At first sight (1-6)

1.

The Champs-Élyseés was, and would forever be, an endless source of excitement and frenzy for locals and visitors alike. Just as Picaddilly Circus and its close vicinity in London, or the Nevskiy Boulevard in St Petersburgh, the main artery of Paris was the Champs-Élysées. Wide, crowded and impossible to get familiar with, it contained a variety of amusements, from modern galleries to erotic bistros, from cafés that grew in abundance like mushrooms in the rain, to bookshops of all kind. Fashion-freaks and tramps ambled side by side, and the scent of coffee floated on the wings of daring French talk: the French are a proud nation, and woe to that tourist who refuses to speak their language, or is in the unfortunate position of being unable to master it. They do not need any more strangers on their land, and so, they will say to one’s face, without any qualms: monsieur, you don’t speak French, you go back to your country. They can do it, and get away with it, too: there have been many an obstinate foreigner who, for the sake of the unique French culture and history, decided to take the time and learn their tongue.

Josh felt slightly ill at ease, even after seeing half the world, even after sitting in more cafés and hotels and visiting more sights than a thousand people together: it was the third time that he had got a glare from a proud local, just because he had spoken English. Even worse, American English. He decided that at whatever cost, he would speak his skimpy French in the next shop he went in.

-@@%%, man, did you see that? She looked like she had stepped out of the Moulin-Rouge -Chris stared at a half-naked woman, hardly clad in a few feathers.

-Yeah. Going fancy, aren’t we? -Josh retorted, angry that his brother knew all the famous sights by heart. Chris had spent hours browsing through a travel guide, when Josh had to check some notes David had left him, and also, revised some of the songs he had been toying with for the new album. What could he do? He was a workaholic. Even on his brief holiday, he could not stop working, trying to make the end result better.

-What. You’ve seen the movie, haven’t you? Then what’s your problem?

-I wanna go to Disneyland -Josh whined, scratching his nose.

-Not during these few days, bro. Get over it. You’ve just been there.

-Yes, for promotional work. I only met Mickey the Mouse and he never even shook hands with me -Josh sniffled.

-We’ll find you a hot chick who’ll make you forget the mental and emotional trauma you had to undergo when meeting Mickey the Mouse. Is that fine?

-What do you mean, a hot chick? No time for women -Josh said, lowering his sunglasses a little to eye a super-hot babe with long hair and blue eyes who gave him a sizzling glance.

-Well, I’m not saying a steady one, okay?

-Shut up. You’re corrupting me -Josh grinned, looking around and somehow starting to feel better. The women of Paris were at least as flirtatious as the men. He had been assaulted through looks and glances by members of both sexes on his first day in Paris, and no one seemed to be bothered about morality. After spending time in London, he had gotten used to outspokenness, but parisians at least had something to show for, too. Beauty was all around him, carnal and spiritual, and he could not help but soak up as much of it as it was possible.

-Cool. Virgin. I need some CDs, let’s rummage -Chris suggested and the brothers dived into the endless shelves and stacks of CDs in the megastore.

~~~

-Martin. Martin!

-Oui?

-Today I want someone who’s from abroad…

-Oui…? That won’t be difficult…

-…and with curly hair…

-I can see at least a dozen in here right now…

-…and who’s with another guy, so that you have a good day too.

-Merde*, Aimée. Stop being so thoughtful.

-When was the last time you were with a guy?

-When was the last time you-

-This morning, stupid.

-Yeah, but I don’t mean professionally. I mean, of your choice.

-No time for men, mon chere**. We need bread and Suzette needs an education.

-But you can’t wither away like that. You’re young, you’re beautiful…

-I wish I could confirm that…

-You can stop wishing ‘cos I just found the perfect guy. Oh, there’s actually two of them. Both curly, buth foreigners.

-Which section are they in?

-Rap… no, walking over to world music. And now, to jazz. One of them left to listen to something, but the other one’s still there.

-Okay. Can you go and check what he’s looking at?

Aimée stood motionless, her right hand on the CDs in front of her, listening to the sounds coming at her from everywhere. Music of different genres bombarded her ears and yet, she easily detected the steps of the people walking past her. She could tell, with her eyes closed, if it was a man or a woman walking by, or a child, a girl or a boy. From the way they eased their weight onto their feet. From their smell, even if they had no perfume on. Men smelled a lot more different than women: they smelled of need and impatience, or lust and fear. So many fears they had, every day, that they had to cover with suits and suitcases and a business attitude towards everything. Men in sportswear, men in elegant suits, men in casual street-wear, they all dreaded something: the more confident they sounded, the less certain they were of themselves. She had noticed it countless times; she considered herself to be an expert on human behaviour.

-Here’s the CD. Celtic Drums. He seemed uncertain, as if he had no idea what he was looking for.

-I like the title. I’ll get it -she replied happily. -Anything else he was looking at?

-Now he’s over at the easy listening section, fumbling with some CDs that almost fell on him -Martin said and chuckled. -He’s a doll, and so is his brother.

-They’re brothers? -Aimée asked with a flicker in her eye.

-There’s a striking resemblance. The clumsy one is maybe a few years older… I really dig the younger one, but… as sad as that sounds, they both look straight to me.

-Nonsense. You know very well that people can be changed -Aimée grinned and pushed her fist into her brother’s stomach gently.

-Nah. I tried a couple of times. My affair with Georges almost did me in… whenever I think about our relationship the word “gruesome” comes to my mind.

-You’ll find your prince charming one day, Martin -Aimée stepped closer carefully, and feeling her brother’s shoulder with her hand, she rested her head on it. -You’re a great guy, and I’m sure there’s a Mr Mirbeau waiting there for you, somewhere.

-Make that two. You need yours, sister.

-Maybe one day -she said wishfully, breathing Martin’s smoky shirt in. -One day.

~~~

-Dude, that chick over there is totally checking you out -Chris nodded to Josh. -She’s smothered by her boyfriend and she’s looking at you.

-You’re probably mistaken -Josh said, turning a CD over to check for any known musicians-, but if you were right, I’d say she’s not serious about her relationships. And if she’s not serious, I don’t think I want anything to do with her.

