London 1991. Hailing from a lineage of bold women whose esoteric lives entwined with political and social changes of their times in France, spanning from 1880, thirty-year-old multiracial Chloe Baudelaire has her share of secrets. Appointed as Chargée d’af·faires and entrusted with a near impossible feat of influencing the British government to part with French belongings, Chloe finds herself caught in a whirlwind of treacherous occurrences. Would Chloe’s convictions and strategic approach vanquish the manipulative tactics of the British?
‘The Esoteric Lives of Fleurs de Lys‘ is a compelling narrative of romance, mystery, and diplomacy.
THE ESOTERIC LIVES OF FLEURS DE LYS
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CHAPTER ONE – 1990, PARIS – FURTHERANCE
Chloe rushed to the Ministry of Culture for an urgent mission awaited her arrival. Traffic entanglements in Paris rendered her impatient with the growing number of cars on the roads, forcing her Venturi 400 GT to crawl at a snail’s pace, especially on Rue Saint-Honore. She swerved the car into the building’s parking lot and raced all the way to her office outside which the ministry affixed a name board titled Counsellor to the imposing wall. Unlocking her door, Chloe headed straight for the phone to contact the Minister of Culture’s office.
‘I expected your call. The Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, England, has responded to our minister’s letter of credence requesting Chargée d’affaires’ appointment,’ replied the Minister of Culture, Bernadette Chauvin.
‘I thought the exposal of British museums’ involvement in the purchase of stolen cultural property embittered our diplomatic relationship with England.’
‘You’re right. Hence, the downgrade from the ambassador to the Chargée d’affaires’ level.’
‘It is a sensitive political situation. Would the urgent mission have anything to do with me?’
‘How long will it take for you to get to my office?’ asked Bernadette.
‘I’ll be there in fifteen minutes. See you soon.’
Attired in a yellow viscose double-breasted jacket skirt suit, Chloe, five feet and nine inches tall, always used her height and long legs to her advantage. As she took long strides to reduce the distance between her and Bernadette’s office, her fair skin glistened with a thin film of perspiration and her straight chestnut hair swung in unison with her slender hips.
Chloe neared Bernadette’s office when she came face to face with Bernadette’s secretary, Anne, who opened the door from the inside to let herself out. Stepping aside for Anne to exit, Chloe greeted her and received a nod in response to the acknowledgement. She walked in time to see Bernadette Chauvin scrawl her signature on specific documents that required her immediate attention.
Distracted by Chloe’s entrance, Bernadette looked up and said, ‘True to your word. Answering the question you asked me on the phone, the mission has everything to do with you as I appointed you as the new Chargée d’affaires to England.’
‘May I know why you regard me as suitable for this position? Not that I am not grateful for this opportunity,’ said Chloe as an afterthought, to rephrase her blunt question.
‘You are a counsellor and have an excellent understanding of our paintings and expensive artefacts besides conflict resolution strategies. You qualify. I only recommend deserving candidates. Take the file. It has all the documents regarding your appointment, the cause for the misunderstandings between England and France which resulted in the lack of ambassadorial relationships, photographs of the missing artworks amounting to a tune of several millions, and evidence of pilfered cultural heritage belonging to France and other countries in British museums.’
Reaching out for the only file on the table, Chloe asked, ‘How long do I have?’
‘A month. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs makes the expedient arrangements. I forgot to add that the file contains contact details of the diplomats’ who could provide you with further details about the mission.’
‘I am grateful for this opportunity. Thank you,’ said Chloe before she excused herself from the Minister of Culture’s office.
A decade at the ministry, with a few promotions, helped Chloe build her current reputation, and though she considered herself fortunate to have received her recent appointment, her secret life added further complications to her already pressurized circumstances. Darkness brought forth excitement and thrill into her life, otherwise sabotaged by her daylight hours’ pristine reputability. Daily routines demanded her undivided attention and, prioritizing her tasks, she retrieved time to peruse the contents of the thick file.
