Pass by! Oh, pass me by!
Go, cruel man of bones!
I am yet young! Leave me, dear one,
And touch me not.
Give me thy hand, thou fair and gentle
I am a friend, and come not to chastise.
Take heart! I am not cruel;
Softly shalt thou sleep in my arms!
Matthias Claudius (1740–1815),
“Death and the Maiden”
Southernmost point, Cap d’Antibes, May 13
Manon Agostini parked her patrol car at the end of the chemin de la Garoupe. She slammed the door of the battered old Renault Kangoo, inwardly railing at the chain of events that had led her here.
At about nine p.m., a security guard of one of the most opulent mansions on the cape had called the precinct in Antibes to report hearing a firecracker or possibly a gunshot—some strange noise—coming from the rocky coastal path. The Antibes Precinct attached little importance to the call and relayed the information on to the local police, who could think of nothing better to do than radio her, even though she was not on duty.
At the point when her superior officer called to ask her to check out the coast road, Manon was already in an evening dress and preparing to go out. She wanted to tell him to fuck off, but she felt she could not say no to him. Just that morning, he had given her permission to use the Kangoo outside working hours. Manon’s own car had recently died, and she desperately needed a car that Saturday night to go to an event that was important to her.
The school she had attended, the Lycée Saint-Exupéry, was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary and there was to be a reunion of her former classmates. Manon secretly hoped she might run into a guy she had been smitten with long ago, a boy who was not like the others but whom she had stupidly passed over at the time, preferring to date older guys who had all turned out to be utter shits. There was nothing rational about her hope—she could not be sure that he would be there, and besides, he had probably forgotten that she existed— but she needed to believe that something was finally going to happen in her life. Manicure, haircut, clothes shopping; Manon had spent all afternoon getting ready. She had blown three hundred euros on a designer dress—midnight-blue lace with a silk bodice—borrowed a pearl choker from her sister and a pair of sling-backs (Stuart Weitzman suede pumps that pinched her feet) from her best friend.
Tottering on her high heels, Manon flicked on her phone’s flashlight setting and headed down the narrow trail that hugged the coast as far as the Villa Eilenroc. She knew the area like the back of her hand; when she was a child, her father used to take her here to fish in the streams. Locals once called this area Smugglers’ Way; later, it appeared in guidebooks under the intriguing name of sentier de Tire-Poil—Hair-Pluck Lane. These days, it was known by the prosaic, anodyne term “the coastal path.”
After some fifty meters, Manon came to a barrier with a warning sign: DANGER—NO ENTRY. Earlier in the week, a fierce storm had lashed the coast, and the waves had caused landslides that had cut off certain sections of the path.
Manon hesitated for a moment, then scrambled over the barrier.
Southernmost point, Cap d’Antibes, October 1
Vinca Rockwell blithely hopped and skipped as she passed La Joliette Beach. It was ten p.m. To get here from the high school, she had had to sweet-talk a friend from her class who owned a moped into driving her as far as the chemin de la Garoupe.
As she set off down Smugglers’ Way, she could feel butterflies fluttering in the pit of her stomach. She was going to meet Alexis. She was going to meet the love of her life!
A fierce gale was blowing, but the night was so beautiful, the sky so cloudless, she could see almost as well as in daylight. Vinca had always loved this place because it was so wild, so unlike the clichéd image of the French Riviera. When the sun shone, you were dazzled by the tawny-white glare of the limestone crags, the myriad shades of blue that bathed the narrow inlets. Once, while gazing out toward the Lérins Islands, she had seen a pod of dolphins.
On nights like tonight, when the wind howled, it was a very different place. The sheer rock face loomed dangerously; the olive and pine trees seemed to writhe in pain, as though trying to uproot themselves. Vinca did not care. She was going to meet Alexis. She was going to meet the love of her life!
For fuck’s sake!
The heel of one of Manon’s pumps had snapped off. Jesus. She’d now have to stop off at her apartment before she went to the reunion, and the friend who’d lent her these shoes would rip her a new one tomorrow. She slipped them off, shoved them into her bag, and continued barefoot.
She was still following the narrow, paved path that overlooked the cliffs. The air was pure and invigorating. The mistral had cleared the night sky of clouds and scattered it with constellations.
The view was breathtaking, sweeping from the old city walls of Antibes across the bay of Nice, framed by the mountainous inland. Here, in the shelter of the pine forests, were some of the most lavish properties on the Côte d’Azur. The air quivered with the crash of waves, sending up sea spray. She could feel the brute force of the sea.