-But she’s a babe -Chris insisted. -And whatever you say, however you protest, I’ll drag you over to Place Pigalle and dump you into one of the red-curtain bars.

-Why?! -Josh looked at his brother incredulously. -Why is this an issue with you, still, after all those girlfriends I had?

-You mean all three of them? Because you’re adored, no, worshipped by millions of women and if you were to take one of them out, you would have no idea what to do, that’s why.

-I would, too -Josh retorted, faking anger. -Dinner, flowers, or, flowers, dinner, talking, walking. And the rest.

-You live in the past -Chris sighed. -Women of today are not like that any more.

-What do you mean? They don’t like flowers or what?

-I mean that you need to be… sophisticated to sweep them off their feet. Money and looks is not enough, you know? Not even brains. If you’re good in bed, it helps. But for many of them, a guy has to have plans and prospects and an open mind and… -Chris raised his finger to emphasize the next word-, never ending patience. Are you patient?

-Depends -Josh smirked.

-So, I’m telling you, before you pick your lucky lady, you need to practice.

Josh laughed.

-This is not my brother -he shook his head with a wide grin. -What the hell happened to you in Amsterdam, Chris? Aliens abducted you?

-Just one, with curves and blond hair -Chris grinned back. -It was the most amazing week of my life.

-Oh lord. Write your memoirs and rate them for adults -Josh chuckled. -How lucky for me that my lifestyle doesn’t allow such… libertinous flings.

-Libertinous -Chris stared at Josh. -You’re making words up again, aren’t you?

-Yeah. So? It’s fun -Josh grinned.

-Okay. The chick is still checking you out, man. Take a look at least -Chris poked Josh in the back and Josh rolled his eyes, but turned to look.

She had dark hair and dark eyes that were fixed on him. He stared at her for a few moments and she did not flinch; her gaze was open and calm, and he averted his quickly.

-Sh*t. Aren’t these people ever embarrassed? -he asked, dropping his nose into the CDs.

-I told you -Chris shrugged. -You’re a novice at this, Josh. And where else learn than in Paris, the city of love?

Josh mumbled something, and peeked from under his curls. She had turned to face the man standing next to her, and they left together, arms intertwined.

-She was a babe, eh? -Chris asked, looking after them. -She had her guy right in her face, and yet, she totally dug you.

-See? I conquer hearts at first sight -Josh grinned triumphantly. -There is no need for me to be any further educated in this discipl…

-Shut your mouth, Groban. You are so coming with me to Pigalle tonight.

Josh swallowed the ending of this sentence. Whatever. To make Chris happy, and to have some peace for the rest of the five days they were going to spend in Paris.

2.

Aimée rinsed the two teacups and placed them on the drier, then wiped the edges of the sink and hung the cloth on the hook under the window. Turning back, she pushed the chairs into their places under the table and listened for sounds that would have betrayed Suzette’s whereabouts. Based on the flushing of the toilet, the girl was in the bathroom, then trampled into her room and collected her schoolbooks from the floor. Aimée smiled: she was a good girl, tidying without being told.

The buzz of Paris reached her ears in all its condensed glory: summer clashing with traffic that drove most people insane. Not Aimée. She loved the noise, the cars, the clonking, the impertinent and impatient yelling of the French people who didn’t give a rat’s a*s who was right and who wasn’t. A local? Va te faire foutre, monsieur. Go screw yourself.

She was lucky to live so close to her workplace, and also, one step away from the peaceful charm of the beautiful church of Sacré Coeur as part of the famous artistic district, the Montmartre. Here, one could find everything the human heart and the body desired: women, booze, art, spirituality, all crammed into a relatively enclosed area, so typically of Paris. She would not have lived anywhere else in the world.

-Maman, when is she coming? -her little girl asked in a plaintive voice, bumping softly into her mom’s tummy.

-Hey -Aimée smiled, stroking the soft hair of Suzette. She smelled of chamomile and honey, and of caramel chocolate. -She should be here in a moment, sweetie. Don’t worry, I’m not leaving you alone.

-Are you working late today? -Suzette asked again, and from the shift in her voice Aimée knew she was looking right up to her.

-Only as usual, darling. You’ll be in bed when I get home, but it will be me who wakes you up tomorrow morning -she replied, her palms sliding across the tiny shoulders and neck, finding the two softest cheeks in the world. Her fingers felt Suzette’s happy smile and her heart also lit up. Oh, what a blessing Suzette has been to her!

There was a knock on the door and Suzette tore herself from her mother’s arms to open the door.

-Marianne! -she greeted her babysitter with a scream, and Aimée heard the two battle together playfully, both of them ending up in laughter. She smiled, picturing her baby’s shining eyes, her blonde hair, the rosy cheeks. She had never seen her daughter, but Martin made sure to describe her to Aimée every time he was around the two of them: it was like seeing photographs of every stage of her childhood, and for that, Aimée was very grateful.

-Bonjour Aimée. How are you today? -Marianne asked with a smile. Aimée smiled into her direction, and for the nanny’s happy constitution she could only be thankful, again. In fact, despite her blindness that was as old as her daughter, her life was full of things she could be extremely grateful for. And she was, too.

-It’s a wonderful day -she replied. -One can only be happy on such a day, right?

-Yes -Marianne confirmed, and Aimée heard Suzette giggle into her babysitter’s stomach. -Are you going soon?

-In a few minutes. I was only waiting for you to keep my little one’s company.

-I’m here and I would never let anyone hurt this perfect princess -Marianne gurgled, smacking a kiss on top of Suzette’s head. -We are not going to let any evil wolves in, are we now, Suzette?

-Maybe we are. To tame them and tell them that they should eat ice-cream instead of bunny-rabbits -Suzette’s reply came without a moment’s hesitation.

Aimée smiled and reached out her hands, and Suzette pressed tight against her. She embraced her daughter happily, squeezing her as long as she could, knowing that each time she was to let go, she became slightly restless.

