EXCERPT

An Excerpt from:

Talia

First book in the “Champs de Lys” series.

A long boring Sunday ahead. Talia rolls over and tries to catch her sleep again. To no avail. Getting up at 6:00 every morning makes sleeping in on Sundays impossible. The baroque flowered wallpaper has faded through age and nicotine into a dirty yellow brown. A bright white and blue seascape smack in the middle of the rectangle of a once bigger frame accentuates the drabness of the cheap apartment. Like the ones of her youth in Ivry-sur-Seine. Cheap rent and decorations from before the war. Or maybe from the one before that. The wrought iron bed creeks. Its spiral sags so much that a couple would have no choice but to sleep enlaced. Of course, Talia sleeps alone. To limit the hammock effect, she has shoved bedside table drawers underneath.

A huge chestnut wardrobe stands ajar. A winged leather armchair with Solana’s ‘artwork’ to the left. Cracked leather from too much cleaning with water. A yawn comes from the foot end of her bed. Shit ! Solana has sneaked up on her during the night. Again ! With her foot under the blankets, Talia tries to shove the dog off the bed. Solana isn’t impressed. She stretches and staggers over to lick Talia’s face.

“Stop! Stop!” she laughs. “That’s enough you nasty devil,” holding the dog at arm’s length. “Let me sleep in peace!” No use staying in bed now. She swings her legs over the edge and puts the dog on the floor who heads straight to her bowl.

“Yeah, yeah… I know,” Talia grumbles. “Not until after my shower, you hear? Patience is a virtue.”

Half an hour later, Solana gets her biscuits and Talia prepares an espresso. The kitchen is hardly large enough for a two seat kitchen table, an old gas cooker and a bulky white ceramic sink. The sink is speckled from chipped enamel and so low that she could wash the dishes on her knees. The cupboards underneath never close properly . The table serves as cooking counter, dinner table and home office. A portable black and white TV set sits on a wobbly side table in the corner next to the window. A small crucifix hangs above the entrance door. Contrary to the ones of her youth, this one seems naked without a Jesus or an olive twig. Her mother got a new one every year on Sunday before Easter. They were actually boxwood and the tiny leaves dried to an ugly caramel, but they hung on for the whole year, symbolizing God’s peace offer after suffering. Talia never goes to mass. The times she genuinely prayed could be counted on one hand. This crucifix will not get its olive branch.

Solana whines to go for a walk. Anyway, Talia doesn’t feel like spending the whole day inside. She packs a raincoat and together they drive to Calais beach. They pass a small marina with boats laying on their sides, along remnants of a brick fortress and hideous concrete seaside hotels before reaching the jetty. The drizzle has stopped. The overcast sky sheds soft light on a slate-gray calm sea. Low tide has uncovered a large expanse of empty beach. People are still in bed. An sole man walks two identical dogs. Passing a long row of beach huts, Talia drives to ‘Sangatte’ and the chalk cliffs of ‘Cap Blanc Nez’. It’s the shortest distance between France and England. By fair weather you can see the white cliffs of Dover. Today the weather doesn’t show anything but gray. She drives past the obelisk war monument and continues to ‘Escalles’ at the foot of the hill. A small sign indicates ‘plage’ over a narrow dirt track ending in an unpaved parking lot. Apart from a derelict Mobylette, her car is the only vehicle. In the distance a couple climbs a footpath leading up to the war monument. A light breeze carries the smell of salt and seaweed.

Solana strains the leash because she knows where they are heading. Here she can run free. She pulls Talia down a steep-sided path leading to a World War II bunker at beach level. The ocean has carried off the sand and the last concrete step is suspended half a meter above a layer of pebbles. Talia looks out over an absolutely deserted beach and unhooks Solana. The dog jumps down without waiting. Talia soaks in the scene. A blanket of gray clouds rolls towards her like the underside of a quilt. How would it feel to touch them? The low tide has uncovered a immense expanse. To the left a wide band of gray pebbles follows the foot of the cliffs as far as she can see. To the right the chalk-white Cliff of Cap Blanc Nez towers with majestic height. She jumps the gap from the last step. Solana torpedoes towards a flock of seagulls scaring the birds into flight long before she can catch one.

Talia strolls towards the white cliff. The retreating tide has created an immense mosaic of sand waves, creeks and gullies. She shakes her head and lets the West winds fondle her hair. She is completely alone in this vast expanse of space. Her work at the Euro-tunnel construction site is just beyond the hills behind her. But this is an other universe. The beach narrows at the foot of the soaring cliff. Huge chalk blocks spill over the sand like giant angular marbles that broke off the ledge way up there. An avalanche frozen in time. The more she approaches the more colossal the rocks become. At the far side of the landslide an entire World War II bunker has fallen down and is partially embedded in the beach. She gazes up along the towering wall. Are rocks still falling? Nothing moves. Most blocks are half buried in the sand and overgrown with algae. They must have been there for years. Half walking half climbing, she advances through the lunar landscape.