Time was, the area had seen many tragic accidents. The roiling waves had swept away fishermen, tourists, even couples who had come to make love by the shore. The resulting outcry had forced the authorities to secure the path; they built concrete steps and erected barriers to thwart any hiker’s impulse to get too close to the edge. But it took only a few hours of high winds to turn it into dangerous terrain once more.
Manon reached a spot where a fallen Aleppo pine had blocked the path. Impossible to go any farther. She considered turning back. There was not a living soul around—the gale-force mistral had kept ramblers away.
Get the hell out, girl.
She stood motionless and listened to the wind blowing. It was like a plaintive howl, at once close and distant. A muted threat. Although she was barefoot, she leaped up onto a boulder, skirted the obstruction, and walked on, with only her phone to light the way.
A dark shape was silhouetted some distance down the cliff face. She peered into the gloom. No, she was too far away to make out what it was. With great care, she tried to climb down. She heard a tearing sound. The hem of her lace dress had ripped, but she ignored it. Now she could see the shape that had caught her eye. It was a body. The corpse of a woman sprawled on the rocks. As she moved closer, she felt terror grip her. This was no accident. The woman’s face had been beaten to a bloody pulp. God Almighty. Manon felt her legs start to give. She knew she was about to collapse. She keyed the security code into her phone to call for help. There was no signal, but still the screen said Emergency calls only. She was about to press Call when she realized that she was not alone. A little farther away, a man sat, sobbing. Slumped over, he wept, his face buried in his hands.
Manon was terrified. In that moment, she regretted coming out unarmed. Warily, she approached him. The man sat up, and when he raised his head, Manon recognized him.
“It was me . . .this is my fault,” he said, pointing at the corpse.
Lithe and graceful, Vinca Rockwell bounded over the rocks. The wind was gusting more fiercely. But Vinca reveled in it, the swell, the danger, the heady sea air, the steep crags. Nothing in her life had ever been as intoxicating as meeting Alexis. A profound, all-consuming magnetism, a joining of minds and bodies. If she lived to be a hundred, nothing would ever compare to that memory. The prospect of seeing Alexis secretly, of making love in some rocky crevice, was exhilarating.
She could feel the warm wind envelop her; it whipped around her legs, lifted her skirt like a prologue to the long-awaited embrace. Her heart was beginning to race, the wave of heat coursing through her, the pulse of blood, a throbbing that made every inch of her body quiver.
Alexis was this thunderstorm, this night, this moment. Deep down, Vinca knew she was making a mistake, knew that things would end badly. But she would not have traded the thrill of this moment for anything in the world. The anticipation, the wild madness of love, the painful pleasure of being engulfed by the night.
“Vinca!”Deep down, Vinca knew she was making a mistake, knew that things would end badly.
Suddenly, the figure of Alexis was silhouetted against the clear moonlit sky. Vinca stepped forward to greet the shadow. In the blink of an eye, Vinca could almost feel the pleasures that were to come. Intense, burning, overpowering. Bodies melding and dissolving until they became one with the wind, the waves. Cries mingling with those of the gulls. The tremor, the overwhelming blast, the blinding flash that trills through the body and makes it feel as though one’s whole being has shattered into a thousand pieces.
As Vinca finally embraced her lover, she heard the inner voice again, whispering that this would not end well. But the girl cared nothing for the future. Love is everything, or it is nothing.
All that mattered was now.
The blazing, baleful beauty of the night.
Yesterday and Today
50TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE LYCÉE INTERNATIONAL SAINT-EXUPÉRY.
(NICE-MATIN—Monday, May 8, 2017)
by Stéphane Pianelli
The flagship school of the Sophia Antipolis technology park will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary next weekend.
Founded in 1967 by the Secular Mission to Provide Schooling for the Children of Expatriates, the international lycée is an exceptional institution on the Côte d’Azur. Renowned for its academic excellence, it is modeled around the teaching of foreign languages. Its bilingual departments allow students to study for international qualifications, and today it welcomes more than a thousand French and foreign students. The celebrations will begin on Friday, May 12, with an open day where students and teaching staff will demonstrate their artistic talents in a series of photography exhibitions, films, and theater projects conceived to mark the occasion.
The following day, the festivities will continue with a cocktail party for alumni and staff. The reception will see the laying of the foundation stone for a new building dubbed the Glass Tower, a five-story structure that will stand on the site of the gymnasium, which will be demolished. This state-of-the-art building will welcome students taking preparatory courses for the Grandes Écoles. Later that evening, graduates from the classes of 1990 through 1995 will attend the Alumni Prom and have the honor of being the last to visit the gym.