Nevertheless, it was time to let go, and set out for work. She did, and when she closed the door behind herself, she still heard Marianne and Suzette play and laugh in the carefree manner of those who had nothing to weigh on their conscience.

~~~

Walking alone in a totally dark Paris was sometimes calming, sometimes frightening. The buzz soothed her, reminded her that she was not alone, ever. Chattering filled her ears, and smells, all kinds of smells, her nose: that of fresh fish, of flowers sold at the corner of Rue Véron, that of hot, steaming coffee that filled her nostrils as she passed a café every minute. The clinking sound of coins jamming against each other in a waiter’s pockets, the sleek voice with which they thanked for the generous tips received from tourists and locals, the nonchalant loquatiousness of old men who spent their afternoons basking in the sun, smoking their cigarettes and sharing coffee and gossip. Perfume mingled with the smell of freshly purchased goatcheese, sweat with the clean odour of lavendar soap, fumes and steam from cars pushed their way among the fresh summer breeze and the unique scent of the sun. Warmth, laughter, burning, the strong will to keep on living and breathing.

Taking the steep step up the pavement on the corner of Rue des Abbesses, Aimée held her cane ahead, at a slight angle. Ten steps: door. The familiar scent of Jacques: chewing gum, cognac, sweat.

-Ma chérie. Are you fresh and relaxed? Madame is complaining she won’t be able to fit all the customers in the waiting room today.

-In such heat -Aimée giggled. -I guess they heard we have air conditioning.

-Good for you, while I melt my bum off in forty degrees -Jacques mumbled.

-Well, let’s swap and I’ll stand here for four hours and then go grab coffee and tobacco and read porn, while you, monsieur, go and treat eight ho*ny men one after the other. Deal? -she asked, giggling at the shocked expression she knew Jacques had on his face.

-I could deal with them alright -he said, chewing his gum.

She giggled and stepped inside through the velvet strips of curtain.

-Hey, just what do you mean, read porn? You can’t read! -she heard his belated reaction and laughed.

Saying hi to the girls and all the people working at the “Madame Verdoux” bar and brothel, Aimée found her way between the tables of the waiting room to the circular staircase. She walked on the stairs covered in plush, listening to the wood creak under her feet. The carved wooden railing felt smooth and at places, eroded or scratched. She heard the rustle of lush material graze against her jeans and the carpet on the stairs, and she recognized Corine from her lily-of-the-valley perfume.

-Ciao, bella -she said, reaching out her hand for the girl to take it.

-Hi Aimée. You look so radiant today… Are you in love or something? -she heard the soft, kind voice of her friend.

-Not yet, but who knows what today brings? You never know, eh? -she winked and patted the girl’s arm, who walked past her.

Opening the door of her own private room (a grace from the Madame, who appreciated Aimée’s professional attitude and of course, the customer feedback), she threw her bag on the bed and walking with sure steps to the window, opened it wide. A blissful cacophony of sounds penetrated the room and with its warm, flowery summer-scent swept away the slightly stale smell.

Feeling in her bag for the CD she purchased that day, she stepped to the stereos and inserted the disc into the slot. Starting it, she took her top off, then her bra, and feeling for the garments prepared for her on the bed, she touched silk and frills and tulle. Nice. In the background, a subtle drumming pattern started and the haunting sound of a bagpipe filled the room. She stood with the lace underwear in her hands and listened to the music of highlands and meadows and ancient kings, passionate, firy and ethereal at the same time. She heard the wind blow through her hair, she smelled the rain that beckoned at her from across the valley, she saw- yes, she saw the stormclouds gather and disappear above her head, giving way to an omnipotent sun-god.

There was magic in the air while she took her shower and applied lotion and perfume and prepared herself for her first customer that day. The music filled her whole being and she enjoyed the sense of anticipation which hovered in every sound and smell that reached her. It had been a good day, after all. Maybe something as magical as that music would happen to her, something unexpected and uplifting. And why not?

She smiled in her perpetual darkness, smoothing the bedcover with her hands, sinking into the softness of the bed. The music played on, the heartbeats of a land she would never see, only in her imagination, and the sorrowful, yet proud wailings of a people she will never know.

Her moment of reverie was broken by the opening of the door. She sat up, expectantly turning towards anyone who entered. Her working time had started.

3.

The brothers had been walking for several hours in what seemed to be the part of Paris that contained half the artists in the world. Galleries and outdoors painters, artshops and museums came one after the other, cafés with chairs that were all different for each place. Josh stared at the fascinating designs of the chairs wondering how it was possible to find so many different types.

-Look. These have hearts on their seat -Josh pointed out as an elderly lady with a trendy hat stood up and collected her summer scarf around her neck.

-Cool -Chris replied, who had been more reticent than usually. Josh lost his patience and faced him.

-What’s going on, Chris. I know you’re up to something if you’re quiet.

-Nothing -Chris shrugged, lifting his glance to a neon sign that was vibrating and shedding red light to a black curtain. -We’re here.

-We’re where?

Chris pointed, and Josh read the words Madame Verdoux. He also noticed the curtain and the red letters and the muscular guy with a half threatening, half benign face.

-No -he said simply and turned to go.

-Yes -Chris said, grabbing his arm.

-No! -Josh looked at him with eyes wide as saucers.

-Yes! -Chris insisted, already grinning. -Gees, Josh. Can you relax for a little while? This is Paris, man. We’re not leaving until you see one of these places from inside.

-Why? -Josh asked, shaking Chris’s hand off. He was angry and he was curious. The two did not go too well together and his conscience was rebelling against the fact that he felt slightly excited. A brothel!

-Because love has many faces and you have to see this one to appreciate the others.

-What?! My brother turns all philosophical on me -Josh smirked, shoving his hands in his jeans pockets.

-Whatever, dude. I want us to go in and… I don’t care if you just sit inside a room and watch a girl have fun by herself. Just go in.

Josh laughed in embarrassment.

-You’re funny -he said, pushing his glasses higher on his nose. It was hot and his skin was sweating. -Have you ever done that?

-Oh, the things I could tell you -Chris winked at a shocked Josh and without further ado, he pushed the curtains apart and nodding at the security guy with folded arms, stepped in with Josh at his heels.