Solana is far ahead, barking like mad at the fallen bunker. Talia laughs. It’s a funny sight, such a little creature barking like mad at a gigantic concrete block. Has she discovered a bird or some other creature ? Then she disappears behind the bunker and a scream pierces the silence. Talia freezes. An other scream followed by a stream of curses. A male voice. Solana is attacking a someone ! Some creep hiding behind the bunker? As quickly as possible she maneuvers between the rocks and boulders to get to the bunker.She discovers an unlikely scene. A tall man in a long black raincoat and a wide black hat balances on one leg, trying to shake off Solana who has clamped on to his other leg. With his right arm he holds on to a wooden tripod with an antique wooden camera on top. The kind with a bellows that photographers used a century ago. A black cloth is draped over his arm. A scene from a 19th century picture book. The man lets go of the tripod. With a violent kick of his leg he sends Solana flying with a piece of his trousers clenched between her teeth. His hat falls into a sandy puddle of seawater. With a yelp the dog lands in an angle of the concrete bunker. Recovering immediately, she shakes her head violently to kill the piece of cloth. Talia yells. The man doesn’t seem to hear and physically corners Solana with his body straight as a statue and his arms wide. Solana drops the cloth and for an instant the whole scene immobilizes. He is staring the dog down. Talia approaches. The man immediately gestures her to stay put without looking up.

“Don’t move !” He orders in a tone that doesn’t tolerate opposition. His voice is deep.

“But…”

“DON’T MOVE !” He snarls.

Startled by his tone Talia halts. Solana bares her teeth with an ominous low growl.

“Does your dog always bite strangers?” he asks with a much smoother baritone.

She hesitates. “Uhh…”

“Does he?” He insists.

“Uh… ,” Talia whispers. “She hasn’t for a long time.”

He seems to ponder that.

“You know how this can end, don’t you?” he says while still fixing the dog. “Someday, your dog will bite a child and the police who will take over. Can you imagine your dog biting a child in the face? You want him to be put down?”

“NO !” Talia bursts out. She is surprised by her own emotion.

He glances over and his eyes bore into hers for just an instant too long. She feels as if looks right through her and averts her gaze. She feels vulnerable, exposed, at a loss for words. She hasn’t told the whole truth.

“I’m so sorry monsieur. I’m so very sorry,” she tries. “Of course I will pay for your trousers. Please don’t report this.”

With a short flick of his eyes he inspects his trousers. A big piece is torn off. Horrified, Talia notices blood trickling down his ankle. Solana has really bitten him ! This is worse by the minute.

“I’m s-so sorry, monsieur” she pleads. “I will pay anything you want. Please don’t report this to the police.” Her voice wavers. “Please !”

Silence. Solana makes a low growl with the hairs over the length of her back standing upright. She is ready to attack.

“Please ?” Talia is begging now and tears burn behind her eyes. “She’s the only friend I have here.”

A long silence. Too long. Then he asks : “Anything?”

OMG… Who is this creep to take advantage of the situation ! How much does he want? One word of him and Solana’s life is at stake. Hesitatingly Talia whispers “Ye-Yes… Anything.”

Again a heavy silence follows before he finally says: “I’ll make you a deal,” his voice is almost a whisper. “I won’t report your dog. But… you need to trust me and pay me a hot chocolate.”

“What?…” Who is this guy? Hot chocolate? Why? Does he abuse this situation to make a move? Seriously?

“I won’t hurt your dog,” he adds. “But you stay there. DON’T move ! Keep your mouth shut and DON’T intervene. Under ANY circumstance.”

“But wha — “

“NO BUTS !” he cuts her off. Solana growls louder.

“Yes or no?” He adds calmly. His voice seems to switch effortlessly between anger and calmness… What will he do to Solana? What can she answer? He only asks for a coffee… Does she have a choice? Finally, with a slight nod she whispers: “Yes.”

“Okay then.” He straightens. “Stay there, watch carefully and don’t… speak.”

He takes a calm step forward. Solana’s growl intensifies. The man isn’t impressed.

“What —?”

“SHUT UP !” he bites. Solana barks and her growl is ominously low. He remains like a statue while adding : “I told you to stay quiet… So you DON’T… TALK… JUST… WATCH.”

What else can she do ?

