“It was not even music, Vincent! Can you check if my ears are bleeding?” Pauline said out loud, with mirth in her voice. Her sparkling grey eyes were filled with love and respect for the man who sat next to her, driving into the quiet night. The radiance of his face was enhanced by the refulgent moon and Pauline’s cheery smile. Since the day Vincent met Pauline, everything henceforth had been about this lady, whom he adored with a heart and a half, although, Pauline barely had it in her to find interest in any of his interests.
“If only it were the Savage Garden, instead!” Vincent rolled his eyes, barely repressing his childlike repugnance for pop. “Mozart was the only king there was and the only king there will be! Music that does not drag your emotions to the surface of your skin is akin to the painters these days who swing their brushes, resulting in an ugly piece of art, later sold for a fortune.”
Nevertheless, he pressed a button or two on the dashboard, changed the song and turned up the volume of the speakers in the car, soothing his wife with a mellow Kenny G’s number. His mind, however, wandered around the climactic end of the Requiem in D Minor as he eased his car along the tight curves.
She sat back in her seat, soaking in the melody, causing her a feeling of over-joy, merrily undermining the killjoy produce of fatigue and somnolence that had gripped her earlier. Her natural auburn curls reflected the moon at some parts and swallowed darkness at another. Her deep-set grey eyes appeared jet black in the night, although satisfaction was unsuppressed in them. Splendid in a white gown, it brought her back to the day when she had exchanged rings with Vincent. “It has been fifteen years, Vinci. Where did the time go?”
Vincent had not been accommodating about anybody calling him by that name since his father. Pauline was the only one whom he felt had earned it. Life had seldom castigated Vincent to the edge of his teeth, beat him to the ground, kicked him in his knees and punched where it hurt, repeatedly. In a life that gifted him miseries, love and acceptance came by not with ease. More often than not, Vincent had accepted the quantities of love that came his way and channelled them for subsistence. As a child, he lived in a house that made him feel insignificant in its sheer size. A mansion, no less, was a part of his childhood just as much as the toy trains. Dogs, servants and pages surrounded him, so as to facilitate his daily needs and wants. Yet, Vincent did not age as a brat. His mother should have earned a medal for that.
No sooner than his teenage years, his father, Benjamin Ryder, lost a fortune of money owing to an unexpected turn of events in the financial market. Cars were appropriated, and so were the plush carpets, the mysterious paintings, antique wall clocks, an array of clothes, and every single thing that had value, except for a gold bracelet bearing his name on it that he was wearing on the day that turned his life for the bitter. His father had to give it all; as a matter of fact, he gave up more than what was asked. Half-orphaned at the age of twelve, Vincent decided to support his mother and the dog, Puppy, for the two summed up to everything that was left of him.
The array of work that Vincent had committed himself to, had taken him through tough times. He had sweat in the sweltering heat breaking bricks, experienced freeze burns in the chastising winter, repairing a cracked dam. His subsistence through this eclectic collection of jobs lasted for a few years, up until the time when he submitted himself to the National Police of Marfeece at the age of twenty-two. His mother had passed away peacefully, and the dog had to be put to sleep. The void that the absence of the only important things that were left with him was soon filled up by Pauline Salters, a woman who supported his decisions unconditionally.
At twenty-five, on his way back from the Police Station, he stumbled upon an open-air exhibition of paintings and photographs, organised by some foundation for women, the name of which eluded his memory. His eyes caught a glimpse of a young lady, with pearls on her ears that matched the white of her perfect teeth. Her red lips imprisoned those teeth instantly when her eyes, as auburn as her hair, fell upon a stranger in a uniform, leering at her.
“Might I interest you with some photographs?”
Vincent remembered that moment, just as much as Pauline did. Passing customers shoved one another to get through the busy street and retracted Vincent from his thoughts.
He fumbled, “I’m sorry?”
“Photographs. They are all my work,” Pauline had said with a tinge of pride. “Please, have a look at them.” She pointed at the array of photographs that hung on all three sides of a small canopied stall, around a chair by which she stood. “This is a woman I met in the village of Greenmouth. Her face is a representative of the emotion that swept across the village when they received their first rainfall of the year. Next, there, is an elderly man at the window of his room at an Old-age House in Stokes, awaiting his son, as he had promised. And that one is of the audience from the football game. You can observe and sense the enthusiasm –”
“Do you like coffee?”
A bolt from the blue. Pauline was nonplussed, taken unawares. “Excuse me? I must sell these photographs. I have –”
“I will take those three,” Vincent claimed, triumphantly. “So, do you like coffee?”