The current headmistress, Madame Florence Guirard, hopes that as many alumni as possible will join in the celebrations. “I warmly invite all former students and staff to come and take part in this wonderful evening. Shared experiences and memories are a reminder of where we came from and are crucial to deciding where we are heading,” Guirard said before mentioning that a private Facebook group has been created to mark the occasion.
Sophia Antipolis, Saturday, May 13, 2017
I parked the rental under the pine trees, near the gas station, about three hundred meters from the entrance to the school. I’d driven straight from the Nice airport after a red-eye flight from New York during which I hadn’t slept a wink.
I’d left Manhattan in a hurry the day before after someone had emailed me an article about the fiftieth anniversary of my old school. The e-mail, forwarded to me by my publisher, was from Maxime Biancardini—my best friend once upon a time, though I hadn’t seen him now in twenty-five years. There was a French phone number, and although at first I was reluctant to call back, I realized that there was nothing else I could do.
“Did you get the article, Thomas?” Maxime asked, skipping the small talk.
“That’s the reason I’m calling.”
“You do realize what it means?”
His voice hadn’t changed over the years, but it was distorted now by fear.
I didn’t answer his question right away. Yes, of course I knew what it meant. It meant the end of life as we knew it. It meant we’d be spending a chunk of the future behind bars.
“You’ve got to get over here, Thomas,” Maxime said after a moment’s silence. “We’ve got to think of some way to stop this. We’ve got to do something.”
I squeezed my eyes shut as I considered the potential fallout: the magnitude of the scandal, the criminal implications, the shock wave that would hit our families.
Deep inside, I’d always known this day would come. For twenty-five years, I’d lived—or tried to live—with this sword of Damocles hanging over my head. Sometimes, in the dead of night, I’d wake up in a cold sweat thinking about what had happened back then and about the prospect that one day someone would find out. On nights like that, I’d pop a bromazepam and wash it down with a Karuizawa single malt, but I rarely managed to get back to sleep.
“We have to do something,” my old friend said again.
I knew he was kidding himself. The bomb that was now threatening to blow our lives apart was one that we had built ourselves one night in 1992.
We both knew there was no way to defuse it.
After locking the car door, I walked toward the gas station. There was a sort of American drugstore there that everyone called Dino’s place. Behind the gas pumps was a colonial-style clapboard building with a small shop and a nice café with a large terrace sheltered by an awning.
I pushed open the swinging door. The place hadn’t really changed. At the back of the shop, a few high stools were set around a painted wooden counter lined with colorful cakes under glass domes. The rest of the room was filled with benches and tables that extended out onto the terrace. The walls were hung with vintage enamel signs for long-defunct brands and posters of the Riviera in the 1920s. To squeeze in more people, the owners had gotten rid of the pool table and the arcade games—Out Run, Arkanoid, Street Fighter II— that used to guzzle my pocket money. Only the foosball table had survived, an old Bonzini competition model, its paint now peeling and chipped. I couldn’t resist stroking the heavy beech frame— this was where Maxime and I had spent hours replaying the great Olympique de Marseille matches. A slew of random images came to me: Papin’s hat trick in the ’89 Coupe de France; Vata’s hand ball against Benfica; Chris Waddle’s left-foot goal against AC Milan the night when the floodlights in the Vélodrome suddenly went out. Sadly, we didn’t celebrate the long-awaited victory—winning the 1993 UEFA Champions League—together. By then, I’d already left the Côte d’Azur to go to business school in Paris.
I let the atmosphere of the café wash over me. Maxime hadn’t been the only person I came here with after school. My most vivid memories were of Vinca Rockwell, the girl I was in love with back then, the girl every boy was in love with back then. It was only yesterday. It was a lifetime ago.
As I walked up to the counter, I felt the hair on my arms bristle as snapshots came into focus in my mind: Vinca’s bright laugh, the gap between her front teeth, her floaty dresses, her paradoxical beauty, the detached gaze she affected. At Dino’s place, she drank Cherry Cokes in summer and mugs of hot chocolate with marshmallows in winter.
“What can I get you?”This is the leveling effect of time: dazzling beauty fades while more banal features acquire a luster and a patina.
I couldn’t quite believe it; the café was still run by the same Polish-Italian couple, Dino (obviously) and Hannah Valentini. Dino had gained weight and gone bald, and Hannah’s blond hair had faded and her face was lined. But with age, they seemed somehow better suited to each other. This is the leveling effect of time: dazzling beauty fades while more banal features acquire a luster and a patina.
“Coffee, please. A double espresso.”
