It was another wonderful summer afternoon in Lyons. The skies were clear, the sun was warming everything comfortably, and flowers were in bloom throughout the Jardin botanique de Lyon.
However, Jennifer Halston was under a cloud as she marched down Av. Félix Faure.
Less than an hour earlier, she had confirmed something that she had suspected for several weeks - her friend Henri Somnier was cheating on his wife, Ines.
Jennifer had worried for days what she would tell Henri’s wife, Jennifer’s dear friend, if it could be proven that Henri was having an affair. Even more, Jennifer was really torn on whether or not she should even insert herself so deeply into her friends’ marriage. Infidelity was usually something that was left for those who were involved to sort out.
But Jennifer’s own experience with watching her mother quietly endure her father’s trysts was something that always bothered Jennifer.
Jennifer Halston was an American expatriate. She had spent almost as much time throughout her childhood living in Europe as she did in America. Her family’s international finance connections had caused her father to move the family around from time to time. As a result, Jennifer had a passable understanding of French, Italian, German and Dutch, in addition to her native American English.
It was Jennifer’s good fortune to have an athletic build (owing to years of gymnastic competitions which helped her get acquainted with other girls whenever she moved), a stunning set of blue eyes set in an appealing, geometric face, and flowing hair. She padded the savings account that her father had set up for her with earnings from occasional modelling jobs, video commercial work, and language tutoring for various corporations’ new international hires.
It was this last arena where she had met Ines and Henri.
Henri and Ines had been married for some time, moving every few years, before they chose Lyon as the city they wanted to settle down in. Henri was a legal consultant for international construction firms. Ines had been hired by an upstart tech company which was attempting to expand its reach. Henri and Ines found Jennifer through her tutoring website. Ines’ native language was French, and she knew some Russian. She could understand English and speak it without too much difficulty. However, her German was an odd mismatch of dialects and commercialized phrases. This is where Jennifer’s assistance was required.
Jennifer had hit it off immediately with Ines, even though she was at least a decade older then the American. Jennifer loved visiting Ines at their well-decorated apartment in the La Guillotiere neighborhood. The fine porcelain on various tables and shelves were almost as distracting as the exquisite contemporary artwork that hung on the walls. When Jennifer visited their home, she felt both at ease because of their casual manners and excited by the unpretentious luxury.
Except for this one fine summer day.
Jennifer buzzed the front door at street level and Ines let her in without delay. When Ines opened the front door to the apartment, she was a little apprehensive.
“What brings you to visit on an off day?” Ines asked with a hint of a smile.
This was the moment Jennifer was dreading. She paced across the room while shuffling her splayed fingers between each other. She peered into the kitchen and saw a bottle of red wine on the counter, always available should the need arise. Jennifer briefly considered recommending that they share a glass of wine, deciding instead to just launch right into it.
She stopped in the middle of the parlor and planted her feet in a steadying stance.
“I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but I think Henri is having an affair.”
Jennifer was looking right at Ines when she said it. Not knowing what to expect, she was met with a slight twitch between Ines’ eyes before she tucked her chin.
“What are you saying?” Ines said softly as she crossed to a chair in the corner of the room. “My Henri?”
“Yes,” Jennifer said in confirmation of her previous statement. “Look, Ines – I wish to God this was not true. I really, really do.” Jennifer took a step closer towards her friend while clasping her fluttering stomach. “If I thought there was any doubt, any doubt at all, I would not be telling you this.”
Ines slowly sat down on the Bergere chair, resting one elbow on the wooden armrest. Jennifer took a sympathetic seat on the matching chair in the opposite corner.
“It first started… well, I first noticed something,” Jennifer began, “when I was at the TCL station at Valmy a few weeks ago and I thought I saw Henri in a far corner of the station. Well, I thought I would go over and say ‘hi’, you know – just to be friendly. Well, when I got closer, I saw that he was not alone.” Jennifer was watching Ines for any signs of distress or disbelief. Ines had a concerned look on her face but was listening intently to what Jennifer was saying.
“I know that Henri knows a lot of people and has many friends,” Jennifer was quick to add. “So, I didn’t think much of it at first. I almost went over there anyway. But I thought that might be rude, interrupting a conversation. Then,” Jennifer hesitated because she knew she was about to get into the speculative part of her narrative. “I realized that they were standing really close together. Like, really close. I don’t know – I know this sounds weird or exaggerated or whatever.” Jennifer swallowed and saw that Ines’ expression had changed somewhat. She was obviously processing what Jennifer was telling her. Yet the emotions underneath the expression were not clear.
“I decided to just mind my own business and get on the train,” Jennifer said. “And if that was all, I would have left it alone. But then a few days later, I saw Henri again, in the corner of another station, with the same woman.”