A calming twilight greeted them and considerably cooler weather than outside. Josh breathed in and enjoyed the fact that his heated body instantly started to relax in the cool air. There was a counter behind which a sleek man with thin moustache was serving drinks to a few people, all of whom were escorted by ladies dressed very differently from each other:one had a long, black skirt and a top that looked like a bra, another was clad in red and white, while the third one wore a mini and a lace top, with net stockings.

-Welcome to the real Paris, the one that had not changed since the days of Toulouse-Lautrec -Chris grinned, and Josh swallowed his annoyance once more. His brother was teasing him with info that he had only heard fleetingly. The sights of Paris, the culture of Paris. He wished he had read more into that guide book instead of working on the plane.

-Yada yada -he replied, when the thought struck him. -Dammit, Chris. What if we were spotted? Can you imagine the headlines tomorrow?!

-I can. ‘Josh Groban, American singing sensation pops into Pigalle brothel to train his vocal chords in new ways’ -Chris offered with a grin. -You know what? Your fans would understand, after all, you’re single because of them. You deserve a little fun sometimes?!

-No no. You have no idea how serious they are about me and what I do -Josh sighed. -You remember that stupid article, and the time I was caught speeding? They think I’m immaculate and perfect.

-Immaculate my ass -Chris smirked. -Not after today, bro.

-Exactly -Josh whispered in panic. -Can’t you see? This could get out and that would be the end of my career.

-Stop freaking out and start taking chances. You have to test your fans.

-I don’t want to test them -Josh whined. -I want my life as I built it to be.

-Bonsoir -a middle-aged matron approached in black frilly skirt and a shockingly transparent top. Her breasts, big as five average ones, were pressed together in a lacy bra and Josh’s eyes opened wide at their unearthly size. -How can I help you, gentlemen? -she asked in a strong French accent.

-We want the two most popular ladies in the house -Chris said without hesitation, smiling at her.

Josh stared in disbelief. This was not his brother. And this was not happening!

-Tres bien -she nodded with a smile, giving Josh a glance that somehow made him ill at ease. -Our two escorts will show you the way. No rules in the house except no foulplay or I will call the police.

When they were walking up the stairs between two extremely young girls with long legs and feathers in their hair, Josh shoved his elbow into Chris’s side.

-Call the police? Isn’t this place illegal to begin with?

-This is a tourist district. Of course they will not shut down anything that attracts us, rich bastards.

-Oh god -Josh said, feeling panic overtake him more and more, with each step taken. -I don’t want to do this, Chris.

-Tell me later, dude. See you in an hour or so -Chris chuckled and disappeared behind a door.

Josh stood behind a door but he had no intention of opening it, until he was gently pushed towards it after a small hand pressed the handle for him. He almost fell through and when he regained his balance, he heard the door close behind him. This was bad. Very bad. Though, it was also quite exciting. He momentarily forgot his worries about being spotted and turned his attention to the room.

A young woman was lying in a relaxed pose on a bed as huge as his study. She was wearing black things which hardly covered her intimate areas, and he averted his gaze, feeling a blush creep up his neck. He used the window and bedside table and the carpet and anything he could look at as pretext for not looking at her- but nothing else seemed to be as fascinating, so he looked back at her despite his racing heart.

-Bonjour -she said in a rather deep and velvety voice. He wasn’t sure if it was meant to happen but he felt a shiver go down his spine at the sound of her.

-I… I don’t speak too much French, sorry -he apologized, shifting his weight from one foot to another.

-It’s fine -she replied with an accent. -Contrary to public belief, we French people do speak English. But only when we want to.

She was looking at him with eyes that were curiously sincere. He felt he was being scrutinized and he suddenly thought he must look like a helpless moron, in his jeans and T-shirt and glasses and baseball cap. Some upstart who’s bored in Paris and decides to pay for passion.

-Please, come and sit -she said, herself sitting up and patting the soft, mauve and pink cover beside her.

He opened his mouth to protest but he was also feeling more and more ridiculous with every second passing, so he slowly walked to the bed and sat down, thought significantly further from where her hand touched the bedcover.

-Why so far? Please. I’m not going to hurt you -she smiled, and he blushed.

-I… I don’t know if I… if I want this -he muttered, his hands on his thighs, then clasped in his lap, then on his thighs again. You act like the biggest idiot on the planet, he fumed inwardly. She’s only a woman. You have had women before, right?

-You will, once I start -she winked and edged closer.

He edged further and she giggled.

-Perhaps you’ll be less terrified if I told you I’m blind? -she smiled and lifted her eyes to stare into his disbelieving ones.

-What? I… -he blurted out, wondering if it was the usual act to make the shy customers relax.

-I know you don’t believe me, but I am -she said simply, edging closer again.

He edged further but realized that he had arrived at the bedframe. There was nowhere to run.

-Why? I mean… uhm… -he racked his brain for something to say, mostly to stop her from doing what she had started.

-I wasn’t always blind -was her reply and her hand reached the one he was leaning on. He tried to pull it away but she held it firmly. -Listen, you don’t have to do anything. Just lie down and leave the rest to me.

Her voice sent shivers up and down his spine and to places that took him into a different dimension. As she was leaning towards him, he saw her tanned breasts droop slightly under her lace top. The curviness of her elbow and wrist was something else that caught his glance, and he watched her slow moves with fascination.

Just then, he noticed some music play in the background. Drumming and an Irish melody.

-Hey, that sounds like a CD I was looking at today -he said, distracted by the fact.

-In Virgin -she giggled, not really paying attention to his words.

-How did you know? -he asked, freezing for a moment. This was getting scary.

She stopped short before she emitted a brief, amused laugh.

-Oh well. In that case, I know that you have curly hair and glasses, and that you have a brother.

He stared at her smiling face and her eyes that glistened in the subdued light.

-You were there with your boyfriend -he said, remembering her looking at him. She looked different now, with make-up on. And, hardly dressed.

-My brother -she giggled. -He’s my eyes. He found you two for me.

-What do you mean, found us?

-I… it’s a long story. Just let’s enjoy each other’s company, shall we?

There was too much information that he needed to process and he sat there, processing, until he noticed that her hand was stroking his chest right above his left nipple. He drew in a sigh and his hand automatically grabbed hers.

-I don’t… usually do this sort of thing -he said, trying to still his heart. Her closeness made him surprisingly unstable.

