Man With the Spider Tattoo
About Writing | The Hollow Man Series, International Espionage
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The Côte d’Azur roughly runs from Toulon in the west to the Italian border in the east. Narrow jigsaw puzzle pieces of land line the southern coast of France. It’s a magical kingdom where crown princes play with movie stars and there is negligible difference between the ultra-rich and the affluent grifter on the city promenades. Some of the more famous places nestled along running beaches and quiet coves bring to mind a transcendent bucket-list of destinations; Saint-Tropez, Saint-Raphaël, Cannes, Antibes, Nice, and Monaco.
In the early 1970s, the stargazers usually bypassed Nice on their scavenger hunt for fame and fortune. They hung with Grace and her prince in Monaco, searched the beaches in Saint-Tropez for Brigitte Bardot, or rubbed elbows with the otherworldly wealthy in the boutiques around Cannes. They were more often introduced with a stiff-arm to the face rather than a genuine elbow.
I preferred the quiet open-front cafes in Nice where I could smell the salt water as the ocean breeze played in the potted plants along the restaurant breaks. Pedestrians paraded along the sidewalk. They didn’t walk; they simply strolled, occasionally pausing to browse the posted menus. It was almost time to go. I folded the English language Herald Tribune and lifted my cup in a final salute. The metal chair screeched on the concrete as I pushed it back to stand.
I fell in step with the strollers until we reached the road bend at Rue Massenet, where I turned north toward the train station. The wind that pushed at my back dissipated quickly like a lover’s breath after midnight, and the whisper from the rolling bumps of the Mediterranean coming ashore was already a memory. My pace increased. I needed to catch the 11:00 AM back to Cannes.
I heard footsteps behind me; someone running. I turned in time to glimpse a shirtless man jogging past.
“Pardonnez-moi monsieur,” he mumbled as he brushed by.
I stepped back in surprise as the man disappeared down the street. A single tattoo covered his entire body, including his shaved head. A spider’s web netted over him everywhere I could see. It moved as his lean body pumped through his run, a weird illusion the spider was still spinning somewhere close. I remembered thinking, “I hope the rock & roll band thing works because you’ve lost any chance of an actual job.”
Refocused on the Cannes train, I checked my wristwatch. 10:42 AM. The train would sit idle at the station for only three minutes, barely long enough for passengers to sort themselves out. I had no more than 15 minutes to hike another six blocks.
An arm reached out and grabbed my collar as I passed a slim opening between buildings. The figure pulled me into the darkness and a hand clamped over my mouth. I stood face-to-face with a tattooed spider on the right cheek of the man who ran by minutes before. A web of black ink etched his face, making him fade to shadow in the low light. Feeling like I was suffocating, I hyperventilated; the smell of decay nearby made me want to vomit.
“Shhhh,” he warned me.
Chatter echoed in the street; maybe French, English, some kind of mumbling. Several bulky pedestrians trotted by the opening, looking like they really shouldn’t be moving that fast. One returned to the passage and stared through the distance between us. He pulled a handgun from his coat and held his wheezing breath so he could hear better. Slowly holstering his weapon, he drifted out of sight again. If he had taken a step inside the opening, into the hazy light, somebody would be dead now. My captor slid his hand from my mouth.
“You have half of Europe following you around the Riviera. Who the hell do you think you are, the god dammed pied piper?” He whispered.
“I’m keeping my enemies close,” I said.
“Yeah, well, don’t sleep in the same bed when you do. Think about ordering extra room service from now on.”
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Need to know, kid, and you don’t need to until you do. Let’s just say some of us have a vested interest in you. You’re not one of ours, but you’re a funny guy. You keep us entertained,” he said.
“What do you want? You’ve probably seen I can't do anything for myself, let alone anybody else.”
“Listen, whatever cluster foxtrot you’ve stirred up this time must be pretty serious. You have both sides and a few bystanders looking for you this time. We’re not getting involved until we know more. Can you speak Spanish?” He asked.
“Un poco, a little,” I smiled.
“Okay, good enough for now. I suggest you dye your hair black, get a Spanish passport, and disappear for a while until one side or the other loses interest,” he said.
“I’m persona non grata in Spain,” I said. “I can’t go back there.”
“Figure a way around it. We can’t give you a birthday cake and blow out the candles, too,” he said.
He peered at me, but all I could see was that spider crawling on his face. The tattoo seemed to come alive, dancing on his skin as he moved, creating an eerie spectacle that both fascinated and unsettled me. The tattoo intensified the air of mystery surrounding him.
When I found his eyes, I saw he wasn’t kidding. It wasn’t a request. He handed me an envelope of French francs and Spanish pesetas.
“This will buy you another few months. Get going, and for Christ’s sake, watch your back. I've got the long bet on you.”