Pauline could not help but surrender to Vincent’s charm and his boyish innocence that seemed to radiate a kindness she found endearing.
“I do,” Her cheeks turned red as the gown that she donned that day.
A gold bracelet hung off his wrist as he steered them through the enchanting valleys of the Alps. It bore the letters of his name – Vinci – as his father had called him. The letters were linked to each other by a small gold bridge on the bracelet. He had been wearing it in the memory of a man who did not even say goodbye. He often thought about death. He wondered how it felt to a person, seconds before he pulled a trigger, or slammed on to the ground. Vincent’s nerves bundled up at the thought of death. If killing oneself is so difficult, was his father a coward or was he courageous?
Vincent had smiled his way through the times of extreme duress. Pauline stood by his side, but Vincent never let her bear the brunt of it. The smoother side of his mood was reserved for her, whereas, the other side that she could not discern, took a beating. The vibe he emanated had been dipped in optimism and obedience.
Pauline’s friends found it fortunate for her as she never had to break a sweat through her life. Little were they cognizant about the roller-coaster that she had boarded, and she preferred it that way. Life was no less than a worked-up trip that she happily journeyed with a man of her choice; the path laced with prickly thorns, later blessed with exiguous buds that blossomed into gentle flowers. Like the pearls on her ears, her eyes shone under the clear night that was adorned with stars and the skulking moon. Some stars, however, indulged in a jest of hiding behind the smoky scattered clouds. The car swayed along the moonlit curves of the Alpine slopes. The winter was upon them and the air had begun to have an ominous chill to it. Pauline found it pleasant that way. She loved the snow, she loved the winds and she embraced the spine-chilling couple of wind and snow.
Upon Pauline’s insistence, Vincent opened the sunroof of the car, allowing the wind to mingle with her gorgeous auburn hair. A smile dominated her face. If it were someone else, she might have gotten harried about the messy hair, but Pauline was dispassionate about such trivial matters. Mayhap, that was because she looked pretty as a picture, come rain or shine. He chuckled jovially, as she laughed. Her eyes were on the road, but unseeing, as she recounted some of the distant memories. “If I could, I would renounce all that we have right now and stand under the blanket of stars at the beach hugging you for what felt like an eternity, years ago. If I had the same chance, I would not forget to carry a wind jacket for you that day.” As windy as that night was, the magical moment had consumed both of them. Soft laughter seeped through the crevices of the mountains around them, cut right through the smoky clouds, and chimed the stars.
Pauline looked at Vincent with an unspoken admiration, love and respect. To him, she was not as garrulous as women he’d seen on TV or heard from other men who could not stop joking on their spouses. His greying hair and the black beard that adorned his square jaw struck as the signs of a stern individual to many, but she knew the soft man that dwelt beneath his appearance.
“If I had a chance, I’d do nothing different from what I did. The world of ifs pulls us back, love. We need to keep moving forward,” Vincent continued smiling for long after she stopped, at her little nuances, which he found as adorable as they had been years ago. Vincent’s comment laced with mature wisdom at times disrupted her smile, but not any more. Pauline had got accustomed to it just like she got accustomed to the cold winds that mingled with her shoulder-length hair. Standing strong at forty, Vincent admitted that her juvenile wishes of time travel kept her high on spirit like a young girl that she once was. He loved her immeasurably for that and she knew so.
The road that night was sparsely populated by a handful of vehicles; it was otherwise stranded for kilometres at a stretch. There could not have been a better time for Vincent to connect with his newly purchased silver Mercedes Coupe, as she roared like a tigress under the overly bleached moon. The stars could see themselves on the silver sheen of the car. He had been waiting for this drive, his first with the newly gifted beast. They passed another signboard that marked their current location. Munich was shy four hundred kilometres.
“Your gift is probably the only thing I love more than you!” Vincent admired the car.
“Many forget what loving a wife means at this age, Vinci. You have not. I’ll manage to devour happiness from that fact.” She smirked and lay her head on his brawny shoulder and allowed herself a peaceful rest enjoying the music that her husband knew she would cherish with all her soul.
A thundering swoosh cut through the frosty air and made Pauline nearly jump out of her skin. A car cut them through, apparently appearing out of nowhere, and yet going somewhere, excited as a cat on hot bricks. It gunned itself down along the long road, cloaked amid the thick of the misty, frosty air. Pauline opened her eyes wide in surprise and settled back in her seat. He tightened his grip on the wheel, careful not to sway away from the road. The car went far ahead, nowhere to be seen. He relaxed his shoulders back on the plush leather seats, allowing him the overwhelming comfort that came along with the expensive purchases. Vincent was not entirely in favour of comfort, whose offspring often was death. Somebody who can fall asleep merely at a gentle graze of comfort might truly doze off! Luxury at wrong places can attract an ineluctable series of events.