-Things are there for us to try them, taste them -she replied, opening her fingers under his to cover as much of his chest as she could.

He kept his hand on hers and had the strange but delightful impression that she was holding his heart in her hand.

-You’re very nice and everything -he swallowed, wondering if she was listening to his heartbeat -but er… I… I don’t want to do this.

She smiled at his words and retreated her hand, but not before she placed a small kiss on his shoulder.

-Okay. Then what do you want to do?

4,

What did he want to do? He had no idea. He squirmed on the edge of the bed, feeling the wooden bedpost press into his thigh and sensing the blind stranger’s amused look on him. If she was blind, that is. But if she was, she sure looked at him with eyes that seemed to see right through him. Contemplating the glorious prospect of beating Chris senseless the moment he got out of the place, he watched Aimée watch him. Her eyes seemed to be a portal to her soul, or so he thought: despite her profession he could not detect any signs of pretence in her behaviour. Wasn’t she supposed to be all glamorous and loud and playing an act? Then why did he have the feeling that behind the thinnest and sexiest lingerie he had ever seen on a woman, it was all Aimée he was seeing and not a made-up character?

-You know that you will have to pay for this even if we don’t do anything, right? –she asked, leaning back on her pillow, resting her legs so that one lay half covering the other in a terribly tempting pose.

He turned away and blushed, thanking the heavens for the fact that she couldn’t see his face.

-Money’s not a problem –he said, instantly regretting it.

-I see, so you’re a rich American –she said half stating, half asking, and she added a relaxed little laugh at the end. –I have seen many guys like you… yes, seen, when I could still see… but none who did not want to have me.

Josh wondered what kind of reply he could give to that. Would he encourage her if he said anything? Or hurt her if he didn’t? And why was he thinking of her emotional well-being?

-It’s… it’s not you –he replied eventually, carefully forming the sentence. –It’s just not my style to… to pay someone for… for this.

-For what exactly? –she asked, and he heard from her intonation that she was extremely amused by his shyness.

-For sex –he blurted out.

-Oh, so you think this is only sex?

-Well, isn’t it? –he replied with another question.

-Depending on how you want to see it –she shrugged, taking a long tuft of hair and twirling it around her finger. –I’ve had husbands who learnt here, from me, how to make their wives happy. I’ve had teenagers experience something they had no idea existed. And I’ve had old men who did not hope they could ever experience delight again.

-Impressive –Josh stated, wondering if it sounded sarcastic, but she seemed to have a healthy sense of humour.

-And you don’t know half of it, mister… whoever you are. A rich American is enough for me. Can I call you Seth?

-Why Seth? –he frowned and grinned at the same time.

-I have my reasons –she said, looking straight at him when he lifted his gaze to meet hers. –If you have secrets, then so can I.

-Fair enough –he replied and leaned forward to stare at the floor beyond his clasped hands.

-Yes –was her reply and shifted on the bed.

She lay on her side, propping her face on her left hand, looking ahead towards the window. Josh turned his head slightly to look at her. The tiny feet almost touched his knee and he noticed through her stockings that the paint on her toenails was a bit damaged. He wondered if she painted her own toes or someone did it for her.

-Can you tell me how you became rich, or is that a secret also? –she asked absent-mindedly, moving her toes to and back in a way that reminded Josh of a little child.

-I sang my way to the top –he replied and then laughed. –Wow that sounds boastful. But yeah, I did.

-So you’re a singer? Wow –she said, her voice animated. –What do you sing?

-A bit of everything –Josh told her, looking at her face to see her reactions, not only to what he just said but to anything that was uttered in the room. To be able to watch a human being openly and without restraints was fascinating and it made him feel unreasonably powerful.

-Will you sing to me, then? –she giggled, still turned towards the window, her eyes sparkling with excitement.

-I… I don’t know –he said, rubbing the corner of his left eye.

-Why? Come on –she pleaded with him and he couldn’t exactly say why, but he felt uncomfortable and flattered at the same time.

-Okay –he gave in. –Okay. I’ll sing.

-Good.

-My problem is I can never say no to a woman –he said, enjoying the sound of the words. A little sad, a little self-ironic.

-Except you just said no to an experience that you won’t have anywhere else, ever –she laughed, throwing her head back on the pillow.

-Yeah. Well… uhm. So do you want me to sing in English, Italian, French or Spanish?

Aimée kept laughing and he wondered if it was because she was totally swept off her feet or just amused at his vanity.

-French. Definitely French –she said once her merriment subsided.

-To pick on my accent, probably –he replied refully but inside, he was grinning.

-Oh, stop being a baby and sing –she prompted him, so he did as he was told.

-Le ciel bleu sur nous peut s’effrondrer, et la terre peut bien s’ecrouler… Peu m’importe si tu m’aimes, je me fous du monde entier… Tant que l’amour inondera mes matins, tant que mon corps fremira sous tes mains… Peu m’importent les problemes, mon amour, puisque tu m’aimes…

He sang the whole of the one French song he had, a little lost in the lyrics and the bizarre situation. He sat looking out the window into the blinding Paris summer, feeling good where he was, sitting on a bed with a stranger who couldn’t see him but whom he could definitely see. When he finished, he sat motionless for a while to let the melody sink into his soul and to enjoy the echoes of the feelings settle in his heart, before turning to her to wait for her reaction.

She was lying on her side, but her knees were pulled up and her hands were under her head. Her eyes were closed and he wondered if he had managed to make her fall asleep, but the next moment she opened them and then slowly wiped the tears that were streaming out.

For some reason he felt like a thief, and turned his gaze to give her privacy. He hoped she would not realize he had seen her, but then again, she probably knew. She was blind, she was at everyone’s mercy, at his mercy, too: he suddenly felt ashamed for staring at her so openly.

-Wow –she whispered and kept wiping her eyes, apparently beyond caring if he noticed or not. He watched her from the corner of his eye and smiled at seeing how moved she was.

-Did you… did you like it? –he asked shyly, compelled to hear more.

She let out a small laugh and wiped her eyes, leaning into her pillow to be able to use both of her hands.

-What, don’t tell me you have an inferiority complex. With this voice –she giggled.

-Where did you learn your English, by the way? It’s quite good –he interjected.

-Oh, now you’re wanting to drop the subject. You are intriguing, Seth! –she laughed again.

-No, of course I don’t have any inferiority complex –he grinned, finding it less and less embarrassing to look into her unseeing eyes.