He takes an other discreet step forward. Solana turns very nervous, growling and wagging her tail at the same time. Minutes pass and it starts to drizzle. She shivers while waiting forever. The man doesn’t seem to notice the cold or the rain. Solana nervously starts turning in circles. He stretches out his hand to Talia without letting the dog out of sight for an instant. She understands that he wants the leash and silently hands it over. By slipping the carabiner through the nylon handle he creates a slip loop. Approaching to arms length he gently slides the loop over Solana’s head. She doesn’t react. He gently pulls it tighter. Suddenly Solana lashes out and he immediately lifts her off her feet. She hangs choking in mid air struggling to no avail. He’s going to kill her… ! Then his free hand grabs the dog by the neck, distending the leash. He shakes her with a short and forceful “NO!” and repeats the shake a second and third time. When Solana calms down he lowers her to the sand and takes a slow step back. The leash still hovers at arms length over Solana’s head. The dog is silent.

The danger is over and Talia makes a move to approach.

“STOP !” he barks. “I’M NOT FINISHED !” which makes Solana snap and jump up. She sinks her teeth in his right hand. “Autch,” he cries drawing his hand back in a reflex but immediately recovers by lifting her up with the leash and again grabbing her by the neck. New intermittent forceful shakes with the powerful “NO!” follow. Solana calms down and he slowly lowers her to the ground. Solana’s attitude has completely changed. She half crouches with flat ears and her tail between her legs shaking like a leaf, peaking nervously left and right to escape. He lets the leash fall in the sand and waits. Motionless. Long minutes pass. The drizzle changes into drops.

“I’m waiting for her to lie down,” he whispers. “She has to sit or lie down.”

Solana shakes completely stressed out while the man is her exact opposite. His perfectly calm attitude signals that he knows what he is doing. Talia waits. Minutes pass. Finally, Solana sits and then lays down. Sloooowly, sloooowly the man turns away and takes a two steps.

“She has shown me respect,” he explains in a whisper. “So I show her that she doesn’t need to fear me.”

He returns nonchalantly to the dog. “Now I have to gain her trust.” Solana rises shaking again. He stops. He waits. Much quicker then before Solana lays down. He turns again and takes a few steps. The pattern is repeated a third time and a fourth. Solana starts panting visibly more relaxed. In a slow fluent movement he squats down in front of her and waits. No reaction. He hovers his hand over Solana’s head. A drop of blood plops a tiny red blotch in the sand. No reaction. Then he gently strokes her in one fluent move over head, shoulders and back. Solana lets him. He strokes for minutes with one hand and then his other gentle forces her to roll on her side. Solana opens her legs. He keeps stroking her whole body giving special attention to her throat and belly. It appears like ages. In the end, Solana lies still as hypnotized without even wagging her tail. The man quietly rises and turns to Talia. “Ignore her for now…”

Talia fears to disturb the vibe. “You are bleeding,” she whispers.

“It will heal,” he mumbles and walks over towards the surf. Talia flinches at the thought of saltwater on fresh wounds when he crouches to wash first his hand and then his ankle. When done, he lifts his head and whistles to where sky and sea meet. As a coil spring Solana jumps up, runs over to him and starts licking his face like mad. Talia can’t believe her eyes. He starts playing with her as if they have known one another forever.

She approaches the both of them. “Are you a dog trainer?”

“Nope,” he says. “Just like dogs,” while he rises to face her. His voice is deep and it’s vibrations roll over her skin. His gaze stirs a strange nervousness in her. A mixture of anticipation and apprehension. The nervousness of sleepless nights before her childhood birthdays. A sensation she hasn’t experienced for years and she averts her eyes. He though, seems perfectly at ease. She isn’t so sure anymore if he was coming onto her when asking for hot chocolate.

“The photographing is over,” he says, walking over to pick up his hat checkered with patches of yellow sand.

Talia completely forgot about the camera. It still stands there while the dark cloth drowns in a puddle of seawater next to it. He starts packing his gear into a backpack. She waits for him to speak but he doesn’t.

Finally, she breaks the silence : “Of course I will pay for everything. Your trousers and medical care…”

“You promised me hot chocolate,” he says dryly.

“Yes of course, of course. But I will pay for all your damages.”

“They’re old trousers,” he says matter-of-factly regardless of the wounds. Twenty minutes ago he was taking advantage of the situation. Now, he doesn’t want her to pay ? His damages are very real. Who is this guy? Between distrust and intrigue she decides to do the polite thing and introduce herself. She stretches out her hand. “I’m Talia Tarrasco.”

He hesitates, then shakes it. She notices him suppressing a flinch when she presses too hard. It’s his wounded hand.

With a dry baritone he frowns : “Next time ask for an introduction. No need to attack me with a rabid dog.” She startles at his tone before discovering the twinkle in his eyes. Then his face lights up with a wide spontaneous smile.

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