Heaving a sigh of relief, he looked at his ever so beautiful wife and kissed her on her forehead. She stood up through the sunroof yet again, allowing the winds to kiss her smooth white skin, throwing her hair behind like a waving flag.
He felt lucky to have found and married a woman he knew for the better part of his life. Every day felt like the first day when he was with her. Fifteen years. The effortless attempt at asking Pauline for a date made him stand out like a man who was used to picking any woman he wanted. Pauline knew that for false. The life that befell upon Vincent had not allowed him the luxury of focusing on women, as much it necessitated his focus on survival. A broad variety of experience in labour, jobs and handling his family, or what remained of it, had rendered him a precocious individual. This in itself had brought him the admiration from a myriad of men and women, platonic and otherwise. His lifestyle was simple — work, earn and work even more. He was tirelessly at it. He did not cringe at the sight of work; in fact, he longed for it. He failed to recollect a time when his primary focus was to seek physical comfort.
Tennis, table tennis and squash kept his fitness to its prime. Acing some, losing some, his intention was fitness over collecting silverware. Humility and modesty ran through his veins and by far it was better than any silverware when it came to garnering love. It was the innate being of Vincent that lured Pauline into his life. It was the soul that lived within that magnetised her to him. Losing her was to lose himself and it was true both ways.
His performance was not limited to the tennis court or the Martial Arts platform but was also venerable when he served as a policeman in the National Police of Marfeece. After early retirement from the Police Force, Vincent followed his lifelong dream to be a teacher. His expertise was not limited to one subject, but he had a knack of comprehending various subjects that interested him. He was greedy and hungry for knowledge. He home-schooled students on Economics, Psychology and Physics. The number of students outran his capacity to handle them. The time and efforts that this profession demanded slowly began to take a toll on his family life. Switching to being a part-time teacher, Vincent got involved in a friend’s business as a financial consultant. It helped him make life more comfortable than average. He had almost never worried about financial security, although he had seen everything around him dwindle into nothing, vaporise at a shutter of his eyes. He’d believed in working, circumscribing his mind to fret about the returns. What you want will come, his father used to reiterate time and again. Focus on the task at hand. Focus on what you truly want.
The dank air of the Alps started to freeze Vincent, but it seemed to appease Pauline. He slowed down the Mercedes in order to prevent himself from getting a frost on the surface of his skin. “What are you made of?” It got to him every time, marvelling how she could bear that much of cold that even he, who had experience in several military activities in the mountains could not handle.
She looked at him through the sunroof and smiled, “I was born in the Alps, remember? We’re a shame to the folk from the mountains if we whine about the cold.” The smile, coupled with the pleasant bright night, added to the brightness in his heart, but little did it dwindle the cold that crept across his body, giving rise to goose-prickles. This ephemeral brightness lasted for only a few more moments; it was flickering like an aged table lamp picked up from the street.
A black Audi was tailing Vincent’s car for about a minute, now. The lanes were free and tempting, and yet the Audi followed the Mercedes at her pipes. He could not figure out who the person was behind the wheel, but it raised suspicion. Vincent sat up, alert now. His worry was immediately converted into a tangible moment of shock and despair. Unable to discern the oncoming events, Vincent poised his thoughts, running various if-then combinations. Failing to calculate the wide range of possibilities, he saw an arm emerging from the passenger side window of the Audi, sheathed by a black jacket and held a gun. Vincent’s instincts took over his decisions. He swerved the car, but it was too late and too little. The battle between Vincent’s call for Pauline to get in and the ferocity of the n nefarious bullet that was disgorged off the gun was won by the bullet that shattered Pauline’s skull, piercing it through and through, spewing blood on the wind-shield in front of Vincent. His wife’s lively eyes were suddenly transformed into balls fit in two lifeless sockets. He whimpered helplessly in pain. Even Pauline felt the cold, now.
The situation vehemently snatched away the chance to grieve for his beloved whose head was disfigured beyond retrieve. The Audi sped up and drove alongside Vincent’s car as he attempted to flee the scene in vain. Vincent’s thoughts stopped dead in their tracks, but his instincts took over, forcing him to keep moving. He pulled Pauline by the bow that was tied on the back of her gown and placed the lifeless body, which was no less than his own life, on her seat.
The Audi had swerved on to the adjacent lane, cruising alongside the blood-soiled Mercedes. The window of the passenger seat was rolled down and the same man, who had just delivered a fatal bullet to his wife, now held another gun with Vincent’s name on it, right at Vincent’s face. This gun fired darts instead of bullets. Vincent’s eyes widened in utter disbelief, suffering and struggling arduously to push back the inimical memories. Deathstalker. Vincent could not believe that his assassin borrowed the weapon from one of his prisoners no more than he could believe that he was onto his life.
His contorted, disturbed and grieving face cried endlessly from the inside. The harder he tried, the harder he failed in dominating over his instincts. Obstinate defences refused to give way.
“Falcon sends you his regards, Mr. Ryder.” Shadows played on the stranger’s face that donned round black sunglasses. His lips revealed a bright smile that shone wickedly under the street lamps. The hand that held the weapon bore a golden ring, which caught Vincent’s attention. He wished he could see the face that tried to kill him. The enthralling night had turned into an appalling one. The two extreme moments of his life were separated only by a few seconds, a few heart-wrenching seconds. Vincent dug his foot on the brake pedal, bringing the car to a loud halt, burning the street, imprinting the skid marks onto it. His car took a sharp turn and before the assassin could catch up, Vincent fled back in the same direction from where he came. He would soon pass the spot where Pauline was snatched away from his gentle, yet strong grip of love and warmth. His heart ached, his eyes did not rest from producing tears and his sweaty pockets were filled copiously. Little did he know that doom had him surrounded.
Another black Audi blocked his path ahead, leaving little space at the edge of the road. He now had only two options; either to smash into the car or to escape from the little gap that provided him with a vista of freedom, a vista of extrication. Will this freedom be worth without Pauline to love? He decided to find out. An option of turning back once again was futile and bringing the car to a halt was only detrimental. It would have been an option if the roadblock was a fallen tree. This was worse than a tree fallen on his own car. Trees don’t have bullets. Darts. If Vincent attempted to escape from the narrow gap that was just sufficient for him to pass through, he ran a risk of the monstrous Audi nudging him ever so slightly so as to push away the Mercedes into the bottomless abyss of the murky valley. Vincent stopped the car in spite of running the calculations. The driver from the car ahead got down with another gun in his hand, the same kind as the one that the man with the golden tooth held. A gun that shot Deathstalker was a killing weapon he was certain that not a lot of people knew about. Vincent looked behind and did not see the first Audi approaching, but the thundering sound of its engine echoed in the mountains. He was approaching.
As the man from the car walked at ease towards Vincent’s Mercedes, the former Audi closed in from behind. Vincent looked at Pauline with crying eyes, yet to fathom the depth of the series of events, took a gamble and sped through the gap that the Audi in the front had left for him. He dodged the man who stood there with a gun, facing right at him. The clouds had overpowered the once bright moon. The black of his suit camouflaged with the black of the night, and the black of Vincent’s fate. He ducked into his seat. But before he could rescue himself through the narrow tunnel, a muffled spit of the dart shattered the glass window of his brand new Mercedes and found Vincent’s nape. The man in the black suit was accurate with his shot and it hit Vincent exactly where he knew it would hit. The car swerved on the edge of the road, one side of which was the bottomless valley and the other side was certain death. Within a matter of few seconds, his face turned from fresh to pale to white, blocking the supply of blood from the nape and above, making the veins on Vincent’s face perceivable even in the night. His face sunk into itself and the car spun off the curves into the abyss of the murky valley.
The two Audis joined in to watch the fireworks. The swirling yellow and orange from the invisible bottom of the valley brought along with it, heat and light. The man with the golden finger-ring, who joined in a little later, pulled out a phone from the inside pocket of his jacket and punched a few digits. The receiver’s voice was never heard, but the man with the golden finger-ring knew he was listening. “You were right, sir. You always are.” The man’s voice was unexpectedly obsequious, a total mismatch to his stringent appearance. His servitude was an outcome of a harsher party that bought meaning to the otherwise petty lives of theirs.
There was a long pause. The man with the golden ring opened his mouth to repeat what he said, but he did not have to. “This was easier than breathing.” The line disconnected from the other end upon listening to the acknowledgement.
The only witnesses were the cloaked moon and the shimmering stars. Worry was beneath an alarming level even if a car or two had been a part of the audience. The two men stood at the edge of the cliff and echoed together, “The Falcon flies high. The Falcon is rarely seen, but the Falcon sees it all.” They got in their vehicles, gunned the accelerator and van shed into the freezing, silent night.
The Mercedes lay at the bed of the valley. Two souls mingled as one, burning as one. The melodious hangover the Ryders received from the celebration with Mozart’s symphony tragically ended on a woeful and vengeful note. Death called for them. They had no choice but to answer.