Celeste is on a vacation of her dreams. Some things turn out to be a nightmare.
Celeste sat at a tiny table outside a Parisian cafe as people rushed by, not giving the young, dark-haired girl a second glance. The smell of freshly brewed coffee and warm croissants filled the morning air, and the spring sunshine gave the city a golden glow. She could hardly believe she was in the ‘City of Love’ at last.
To a casual onlooker she seemed at ease sipping her coffee near the Eiffel Tower, watching the world go by. In reality, she wanted to scream and shout, tell passersby that she, Celeste Brown, was here.
Despite having a French Christian name, she had never left her home in the tiny Welsh village where she’d been born twenty-two years before. Her mother had been a romantic, filling the young Celeste’s head with stories of the world outside of the coal mining community. Her mother sadly lost her battle with cancer when Celeste was just fourteen, but not before making her promise she would travel the world, to experience all the famous cities, but especially Paris.
At last, she’d fulfilled that promise made eight years ago.“I’m here Mum,” she whispered, her eyes filling with tears.
She had been in Paris for just a day, excited to be escaping home at long last, but already missing her father. When they’d said goodbye, she’d seen the tears in his eyes and knew he’d be lost without her. He had been happy for her to travel, but had made sure that his little girl knew how to defend herself before she left home.
A voice broke into her reverie as she sipped the coffee. Someone was addressing her in French, intimating he wished to sit on the vacant chair. She gestured it was fine.
The stranger ordered a café crème from the passing waiter and checked his phone. Celeste glanced at her table companion and judged he wasn’t much older than her. He was tall, good looking and nothing like any of the mining lads back home. He put his phone on the table and began to converse with her in rapid French and although she had a smattering of the language it wasn’t enough to grasp what he was saying. Celeste shook her head, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak French.”
He smiled and held out his hand. “Bonjour. My name is Phillipe. And yours?” His English was perfect with a strong French accent.
“Celeste, I’m on vacation from Wales.” He kissed the back of her hand. It’s true what they say about Frenchmen.
Phillipe was superb company. They sat at the café for over an hour and she told him a little of why she was in Paris. He told her he was a student at the Sorbonne and a tour guide in his spare time, escorting tourists into the catacombs.“If you’d allow me to be your guide around my beautiful city, Celeste, I would be honoured.”
She smiled with pleasure. Accepting his offer, they made a date to meet at the same café the next day at twelve noon.
Several days passed with them spending much of the time together, at ease in each other’s company. Her new friend made fun of her Welsh accent, often misunderstanding her, but they both could laugh at their mistakes.
“This is the most popular place in the world for marriage proposals,” he told her, when they watched lovers gazing into each other’s eyes on the top of the Eiffel Tower. He showed her the Louvre and Notre Dame Cathedral, they took long leisurely walks around the narrow streets, and strolled along the Champs-Élysées. He took photos of her at all the famous landmarks to send home, but never wanted to appear in any of them.
It was true, Celeste thought, Paris was the most romantic city in the world and she was falling under its spell and also a little in love with Phillipe.
It poured with rain as they were walking by the river one evening and they made a mad dash for shelter. Phillipe gave her his jacket to put over her and as they ran she looked over to the Eiffel Tower lit up with thousands of lights, and happiness overwhelmed her. She stopped running and turned to him, her hair and face soaked from the sudden downpour and in the middle of Paris they kissed, oblivious of the crowds rushing by.
The next day, he offered to take her on a private tour of the catacombs. “I know a secret entrance where no one ever goes, it’s amazing, Celeste, more real than the regular tourist experience.” He gave her his tourist guide patter, “There are over 200 miles of tunnels, each containing thousands of bones from when they emptied the cemeteries years ago, the remains of six million people are down there.” His voice held a sort of reverence.
But Celeste was horrified, she had heard of the catacombs, but hadn’t comprehended the scale, or the extent of the skeletal remains.“What happens if we get lost?” she shivered at the thought.
She had always had a fear of enclosed spaces and of being trapped.“Don’t worry, it’s mind blowing, I’ll look after you,” he coaxed.