She sighed, resting her right arm over her forehead and lying in total abadon under his curious glance. She seemed to forget where she was as one hand rubbed her forehead and her other rested on her stomach. Her fingers were not the daintiest, but still very graceful. He watched her breath lift her ribcage and her hand, wondering what she was thinking of just then.

-I’m sorry but that song is very important to me –she said and wiped a few more tears that rolled down the side of her cheek.

Josh wanted to reply but the door flung open and in peeked a man who eyed him suspiciously, then turned to look at Aimée.

-Qu’est-ce qu’il fait la? Tout va bien ou il faut le battre? –he asked quickly and angrily from the woman who sat up and extended her right hand in protest.

-Non, laisse-le, je t’en prie, Martin.*

The conversation went on for a few more minutes and Josh felt a lot more embarrassed than before. He caught a few words and he had a suspicion they were talking about him. He also more or less recalled the face of the man from the CD shop earlier that day, and he realized it was her brother she was talking to.

-I guess my time is up –he mumbled and cast a side glance to Aimée who turned her face towards him and seemed a little at a loss.

-Yes –she replied, and he heard the door close discreetly. –I… it was nice talking to you… even if I couldn’t… give you anything.

For a split second he thought he understood her sadness: he had robbed her of her chance to make someone happy, if only for a few minutes. It was her chosen way of giving and he didn’t accept it. He regretted it now, not so much for the lost chance of experiencing earthly joy, but for her. She seemed sad and silent and that made him strangely sad, too.

-No… thank you for… for not forcing me to… to… –he stuttered, looking for words.

-It’s fine –she cut him of and he was grateful. –I hope this wasn’t too embarrassing for you, and I hope you can get out unnoticed by the paparazzi.

-Thanks –he said, standing up, a little touched by her thoughtfulness, his hands desperately wanting to do something. He was used to standing in front of people who saw him; he was used to be very aware of how he stood and what his posture was like and where he kept his hands and how he looked at people. For the first time he could have basically pulled faces and stood like a hunchback or could have picked his nose and she would not have judged him.

-Enjoy your stay in Paris… Seth –she said to him a little sadly and smiled a lonely little smile, then lay back onto her pillow and turned to face the large window.

Should he say bye? Or something else? He decided against saying anything at all and closed the door behind him, but Martin was already there and he stormed inside, leaving the door ajar. Josh heard animated conversation but he was done trying to guess what they were talking about. He walked down the corridor when after a few steps, someone cut his retreat.

-Monsieur, tell me, what did she do to you that you sang so beautifully? –a short, middle-aged and bald man asked him in a strong French accent with pleading eyes.

Josh almost burst out laughing but he held it back.

-She is a miracle –he said, opening his eyes wide and grabbing the man by his arms to give his words more emphasis. –If you go in there, you will come out a completely new man!

He added a quick harmony in the silence of the corridor and the stranger stared in awe with his mouth open; Josh had to quickly go past or a huge smile would have betrayed him for certain.

Because he hurried to get beyond hearing distance, he didn’t notice that Martin was witness of this brief dialogue from behind the half-open door.

(To be continued)

*-What is he doing here? Do I need to give him a beating?
-No Martin, please let him be.

5.

-You know, sis, the hunkiest guys ever come your way –Martin reported as he closed the door and sat down next to Aimée who smiled at her brother and settled her feet against his thigh.

-So tell me what he was like –she said dreamily, wiping the remains of her tears from her eyes.

-All I can tell you right now is that I changed my mind and I want him, not his brother –Martin said and stroked Aimée’s tiny feet.

She laughed and waited for him to go on.

-Do you remember Gaspard? From across the street back in Montpellier. Well, take his hair and add the eyes of that glorious bitch who broke my heart when I was ten –Martin continued.

-Oh my. Gaspard’s hair? I didn’t think anyone could ever reproduce that hair –Aimée giggled.

-By the way, why were you crying? –Martin asked suddenly. –Do I need to hunt him down and break his teeth in?

-No… don’t hurt him –she sighed, a smile lingering on her face. –He was really nice… he didn’t want to do anything, just talk.

-Yet another softie –he snorted. –Just my type –he added, his face illuminating.

-Yes, your type –she smiled, wondering how serious he was about Seth. Seth… not his real name. But for her, he would always be Seth. –So maybe you should hunt him down, after all.

-Maybe I will –Martin said, lost in the moment.

She couldn’t see his face but she knew what he was thinking of: he was just as impossible a dreamer as herself. When they were kids, they did everything together. They guessed each other’s moods from a twinkle of the eye, from a biting of a lip that passed unnoticed for everyone else. They were twins, after all, and the kinship they felt was strong enough to keep them connected through the hardships. When he had to spend time with the army, she wrote him letters every week but somehow, she kept mistyping his address and all letters came back undelivered. Until his first leave, when he told her everything she had written to him about, without even reading her letters. That’s when they realized the bond between them was stronger than most people could ever understand.

When she became pregnant, he helped her in every way possible, and it was because of his emptional and mental support that she was able to cope with her loss of sight, and later, with bringing up a child and never seeing her little face. She knew she would have died without Martin and she made sure to show her love for him as much as she could.

-Do you think he’s gay, though? –he asked out of the blue and she scrunched up her nose a little.

-Hm. Uhm. Well… as far as I could tell… no. But that was never an obstacle for you, was it? –she giggled.

-Yeah but… it does help if I don’t have to try and convert someone –he grimaced.

-Maybe… maybe you should try both sexes, then…? It would give you a bigger garden to choose from –she said way too seriously, then burst out laughing when she literally felt his eyes pierce her. –Okay, alright. Alright. Just joking.

-Not funny –he said. –Women are evil. Except you. And even you may be evil with some miserable bastard, but at least that doesn’t need to be me –he chuckled and slowly started tickling her feet, to which she screamed and pulled them away. She was extremely ticklish and he never failed to take advantage of it.

-Stop, please Martin, stop. I still have clients waiting… I think. What did the Madame tell you?

-I saw a middle-aged guy look rapturously at your new find just a minute ago –Martin replied. –I believe he thought you made that guy sing with your… your magic, and I’m pretty sure he’ll do whatever he can to undergo the same treatment.

-Whaaaaaat? –she laughed and shook on the pillow.

-Oh yes and he actually played along –Martin laughed with her. –What I love more than a hunky, almost certainly straight but maybe corruptible heart-throb is a hunky, almost certainly straight but maybe corruptible heart-throb with a sense of humour.

-Oh, he was sweet –she admitted, her merriment subsiding. –An American, but he was still sweet. I think he’s very famous… hearing him sing, I can understand why.

-I really need to find out who he was –Martin pondered, his fingers nervously clasping and letting go. –Do you think he’ll be back?

-Him? Back? Not in a thousand years –Aimée said with a laugh that sounded less resolute and happy than she planned it. –He felt very out of place and embarrassed, by me, and by the fact that someone might see him. I don’t think he will want to jeopardize his name again… you will have to fall back on your detective friends.

-Jojo is away on a cruise, Tony is dealing with a family crisis, Jean is in rehab –Martin bit his lip. –I’m afraid it’ll all be me…

-Oh! I got it! –she sat up excitedly. –I know how you can find him. Or… well, it’s an idea, it may not work but it’s more than nothing.

-What? Tell me.

-He sang „Hymne á l’amour” in French. He sounded like someone who knew this song by heart… I’m pretty sure he has it recorded. You can type the title on the internet and…

Martin gasped audibly and then collected his giggling sister in his arms.

-Sis! You have always been the genius in the family. How can I ever repay you?!

-By letting me go –she laughed. –This lace underwear, I can feel it stretching and you’ll have me naked in no time!

-Speaking of which, he saw you and he didn’t want you?! –he frowned, replacing the grinning woman back on the bed. –That might give me hope.

Aimée laughed again and Martin watched her sincere face lit up. She had been robbed of a life she could never get back, and yet she never lost her gentleness of soul and honesty of spirit. She was one of the purest human beings he had ever met; the way she earned her living had nothing to do with it. She saw it as work but she put her heart and soul into it, and most clients he talked to seemed to be deeply touched by her in more senses of the word. It was a fact: she chose to give herself to strangers, and either because of her trust that came from not seeing people, or the fact that she had always had faith in humans, she also chose to be their sister, mother, lover or whatever they needed her to be for that brief period of time they spent in her arms: she chose to be their everything. It was only possible for an untainted soul to maintain that kind of unbreakable serenity, and she was capable of it.

Martin wondered how it could have happened that a young, healthy man did not want to lose himself in a woman like his sister, and felt sorry for him.

-I think you need to go, dear –she sighed, sitting up and getting ready to stand up, then changing her mind. –I just realized I don’t need to wash –she giggled.

-Did you get a name from him, a first name? –he asked. Just in case.

-No… he was in hiding and I completely understand him –she replied. –But I’m pretty sure you’ll find him through that song.

-Amazing that he sang that song of all songs, huh? –Martin added in an almost reverent voice.

She only sighed and placed her hand on his.

-She knows we miss her –he continued, squeezing the warm hand. –I swear this was her sign to show that she is still watching over us.

-Stop or I’ll cry again –she smiled and edged closer to lean on his shoulder.

-You can cry to me –he hugged her and stroked her face. –No matter what happens, no matter where we go, who we meet, you will always be my number one, sis. You know that.

She clung to him and felt her tears trickle down her cheek, into the shirt he was wearing. She wished she could tell him what he meant to her but at times she felt too overwhelmed to speak- and there was no need to speak, either. They understood each other without words, after all.

They hugged for a while, he rubbing her back and she clinging to him, her saviour and beacon in the neverending darkness.

-I love you Martin… God knows what I’d be without you. Probably ashes by now –she sniffled.

-Shhh –he kissed the top of her head. –We’ll turn into ashes together, I promise you that –he said, clearing his throat as he felt overwhelmed himself.

-Good –she giggled and disentangled herself from Martin.

-Your make-up is a mess… where’s the girlie stuff? Your face needs restoration bad –he chuckled and wiped some mascara marks from under her eyes.

-On the table next to the stereos –she said, calming down.

-Oh, the CD we bought –Martin said, picking it up.

-He recognized it, by the way.

-He did?

-He did.

-I think this encounter was no accident –he mumbled. –Too many coincidences, don’t you think?

-Hurry and do my make-up –she told him. –No time to go all spiritual now.

-Okay, sis.

Ten minutes later he was out and she was in her room, waiting for her next client, little knowing that the encounter with Seth would not be an isolated incident.

6.

It was well past two am, but the city seemed to be forever on the move. Paris in the summer is nothing short of a cavalcade of sound and vision of which people can be passive witnesses, or in which they can take part actively; most members of the latter group will unequivocally confirm that Paris is welcoming, generous and exciting for visitor and city-dweller alike, and the deeper one digs into her layers, the more intriguing she will become. Naturally, Paris is also the city of Hugo’s lovingly depicted underground canal-system, an invisible bowel-complex that will stink if prodded at; the city will quickly lose her charm to those who cannot absorb old and new together, who are sensitive to the proud impertinence of the locals, and who cannot take on the city’s bewildering rhythm. She will forever be Paris, retainer of ancient lore and beauty, but also developing at a vast speed.

Josh lay in his bed sleeping. Not for long, though: two drunkards yelled their merriment into the night outside the hotel and he awoke with a faint jerk. He turned aside to look at Chris. His brother was snoring peacefully, to which Josh swallowed his anger. Why couldn’t he wake up just as well? It wasn’t nice to be stranded in the night, all alone and wide awake by now, having to resort to counting sheep.

Not that he wanted anything remotely close to counting sheep. The moment he woke up, his senses awoke too, and his brain brought out the different events of the previous few days that had been processed and safely stored away. He adored Paris, if he wanted to be honest. There was so much happening all the time; even drinking a cup of coffee seemed to be different. The girls looked at him in a different way than at home: their cheeky curiosity mixed with a local sense of superiority that stemmed from a firm, subconscious knowledge of being part of an old tradition intrigued him just as much as the cool, elegant way they dressed. (The guys, too, eyed him differently, but that was another matter.) There was more to be seen and experienced than in any of the places he had been to before, and he was damn lucky to have Chris with him. His brother seemed to know exactly where to take him and what to show him to help his brain undo its tentacles and let go of everything related to work.