Chloe immersed herself for hours in evidentiary material about art heists, duplicity, and deliberate fabrications besides information about legacies in British possession belonging to several countries which they preferred to retain than return. Oblivious to time’s passage, she continued her relentless mastery of the expedient information required for the efficient discharge of duties. The ring of the telephone shrilled through the silence in her office, forcing Chloe to tear her eyes away from the material classified confidential. The receptionist’s reminder of the building’s closure within half an hour’s duration propelled Chloe from her sedentariness into mobility. Within minutes, Chloe ejected the building as fast as she had marched in at the office hours’ commencement. Joining the slow line of cars in the heavy traffic area, her vehicle devoured miles with ease through the smooth and familiar route until it halted before a stylish mansion in the idyllic yet modern Belleville-Menilmontant.
Parking her car in the garage, Chloe deactivated the security alarms before she entered her living room, the décor of which matched the elegant exterior of her residence. The entire space breathed an aestheticized aura with antique furniture and expensive renowned paintings and artefacts adorning the floors, spaces, and walls of her establishment. Her cloak and dagger existence rendered employing maidservants or attendants impossible. Domestic chores became a part of her fitness routine followed by dinner preparations, always for two, or home delivery in accompaniment to immersion in scented bath for a prolonged period, which served as a sleep-inducing drug.
* * *
As night crept on the residents of the Parisian neighborhood, a dark figure surveyed the property and its surroundings from his vehicle parked a few meters away from his desired destination, waiting for the right time to slip out, while other members of Unione Corse scrutinized the neighboring properties for signs of life and activity to avoid detection and vexatious startlement. Lucien Mondoloni noticed the illumination in his ladylove’s bathroom, a certainty born out of familiarity with the accommodation, while tenebrosity submerged the remaining rooms. That being the much-awaited signal, Lucien stepped out to make his way through the gates at the side of the property, keying in the unlocking code only he had access to. Not even Chloe. Lucien upheld the promise of maintaining secrecy for five years, ever since their first meeting when Unione Corse extended their support to the French government to suppress militancy of insurgent groups via contract killing. His rugged appearance in a well-cut navy-blue blazer, through which his chiseled biceps showed, matching pants and black leather shoes besides his dark wavy hair and charm, was irresistible to most women, including Chloe. Appareled in grunge style, an American fashion that had found its way to France in the 1990s, six feet and three inches tall Lucien looked dashing in his blue jeans, an unbuttoned red and black shirt worn over a black tee lackadaisical style, as he let himself through the gate. Unconscious of his habitual tendency, Lucien fingered his ivory pendant, which symbolized the mafia group he represented, a black human head with a rag tied around its forehead against the ivory framework.
Chloe, having completed her bath and changed into her black lacy night dress, descended the stairs to satisfy her hunger pangs when she sensed a movement in the dining area.
‘Is that you, Lucien?’ asked Chloe in a low voice.
‘Who else can it be?’ he replied while flicking the switch, which irradiated the living room, dining area, and the kitchen at once.
Chloe flashed a smile before she ensnared him in a tight embrace and smothered him with hungry kisses. Lucien needed no further encouragement and in a fraction of a second, they found themselves naked and entwined in each other’s arms against the softness of the customized deerskin leather lounge, experimenting with innovative ways of expressing their passion for each other.
An hour later, after ingurgitating sumptuous quantities of Coq au vin with sweet bread and a few glasses of burgundy, they discussed business.
‘What is it this time? Extortion, money laundering or contract killing?’ teased Chloe as Lucien loathed discussing his operations while in her company.
‘Mocking me? Need I remind you that the French government cannot do without our valuable succor in resolving many tricky issues? Our alliance has flourished since the French resistance.’
‘Mention of the government reminds me of a matter of utmost significance. In a month’s time, I would be a diplomat in England. I am appointed as Chargée d’affaires. My duties include negotiating the return of valuable stolen paintings and artefacts from the British museums to the respective French museums from where those vanished.’
‘No use trying to talk you out of this mission. Code of silence guaranteed. As usual, I need details of where the British intend to accommodate you. You could expect a few visits from a familiar yet mysterious intruder.’