I let the words hang in the air for a moment, then stirred up the past, conjuring Vinca’s ghost: “Oh, and a Cherry Coke—ice and a straw.”
For a second I thought that one of the Valentinis might recognize me. Both my father and mother had been deans of the faculty at Saint-Exupéry from 1990 to 1998. He managed the lycée and she ran the preparatory classes for the Grandes Écoles, which meant they were entitled to campus housing, so I was often to be found holed up in Dino’s. For a couple of free rounds of Street Fighter, I’d help Dino clean up the stockroom or make the famous frozen custard recipe he’d gotten from his father. But when the elderly Italian took my money and handed me the drinks, there was no spark of recognition in his weary eyes.
The place was three-quarters empty, which, even for a Saturday morning, was surprising. Back in my day, there were a lot of boarders at Saint-Ex, some of whom stayed through the weekend. I made the most of the empty room and sat at the table Vinca and I had always preferred, the one at the end of the terrace, under the sweet-scented pines. Just as celestial bodies are drawn to each other, so Vinca had always taken the chair facing the sun. Now, tray in hand, I sat down in my usual spot, facing away from the trees. I took my cup of coffee and set the Cherry Coke in front of the empty chair.
The PA system was playing an old REM hit, “Losing My Religion.” Most people think it’s a song about faith; actually, it’s about the pain of unrequited love. The helplessness of a boy saying to the girl he loves, Hey, look, I’m here! Why can’t you see me? A neat summary of my own life story.
A light wind made the branches quiver; sunlight glittered on the deck. For a few seconds I was magically transported back to the early nineties. In the sun’s rays filtering through branches, I saw Vinca’s ghost appear before me, heard the echo of our heated conversations. I could hear her talking to me eagerly about The Lover and Dangerous Liaisons. I would respond with Martin Eden and Belle du Seigneur. This was the table where we would discuss for hours the movies we watched on Wednesday afternoons at the Star in Cannes or the Casino in Antibes. She was obsessed with The Piano and Thelma and Louise. I liked A Heart in Winter and The Double Life of Véronique.The ghostly Vinca put on her Ray-Bans and sipped Cherry Coke through a straw; from behind the tinted lenses, she gave me a wink.
The song began to fade. The ghostly Vinca put on her Ray-Bans and sipped Cherry Coke through a straw; from behind the tinted lenses, she gave me a wink. Her image dissolved and vanished completely, bringing our enchanted interlude to an end.
Gone was the happy-go-lucky heat of the summer of ’92. I was alone, sad and breathless from chasing the dreams of my lost youth. It had been twenty-five years since I had seen Vinca. Twenty-five years, in fact, since anyone had seen her.
On Sunday, December 20, 1992, nineteen-year-old Vinca Rockwell ran off to Paris with her twenty-seven-year-old philosophy teacher, Alexis Clément, with whom she was having a secret affair. They were last seen the following day in a hotel in the seventh arrondissement near the Basilica of Sainte-Clotilde. After that, all trace of their presence in Paris was lost. They never reappeared, never contacted friends or family. They quite literally vanished.
That, at least, is the official version.
From my pocket, I took out the crumpled copy of the article from Nice-Matin I had read a hundred times. Although on the face of it, it seemed banal, it nonetheless contained a piece of information that would upend everything that people knew about the story. These days, everyone talks about truth, about transparency, but truth is rarely what it seems, and in this specific case, it would bring no comfort, no closure, no real justice. Truth would leave in its wake only calamity, a manhunt, and slander.
“Oops! Sorry, m’sieur!”
A loutish teenager running between the tables had just knocked over the Cherry Coke with his backpack. I managed to catch the glass before it hit the ground and shattered. I wiped down the table with a wad of paper napkins, but my pants were spattered. I walked through the café to the bathrooms. It took me a good five minutes to get rid of the stains and five more to get my pants dry. Best not to show up at a school reunion looking like I’d pissed myself.
I went back to the table to pick up my jacket, which was hanging on the chair. When I saw the table, I felt my heart race. In my absence, somebody had carefully folded the printout of the article and set a pair of sunglasses on top of it. Ray-Ban Clubmasters with tinted lenses. Who could have played such a horrible trick? I looked around. Dino was talking to someone next to the gas pumps; Hannah was watering the geraniums on the far side of the terrace. A few garbage collectors were taking a coffee break at the counter, and the handful of other customers were all students working on MacBooks or chatting on their phones.
I had to pick up the glasses to make sure that this was not a hallucination. As I did so, I noticed that someone had written on the newspaper article a single word in meticulous cursive: