still the sun remained high in the sky and still the light danced on the waves and still the seagulls wheeled overhead. He lit another cigarette and she watched as the smoke trickled upwards and dispersed into the air. Everything was surreal to her. The light was a little too bright, the sounds a little too clear, the sea a little too blue, the sand a little too silvery. It was a dream-like sense of reality, a facsimile of the real thing, a distortion of memory.
“This isn’t real.”
She pondered the thought for a moment. “None of it is.”
Then it occurred to her that she had everything back to front. “You didn’t summon me, did you?”
Death remained silent as she worked through her thoughts aloud. “I summoned you.”
“Patrice, the undead bodies, the ride here. It’s all in my head…”
“You have a question to consider. A decision to make and speaking to you here, in this place—well, your head—is somewhere that we can do it.”
“I don’t want to go on. I cannot face the interminable years alone.”
“You don’t have to. You may meet someone else.”
“But it wouldn’t be the same.”
“And you won’t take me, so I have to go on.”
Death stubbed out the cigarette. “There is another option. I had hoped to avoid it. I had hoped that you would come through this. However, it seems that you will not be persuaded. So…”
“What is it?”
He told her.
“Of course, there is no going back if you choose this path. So take your time to consider. There is no rush…”
“I don’t need time. I know my answer.”
Patrice Laurent stopped outside the apartment with two officers, slightly out of breath having climbed the stairs. He was worried. The next door opened and a middle aged woman came out into the corridor. “Ah, you are here,” she said.
“Madame,” Patrice said.
“I’ve not seen nor heard anything of her for some while now. I was concerned, that’s why I called you.”
“That is quite right, Madame. So tell me, how long might that be?” He asked.
The woman paused as she thought about it. “A couple of weeks, I think. Usually she comes and goes. That motorbike hasn’t been touched either, so I know she’s in there.”
Patrice nodded and tried the doorbell. Upon getting no answer, he called out while banging on the door with his fist. “Pascale! Are you in there?” Again, no answer. He turned to one of the officers. “We will have to break in.”
The man nodded to his colleague and they used a ram to break down the door. Patrice walked briskly from room to room calling out Pascale’s name.
“In here,” one of the men called from the bedroom.
Patrice followed the sound of the voice and looked down at Pascale. She was inert on the bed. He reached out and checked for a pulse. There was none, yet the body was warm. He lifted an eyelid and the pupil contracted. “How strange.”
They tried to revive her, but to no avail. She was somewhere between life and death.
“Better call an ambulance,” he ordered.
Pascale woke. The sun shone through the window and lit the room with a glorious warm light that bounced off the sheets and felt like a warm glow on her face. In the en-suite she could hear the water running as Guillaume showered. He would be out soon and she would look upon him and savour the contours of his body, the dark shock of hair and three-day stubble he insisted upon sporting. She imagined holding his firm body close, breathing in the fresh smell of his cologne and feeling the stubble scratching her skin. She looked across at the bedside clock. A little after half past seven. A glorious morning. The start of a new day. A special day.
She remembered this day as if it was yesterday, rather than thirty years ago. They were going to ride south, along the Riviera coast, dropping into Italy. Then down to Tuscany.
She got out of bed and pulled the sheet around her as she walked across to the window. Below in the square she could see the bikes. His Laverda triple and her Harley. Yes, that bike from so long ago. She would get to ride it again. The heady scent of jasmine hung on the air, just as she remembered it.
That evening, following the day’s ride, in the light of the dying sun, they would eat a meal, drink some wine and listen to the sound of soft voices, clinking glasses, and the cicadas chirruping on the sultry air, warm still from the heat of the day’s sun.
That day was burned into her soul. She could recall every moment because that evening in the quiet of a Tuscan sunset, he proposed. Yes, she could recall every minute even though they had flashed past in the blink of an eye.
But this time was different. This time she would savour every precious second. For this time, the day was going to last for a lifetime.
I’d trade all of my tomorrows, for a single yesterday—“Me and Bobby McGee” Kris Kristofferson.