‘You know I will miss you and I look forward to such visits. Stay alive, please.’
‘I have nothing to worry as long as I have your prayers.’
‘For someone notorious, I am impressed with the sudden display of piety.’
‘Could you please step down from the pedestal of illusory moral superiority?’
‘I thought I lost the advantage of being virtuous the moment I became involved with a mafia man.’
‘There she goes again. I have been having your back ever since, on many a dangerous terrain. So, you are not in a disadvantaged position either. Must you conclude our meetings with such insinuations?’
‘I cannot resist ruffling your feathers, as anger makes you more dashing than you already are.’
‘I give up. Whoever said that one could tame a shrew?’ joked Lucien.
‘I will end the jibes. Let’s talk business. I could benefit from a list of perfidious art brokers in England who wouldn’t shy away from inducements. Do you think you could be of any help to me?’
‘Anything for you Madame. Why would I miss another opportunity to serve the French government? My pleasure! Anything else until next time?’
‘Farewell mon amour. I will inform you if there are any sudden changes to my plans.’
With a quick hug and a kiss, Lucien stole out of the mansion to return to his clan, awaiting his patient arrival.
Ascending the stairs, Chloe thought she was not the first woman in the lineage to harbor unrevealed private affairs. Neither the foremost to partake in political movements nor the earliest to entangle in controversial relationships, Chloe refreshed her memories about her forerunner, her great grandmother Madeline. At an inquisitive age, her mother Bianca made the police writing about Madeline, preserved in archival storage boxes, accessible to Chloe.
CHAPTER TWO – 1957, PARIS – UNEARTHING
Politics, an omniscient intruder, whose entry often unnoticed and unpredicted at every gathering, though discerned by all, became visible only when he emerged out of his self-raised sheath as a thespian and articulated his script. Causing a drama to unfold, the intruder departed, paving the way as usual for further convolutions and in search of new avenues. Humanizing a familiar concept might not appeal to all, however, since time immemorial, women were no strangers to it when compared to their male counterparts. Mystery, adventure, dangers, betrayal, passions were not exclusive to the world of piracy or exploitation, but also inherent in the arena of politics in the 1880s. By exploiting the concept, ingrained in all narratives, Chloe reflected on her grandmother’s contributions to the affairs of the state through her lovers over whom she had unquestionable powers. Chloe thought if her subject of recountal, who belonged to the bourgeois community with her strengths and foibles, had any catastrophes, the rest of the women in the family would have remained unborn.
The observations not being a figment of Chloe’s imagination were the outcome of her grandmother and mother unravelling together long forgotten yellow crumbly documents from painted creaky metal trunks. The sight of such trunks, which held clothes among other interesting objects, was not unusual in those days, as most households had those tucked away in the corners of spacious rooms or in the attic. Blended with the surroundings and slipped into oblivion, the metal storage spaces failed to influence the residents to sift through the contents in the storage spaces until that eventful day when the irresistibleness of the object compelled them to do so. On one such day, Chloe’s mother Bianca and her grandmother Caroline Rousseau committed the glorious mistake of opening the mysterious trunk that belonged to their beloved family member, Madeline.
A pale complexioned, wrinkly, seventy-year-old resourceful woman of five feet six inches, Madeline went about her domestic chores harboring secrets, which she disclosed only when she chose to. At first, the trunk held no surprises for them as it contained clothes, fake jewelry, small wooden boxes with intricate carvings on the exterior and valuable items Chloe’s great grandmother cherished. As Caroline reached the base of the trunk, the discovery of a pile of documents wrapped in a fabric heightened her curiosity. Leaving the contents strewn around the trunk, Caroline gestured to Bianca to join her on a large wooden bed discarded years ago, on which they made themselves comfortable.
Caroline unknotted the stash, pushed the fabric away to get an unobstructed glimpse of the yellow crumbly documents that demanded handling with care. A photograph topping the pile commanded her attention. It bore a familiar face with an unfamiliar name. She put it aside and picked up what looked like a card, or some sort of registration. Bianca witnessed her mother peer at it for a few minutes, motionless, before she let out a loud gasp of disbelief from a body fraught with tension. She threw the card down as if it scorched her fingers. Bianca picked up the card and her eyebrows shot up at the bold print, which translated to a license for prostitution at the top center of the registration card. Immobilized by the revelation, Caroline slipped into a state of shock while Bianca continued to read the neat typewritten card. Typewriters had crept into all government offices in the 1880s, which staff used for all official communication because of its convenience. The typed text, aligned to perfection, with blanks filled in by the staff’s legible handwriting, had a number on it. Below the assigned number, the text stated that Madeline Collins had paid a sum of two francs and fifty sous for obtaining the license imposed on a courtesan and otherwise complied with the health check regulation of the city. From the 10th day of April 1896, the authority permitted Madeline to continue in the business for three months.
A quick glance confirmed Caroline’s unwillingness for conversations. Bianca picked up the photograph, and instant recognition flashed on her face when a young, attractive woman with a different name stared back at her, a flirtatious smile playing on her painted lips. Caroline’s momentary distress made the exchange of words impossible. Amazed at the connection between the photograph and the pseudonym, Bianca dragged the pile towards her by holding on to one end of the fabric that served as a protective cover. The newspaper cutting which resembled an advertisement, in which Madeline gained prominence as one of the distinctive beauties displayed on the glass pane of an opulent edifice, confirmed her progression from the working-class prostitute, as clear form the working-class restaurant’s ticket, to the elite courtesan in Le Sphinx, one of the luxury brothels of the time. Replacing the advertisement, Bianca reached out for the typed document which bore the stamp of a police office, only to be stopped by Caroline who stood up, grabbed the pile, covered it with the fabric and fastened it with the sash in silence ignoring the questioning look on Bianca’s face. She returned the bundle to the trunk where it lay nestled against the other bundles and closed the lid of the trunk in a burst of impatience.
I started ‘A Writer’s Exposé’ to speak my unflinching mind. As political issues are not my cup of tea, I started to blog about various social issues that impacted on individuals from all walks of life. Unpredictable situations in life that contributed to my existential angst influenced me to ramble about my experiences on my blog site, which had a therapeutic effect on me. A few psychiatrists recommended to victims of trauma the exercise of penning down every detail of the traumatic event and the victims destroyed their suffering which fed on their identity. An unwilling participant in stressful events, I felt powerless to cope with life’s issues which haunted and overwhelmed me on emotional, physical and psychological levels. I did not feel as victimised as before and could function with a liberated mind and achieve happiness when I read and re-read my blogs though imperfect. Contrary to the widespread belief that human beings love to be miserable and suffer, I realised that there is a choice or a substitute for suffering. My choice is to write and blog. Welcome to my kingdom! I am the Queen of Audacity.
In a dystopian setting, murders are executed in the dead of the night and bodies emerge in mysterious circumstances. What began as an old-fashioned scam in a country with a long history of corruption exploded into a political controversy. When a mysterious document surfaced with few influential names, a political upheaval ensued. While the saga of mysterious deaths continued, and narcissistic authoritarians basked in the glory of their achievements, a breakthrough in the scientific and technological world precipitated a series of unresolved crimes that transformed the nation into a turbulent domain. Would the mysterious powerful personages responsible for these criminalities risk being exposed?
NO ONE KNOWS WHAT LIES IN STORE FOR THEM! The human experience of female migrants in Australia, the challenges and struggles they encounter before they taste success has been realistically portrayed through the character of Neha in ‘Pneuma’. Neha, who has carved a niche for herself in the field of education, has yet to confront the enigmatic aspects of her personal and professional life and find solutions by introspection and delving into the past. The varied experiences, events, incidents and relationships that have contributed towards her changing identities hurls her into existential angst. Her spiritual search while reliving her past and battling with the present leads her towards emancipation and sagacity which becomes instrumental in discovering her ‘self’ and moulding her future. What turn will Neha’s pursuance take?