THE HOURS BEFORE: A Story of Mystery and Suspense from the Belle Époque

THE HOURS BEFORE: A Story of Mystery and Suspense from the Belle Époque by Robert Stephen Parry Read Free Book Online

Book: THE HOURS BEFORE: A Story of Mystery and Suspense from the Belle Époque by Robert Stephen Parry Read Free Book Online
Authors: Robert Stephen Parry
wouldn’t dream of doing anything so underhanded. But I am quite sure that Hugh has.’
    But to this Rachael merely smiles, as if to disarm the situation. Her look is as kindly as ever but also perhaps touched just a little with exasperation, that her friend should continue to be so preoccupied with conspiracies - and noticing this, Deborah prudently says no more.
    Once arrived at Heidelberg, a most picturesque town perched on the banks of the river Neckar, and a place Deborah herself had come to know fondly during the days when she had been searching for accommodation here for her daughter, they know they must resist any temptation to explore the sights, and instead take a carriage from the station directly to Poppy’s apartment. Situated on the third floor of a drab, undistinguished building on the southern side of the river, it is a destination that has until this afternoon been merely an entry in Deborah’s address book. And seeing it now for the first time, it is with a profound sadness that she thinks of her daughter returning here each evening to make her home in such a dull and undistinguished place, so different to the fine-looking building with its charming housekeeper Deborah had found for her at the start of her studies. No doubt it would all be a bit more lively during term time, she reflects as they reach the dark and shabby landing at the top of the stairs and where, perhaps sensing her friend’s disquiet as they open the apartment door with the key Poppy had always insisted her mother keep, Rachael gives her shoulder a gentle squeeze by way of encouragement. This is not going to be easy, they know. But nothing could have prepared them for what they discover next.
    A tall, scruffy young fellow, of indeterminate age, in a shabby suit with a dirty wing collar and frayed tie is standing right there inside the narrow, dingy hallway - a blend of surprise and annoyance on his gaunt, stubbly face, which is distinguished only by being the receptacle of a gold ring inserted into the lobe of the right ear, like a gypsy.
    The man stares in silence, looking the two women up and down slowly, and non-too respectfully. Their fine clothes, the tiny glints of opulence and wealth shining from their wrists and throats seem to fascinate him for an inordinate length of time - so for one terrible moment Deborah is convinced they have surprised a thief.
    ‘Who are you?’ she demands, almost screaming the question in her surprise and anxiety, and Rachael, coming in directly behind, repeats the same question even more forcefully.
    But the youth merely shrugs his shoulders, coughs and in an amused kind of voice echoes back: ‘Well ... Who are you? ’
    With much strained cordiality, the two women do explain, and extract, in turn, a certain measure of grudging explanation from the fellow himself, who - they eventually learn - goes by the name of Hanno.
    ‘Hanno! Hanno who?’ Rachael demands, taking command of the situation and compelling the youth back along the corridor with her glaring eyes - and where, by the light of a window they can get a better look at him, an exercise that does not improve his appearance very much.
    ‘Just Hanno. That is all,’ he replies and in a drawling kind of accent that might be Austrian or Hungarian. ‘ Hello Hanno! people say when they see me coming,’ he adds, flippantly and smiles an open-mouthed grin.
    ‘Do you live here?’ Deborah inquires, not amused and still transfixed by the man’s awful appearance - his untidy hair all hacked about by various whimsicalities of fashion; and even, she is horrified to see, what looks like bites from some insect or parasite all over his neck. It is appalling, like some dreadful worm they have disturbed within a sarcophagus.
    ‘No, I am not living here,’ he replies and coughs again, a feeble sort of cough, perhaps that of a consumptive. He smells repugnant, too - and the piercing of his ear looks to be infected and even leaking pus. Deborah

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