The hotel lobby was small but warm after the chill of the Parisian streets. On the left was a little bar with an absinthe dispenser on the counter. A gaggle of people chatted amiably in the gloom and cigarette smoke, the roiling music of their words suggesting intrigue and drama. To the right was the reception desk and a small neat man sat behind it, a world away from the midday drinkers.
Sir John and Marie walked to the desk and the man looked up expectantly.
“Monsieur?” he said.
“It’s Sir and Mrs Jennings,” said Sir John, somewhat hesitantly. The man’s head twitched as if to change language and he smiled.
“Ah yes, you are to stay with us for a month or so? In the suite?”
Sir John noticed that the group at the bar seemed to murmur in response and remembered it had been like this before. Nothing had gone unobserved.
“Exactly so,” he said.
“You stayed here before?” said the man, his head tilting to one side like a bird. “I seem to recall you.”
“Years ago, yes,” said Sir John, “on our wedding night.”
“Ah yes,” said the man, “I remember now. One moment.”
He leant over and pulled open a draw and rifled through some papers. A sheet was extracted and placed on the green leather desk top.
“Sign here, please,” said the man and produced a key as he did so.
From behind Sir John a man’s voice rose up from the convivial hubbub.
“You English! Always the same, never bothering to learn the language.”
The group at the bar fell quiet. A look of anxiety fell across the desk manager’s face as he held out the key. Sir John turned round to see a tall, well built man in his forties walk toward them. He had a suit on over a garish purple shirt and a small cigarette hung from his lower lip, which was shaded with stubble.
“How do you expect to get around my city,” said the man, so close now to Sir John.
“Well, monsieur,” said Sir John, “I expect you to help me.”
The quiet reached a nadir as the two man stared at each other, then suddenly both burst out laughing. The group in the bar jumped back in surprise.
“Emile, my friend!” said Sir John. “I’m glad you could meet us.”
“Ah Sir John,” said the tall man, slurring out the honorific, “I am sorry I missed you at the station. I was a little unprepared this morning.”
The desk manager looked confused yet relieved as Marie took the key from him.
“Marie! Ca va?” said Emile.
“Tres bon!” smiled Marie, “et toi?”
Emile offered a long shrug and noise by way of explanation.
“Better now,” he said. “We should eat, I have yet to have breakfast.”
“But, it’s practically lunchtime” said Sir John.
“Indeed, so I am famished,” said Emile. He leant forward to the desk manager and said something in French pointing to the Jennings’ bags.
“This gentleman will take care of your bags, come, let us eat, this is Paris after all. We have the best food in the world!”
He pushed out the doors into the midday sun and Sir John and Marie looked at each other, shrugged and followed.