She could almost hear her father’s voice, warning her not to do anything so stupid, but she trusted this man and said she’d go with him the following night.
He picked her up from her hotel, in his beaten up Peugeot; they drove to a district of Paris Celeste was unfamiliar with on the outskirts of the city. “We’re here,” he spoke softly, parking under the dim light of a street lamp.
They left the car. He carried a crowbar, which he used to lift a heavy, circular, iron grate set into the pavement.
Celeste felt sick to her stomach as she peered down the hole. Her boyfriend shone his light and she saw a rusty ladder leading down into the darkness.”
“Are you ready?” He passed her a torch.
She nodded, but could hardly believe she was about to climb down into the catacombs of Paris.
Philippe went first, his head lamp lighting the way, Celeste imagined even the torchlight seemed reluctant to enter what felt to her a chamber of hell.
They proceeded along a long passageway. In the beam of her torch, skulls and other bones made a solid wall. She gasped, then her claustrophobia took hold.
“I can’t go any further, Phillipe, I need to go back.” She stood, her back to the wall of human remains as she waited for him to stop, her heart was racing, and even in the chilly air she was sweating.
He turned to face her, but instead of concern and understanding, she saw nothing but scorn. The beam of his headlamp blinded her for a moment until she noticed he was holding a blade, which he held up to her throat.
“I guess your Papa will never know what happened to his little girl now.” His laugh was cruel, cold, his eyes bored into hers. The same eyes which before had been nothing but soft and loving had turned to steel. How had she not seen it before, how had he hidden his true nature? Celeste felt betrayed. She’d been foolish and trusting, now it was too late, she knew his intention was to snuff out her life forever.
Her father’s voice echoed in her mind, ‘Go for the eyes, Celeste. Don’t hesitate, stab him in the eyes while your hands are free.’ She stiffened her fingers. She’d been taught that long pointed finger nails could cause as much damage as a sharp knife. She felt resistance as her fingernails went through his eyeballs. Something wet trickled down her hands and wrists, blood or maybe the gelatinous fluid behind his eyes. Her determined expression never wavered as she ripped off his head lamp and hit him hard across his head with her heavy torch.
The darkness was complete, but she felt him stagger from the blow. Running back the way they’d come, she forced herself to control the utter panic which threatened to overtake her. Celeste’s hands touched the walls as she ran to give her a sense of equilibrium even though the same walls were the skulls and bones of the dead.
Not daring to turn her torch on until she knew he wasn’t following her, she cowered in an alcove to wait.
Her heart rate returned to almost normal the longer she sat waiting to ensure Philippe was not following. Her mind, though, began to play tricks. She imagined being stuck down there forever. Could she ever find her way back to the entrance? How far had she ran? Had she passed the ladder? She wasn’t sure, but didn’t think she’d run that far. Dare she turn on her torch, though? She wouldn’t find her way back without it.
Scratches and squeaks of rats threatened to unnerve her, but those were the only sounds other than her ragged breaths. After what seemed an eternity, she moved back into the main tunnel and turned on her torch. The light dazzled her, and she immediately turned it off.
“Come on, Celeste!” It was her father’s voice urging her on. “Move it!”
She walked slowly along the dark passage, feeling for the ladder. At last she saw a faint glimmer of light, it was moonlight from the open access hole and the gleam of metal. She reached the ladder and began to climb, still holding on to the torch in her right hand.
Then a cold hand grabbed her ankle and began to pull. Celeste twisted her back to the ladder and gripped the bars tightly kicking out blindly until she heard a grunt and her foot was released.
She climbed out of the underground hell as fast as she could and reached the car. Philippe had left the keys in the ignition and she coaxed the unfamiliar vehicle into life and escaped.
She returned the following day with the police to where they had entered the catacombs the previous night. They discovered the body of Phillipe at the bottom of the ladder. The sight of his bloodied face and sightless eyes shocked Celeste, but the remains of three girls missing over the last two years made her realise what a lucky escape she’d had.
“Mademoiselle Brown, how did you overcome this man and escape?” The investigating officer shook his head in amazement.
“Daddy taught me well.” She murmured.