She expected Ines to demand a thorough description of this mystery woman, but she did not. Instead, Ines leaned back in her chair slightly and waited for Jennifer to continue.
Jennifer thought hard to recall the next part as precisely as she could.
“Then, at that party we went to after seeing the exhibit at the Galerie Estades, I think the host’s name was Monsieur Anstead?”
“Ersten,” Ines corrected her softly.
“Right, Ersten.” Jennifer swallowed hard and then cleared her throat. “I saw Henri outside, off to the side of the building, with a woman. Now, in this instance, I don’t know for sure that it was the same woman. It was dark and, well, I did have a few glasses of wine.” Jennifer suppressed the instinct to chuckle. “But I definitely saw him with a woman that night, too.”
Jennifer paused to let Ines ask any questions. The older woman merely looked out of one of the open windows where sunlight was streaming in, then she breathed in deeply. Still, Ines said nothing.
“Then, just earlier today,” Jennifer continued, “I was having lunch at that Moroccan place over by the park. When I came out, I was just looking around and I saw Henri sitting there, on a park bench with that same woman which I saw him with in the subway multiple times. Same dark hair, shoulder-length, curled at the bottom. Same deep red lipstick, same eye makeup. Except, they weren’t just talking. They were kissing, Ines. Like, full romantic kissing. I was just frozen, standing there and watching them, thinking ‘oh my god, this cannot be happening, why is he doing this to poor Ines?’ I thought ‘this is wrong, Henri cannot be doing this,’” Jennifer had brought up a hand to point with an index finger for emphasis. “And that’s when I decided that I had to come and tell you.”
Ines stood up and crossed the room to look out onto the street below. A light breeze played with the sheer curtains and lifted strands of Ines’ short-cut hair.
“I told Henri that you were getting too close,” Ines said under her breath.
Jennifer sat, stunned. Of all the reactions that she had tried to prepare herself for, this was the kind of reaction she had feared the most. Ines seemed poised to blame Jennifer for bringing this information to her, instead of placing the blame where it belonged.
“Look, Ines,” Jennifer began in her defense. “I really am sorry to have told you this. I didn’t want to hurt you, I would never want to hurt you. And I don’t want to cause any problems between you and Henri. But I’ve seen firsthand what kind of damage an affair can do to a marriage. Even hidden damage that no one wants to talk about. It’s not right. And it’s not fair to you, Ines.” Jennifer’s eyes started to tear up. She stood, wishing she could embrace her friend.
Ines cocked her lower jaw to one side, as some people do when they are deciding what to say. She gave Jennifer a sideways glance that was inscrutable.
With an abrupt shift, Ines moved swiftly to the desk behind the sofa. Turning the key in the center drawer and releasing a hidden latch underneath, she drew open the right-handed drawer. Ines reached in, pulled out a handgun that was well polished, and pointed it at Jennifer.
Jennifer drew in a sharp breath and held it as her brain tried to process what was going on.
“You just couldn’t leave it alone, could you?” Ines asked with a hint of regret. “In France, it is not at all uncommon for a married man to have a woman on the side. Same for married women to have a man on the side.”
Ines stepped slowly towards Jennifer, gun never wavering.
“We consider it polite to ignore it,” Ines said casually. “But in America, everything must be a tell-all gossip story, no? You Americans and the English cannot avoid scandals, can you? It is your entertainment.”
Jennifer could not remember the last time Ines said anything like ‘you Americans’. Ines and Henri had always been very cordial. Personable to the degree that Jennifer genuinely thought they were friends.
Obviously, this was not so.
“I-I-I’m sorry,” Jennifer managed to stutter, as her eyes fluttered from the gun to Ines’ face. Both were cold and impassionate. Jennifer had raised her hands as a reflex. “I-I didn’t know, I….”
Jennifer’s mind was reeling now. For some reason, the thought crossed her mind that she should have watched more action movies to know what to do in a situation like this.
However, movies could never prepare a person for the real thing. Knowing that a person standing barely ten feet away need only flinch one finger to cause you significant pain, or even death, tended to mess with one’s ability and willingness to play the role of daring heroine.
“I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this,” Ines began, repeating the line that Jennifer had used minutes earlier. “But you have stumbled upon a very delicate operation. I wish that I could just let you think that Henri is having an affair and that I can accept it as his wife. I really do. I honestly liked you, Jennifer. But, as I said, you Americans love to spread stories of infidelities and sexual misconduct. Just look at your conduct today. As soon as you were able to confirm your suspicion, based on the slimmest of evidence, you came running here to tell me all about it.”
Ines paused to take a deep breath, narrowing her eyes as she stared at Jennifer.
“I cannot trust you to keep this secret.” Ines’ voice took on a very hard edge. “And I most definitely cannot let you tell anyone else what you just told me.”