Josh grinned in the night when he recalled their visit earlier that day to the Museum of Eroticism. He was reluctant to go in, having a fair idea of what was going to be displayed inside. Also, the museum in Amsterdam had been a huge disappointment: what was so erotic about an openly obscene, pornographic photo or painting of the act of copulation? In the district of Pigalle, however, everything was ambiguous, and eroticism had its dark and funny side, too. Some objects and statues were so ridiculous that he definitely felt more turned on this time. Chris wanted to purchase an object that looked quite disgusting until the two convex lines reminiscent of a standing human eye started to move and formed a grinning mouth. Then he started laughing. Nevertheless, he placed the… thing back onto the display counter, giving his smirking brother a look of „dude, are you trying to embarrass me?”.

Cars chased the street lights they passed in the night: it was a never stopping ebb and flow of sparkles and orange streaks of lush light. Life went on regardless of the time of day in Paris, and because Josh was a child of big cities and the bustle in them, he thought of the possibility of obtaining a small flat somewhere in a cosier district, perhaps close to the Sacré-Coeur. The same old area that seemed to distract and attract him enough to consider buying a stable abode for himself.

He then remembered the strange meeting with the blind hooker. That’s what she was, after all, despite her funny tender look in her strange unseeing eyes. Recalling her long legs and shapely lips, and the arched neck on her pillow, he wondered how he was able to resist her. And yet, somehow, the brief encounter seemed to have a special meaning to it, or, perhaps because it remained extraordinarily chaste. He tried to think back whether he was not attracted to her, or whether she made him ill at ease with her confident approach. In any case, jumping sheets with someone without knowing them was not his style. Was it Chris’s style?! He frowned in the night, wondering at the quickly thrown half-sentences his brother gave him as reply to his enquiry after they met again in the hall. It didn’t exactly shock him, but somehow… it was strange. That they were so different, and yet, could be so close at times. Were they different because his career had its demands and anything reminiscent of bad taste or thoughtlessness would have registered as downright sin in the eyes of his loyal fans, or was it because his inner self was happy and cosy where he was, in the safety of his peace of mind? He loved his games, his music, and he loved a solitary walk once in a while, like everybody else. He longed for nothing scandalous or shocking- or was it his fans, aka his almost conscience that kept him from doing anything stupid? In any case, the emotions welling up in him when Chris pushed him into that room were rather ambiguous, and multiple. It was lucky he could talk without stuttering.

What was her name? He realized he never asked her name, and she never offered to tell it to him. Yet, she was interested in his name.

Not that it mattered what her name was. Or did it? He probably saw her once in his lifetime, a strange, interesting encounter he would remember for a long time. One of the many he had been in in the past few years. So many people, so many faces that would make up a whole city if he could recall them one by one. It was such a privilege to meet so many, and have an effect on so many of them.

No, it didn’t matter what her name was.

Paris sighed and moaned and screeched and swung by under his window. It was late, but his thoughts were wide awake, refusing to let him be. He only had a few more days before travelling on to his next destination, and he longed to use his time wisely, plunging in the rich tapestry of parisian life and unique experiences his crazy brother would probably push down his throat. He felt terribly tempted to get up and get dressed and go out into the night.

Chris shifted his pose in the other bed and Josh looked at him hopefully, but the younger man slept soundly on.

He could, of course, listen to his ipod, or crawl down into the hall with his laptop and surf the web. But who in their right minds would want to surf the virtual world when the real, sparkling, flabbergasting, insanely sensual and lively night-world of one of the most beautiful cities in the universe was two steps away?

Thinking of his work and tour didn’t exactly help, either. The tiny doubts he had about the new instrumentation of Canto alla vita and his disconcerting argument he had with Brian the day before about four tour-dates added to a tour already jampacked with cities lured in the back of his mind, showing themselves as bigger obstacles than they were in reality. It was night, after all, and thoughts were hovering, pressing on, making him feel a bit unsafe and unsure about himself.

A horn clonked outside, long and loud, and that decided his dilemma. He sat up and quickly dressed, putting jeans and a tee on, with a hooded sweater on top, his baseball cap and glasses. Casting a glance at his reflection on his way out, he smirked at the image of a stupid kid who was nothing but trouble.

He felt like an outsider in the foyer of the luxurious hotel, and he smiled contentedly. A receptionist in tuxedo and with gel in his hair gave him a look of uncertainty; Josh bit his lip at the silly thought of the puzzled guy wanting to call security in case he was a burglar of some sort. He checked his wallet and credit cards, then nodded at the receptionist who lifted his eyebrows but nodded politely back. Stepping out into the warm night, he sat into one of the taxis waiting by, and asked to be driven to Montmartre.

It was only after he gave directions that his brain processed the information. It seemed to be a logical thing to do, after all: he had spent most of his two days in that area, and somehow, there was something wildly exciting, yet soothing about it, and he felt too intrigued to let it all just go.

Most shops were closed, but the lights flickered on every metre of every street and corner: reflecting in the clean windows and shop-doors, shining overhead as the vehicle sped by almost soundlessly (it was a luxury car, of course), the merry windows of local bars and pubs, and a surprisingly dense traffic that proved the existence of a prospering night-life in the city. Josh watched the lights and the people and the cars like a kid who sees things for the first time: after a brief sleep, his body was rested enough, but his senses were still not drowned in the heaviness of sleep, and he thought he heard and saw everything more intensely than ever.

-Where exactly do you wish to go, sir? –the driver asked.

-Doesn’t matter really, you can drop me anywhere –Josh said, and pulled out some euros, giving a tip that he thought was too large, but for some reason, he felt generous. –Merci beaucoup.

Nothing was given in reply, but the car went by faster than lightning, and Josh found himself alone in the sexiest and most artistic district of Paris. He pushed his wallet and papers deeper in his pockets and pulling his cap closer into his eyes, started walking towards the remote building he recognized from postcards and Chris’ travel book.

(To be continued)

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