Jennifer had been stepping backwards as Ines approached. She was now two steps away from an open window. She briefly thought about screaming for help. But Ines appeared ready to shoot her. Screaming would only force Ines to shoot her.
“You do not want me to end your life here, now,” Ines assured her. Her voice was calm, but flat. Without anxiety or regret. As if she had done this before. The absence of any emotion frightened Jennifer more than the gun itself did. “I am going to make a phone call. Some men will come and take you away. You can plead your case with them. I doubt they will listen, but you can try. It will allow the operation to continue with minimal explanations, and you may yet find a way to live.”
Jennifer’s imagination switched to a view of her sitting in the back seat of some car, squished between a pair of burly, sour-faced men. Then she imagined herself being pushed into a wooded area, crying – no one around to witness her last moments except for her murderers. For some reason, she envisioned Henri being there. Reminding her that he was going to live while she was executed for something that he was doing wrong.
“Have a seat,” Ines’ attempt to switch to a pacifying voice broke Jennifer’s fevered daydream. Ines had picked up a cell phone and was scrolling through her contact list. “Perhaps we can get you drunk before you have to go. You won’t be so afraid if you’ve had something to drink.”
Jennifer’s mind was racing. She edged towards the chair she had been sitting on a few minutes ago, but she could not bring herself to sit. She kept the open window in her peripheral vision.
Three steps away, at most.
She had seen a few action and suspense movies, enough to believe that she had a shot at going through the window to attempt an escape. The only problem was that she was three stories off the ground. She had never leaped from such a height before. Balance beams were only a few feet off the ground. Parallel bars were higher, but those had a base of thick padding at the bottom. And her last gymnastics performance was at least a decade ago.
Am I actually thinking about jumping out a window, Jennifer asked herself. Well, she replied in her mind, the alternative is getting shot to death. The door is too far away. And judging by Ines’ face I think we’re past the point of talking my way out of this with her.
Jennifer was surprised at how calmly she was now processing the situation. Like preparing to launch into a tumbling routine, which she had done hundreds of times before in practice and in competition.
“C’est moi,” Ines spoke into the phone. “Nous avons un problème. J’ai un ravageur qui doit être retiré de l’appartement.….” Ines listened for several moments, her eyes fluttering and her jaw clenching in apparent frustration. When she spoke again, she spoke slowly and carefully. “Yes, I have the pest cornered now. She’s not going anywhere…. Yes…. They’ll have to let themselves in…. Very good, see them soon.”
Ines set down the phone without taking her eyes off of Jennifer.
Jennifer replayed the vision of sitting in the back seat of a car that was rolling through the countryside.
“I really am disappointed in how this turned out.” Ines was speaking as if she were assessing a business transaction. “You were helpful to me, not only in learning how to communicate correctly, but also as a… passable acquaintance in this unfamiliar place. A friend, of sorts.”
Friends don’t pull guns on friends, Jennifer thought.
“Why don’t you sit down?” It was difficult to know whether Ines was asking a question or issuing a command.
“I feel jittery,” Jennifer answered honestly. “I’m trying to keep calm. If I try to sit down, I’ll just pop back up. Or throw up.”
Ines watched Jennifer for a few moments and then looked back out through the open window. The gun never wavered.
“Such a shame to ruin a beautiful day this way. We could have gone shopping. We could have had coffee.” Ines turned her gaze back to Jennifer. “But you had to come and report on Henri to me.” A light smile turned up the corner of Ines’ mouth. “You may have made a decent member of our service,” the older woman said.
Ines turned slightly and moved towards the door. The gun was off Jennifer for a second.
Before she knew what she was doing, Jennifer had taken two quick strides towards the window. Launching herself through the air, she landed two hands on the windowsill, one inside and one outside, and twirled in a cartwheel.
She did not hear the gunshot, but she felt a slapping feeling in her lower left abdomen and a burning sensation inside her lower torso. Jennifer twisted through the window to account for her adult hips and only clipped one foot on the top of the windowsill.
Appraising the distance to the ground in the split second she had to make such an observation, she knew that she was going to break an ankle or destroy a knee at the very least.
She attempted to put down one foot first, tuck her back leg, curve her spine, and roll through the tumble. She was falling much too fast and hit too hard for that. Her landing leg, her left, snapped somewhere just above her ankle. The burning sensation in her abdomen where she had been shot roared to an inferno of pain. Her right hip absorbed a good deal of the impact, but she still smacked the side of her head on the ground.
She did hear a woman scream. A man nearby came rushing up to her side.
Before she blacked out, Jennifer looked up to see Ines looking down on her through the window.
“She’s not done with me,” Jennifer thought as she sunk into darkness.