The Lost Logo

Read the prologue of Stephen Brown's spoof of Dan Brown's sequel to The Da Vinci Code, entitled The Lost Logo

Zut alors.

Francine Lafarge cursed beneath her breath as she reversed Fifi, a bright red Renault Espace, into the narrow parking bay. It had been a long day, much more stressful than she’d anticipated. One of her group had wandered off in the early afternoon, then turned up chewing a canelé. The rest of the group was raging. Not because they were inconvenienced, though that was a contributory factor. But because the pastry looked delicious and they hadn’t got one themselves! It smelled delicious too, lingering for a long time in the people carrier, compounding the agony for everyone else. She could have stopped at a pâtisserie to let the group assuage their gastric urges. However, that would have made a mess of Fifi, her cherie voiture. Tourists were such uncouth eaters. Americans especially. Much as she relied on their generosity, there were limits to her hospitality.

“Okay everyone,” Francine said over her right shoulder, while applying the handbrake with a Francophone flourish. Fifi shrugged in concert. “This is our last stop. The highlight of the tour. We’ll walk La Grande Galerie where Jacques Saunière was brutally murdered. We’ll spend some time in the Salle des Etats, where Sophie Neveu and Robert Langdon discovered the first cryptic message, so Dark the Con of Man. And after all that, we’ll see La Pyramide Inversée, where the climax of Brown’s book unfolds. Is it the final resting place of Mary Magdalene, wife of Jesus Christ, mother of his son and begetter of the Merovingian line that is protected by the shadowy Priory of Sion and, indeed, carries his genes to this very day?”

“Arrgh, you’ve just spoiled the ending,” a voice interrupted from the back of the van. Everyone laughed. The pastry incident was forgotten in the mounting excitement of the moment. Thank heaven for small mercies … and little girls. Mais oui?

As she steered her flock through the underground garage and into the elevators – where she made her usual joke about Robert Langdon’s claustrophobia – Francine Lafarge counted her Dan Brown blessings. A mousey, middle-aged, mild-mannered Mono- prix-wearer, she’d been running Da Vinci Code tours for more than four years, and the fans kept coming. Numbers waxed and waned with the seasons and the weather and of course movie releases and DVDs and internet rumours of a new novel by the famously reclusive author. But even in the depths of winter, when the book had long since disappeared from the bestseller lists, there were hardy Americans keen to see the settings, stroll the streets, follow the action, spot the art or debate the finer points of Brown’s blockbuster with fellow fanatics and thriller seekers.

The long trudge through the connecting passageways commenced. Uninviting though the dimly lit corridors were, they always seemed to heighten the anticipation of her tour parties. Francine took the opportunity to trot out a potted history of the Louvre – its twelfth-century start, its role as a royal residence, its conversion to a museum in 1793, the construction of IM Pei’s controversial glass pyramid in 1989 – then segued into a bunch of believe-it-or-not factlets. “Shaped like an enormous horseshoe, the Louvre is the largest building in Europe. It stretches further than three Eiffel Towers laid end to end. Walking the perimeter is a 4.8 kilometre journey. There are 65,300 pieces of art on display in the building and it is estimated that five full days are needed to see it all. We have one hour!”

Surprisingly few of Francine’s groups recognized the source of her data. They were taken directly from The Da Vinci Code and, like most of the book’s supposedly “true” facts, they were incorrect. There were only 24,000 art works on display in the museum but, even if you only allowed one minute’s viewing per piece, it would still take eight weeks to 'appreciate' them all. Four years ago, when she first started the tours, she’d taken great pleasure in pointing out the gaping plot-holes in Brown’s novel. But Dan’s fans, she’d found, didn’t like having their illusions shattered by pernickety Parisians, much less pedantic art historians. So she told them what they wanted to hear. Her tips-take soared accordingly.

“And this,” Francine said dramatically, as they emerged into Napoleon Hall, an enormous atrium filled with bright refracted sunlight, “is the Pyramid.” The great glass edifice soared above them. Like it or loathe it, Pei’s pyramid certainly impressed the paying public, especially those who emerged, blinking, from the bowels of underground parking garage.

Francine was about to go into her potted patter on the Pyramid’s 666 panes of glass – the number of the Antichrist, insisted upon by President Mitterrand – when a pushy passerby started speaking. “Built fifty-seven feet beneath ground level,” he announced to the assembled group. The Louvre’s newly constructed 70,000-square-foot lobby spread out like an endless grotto. Constructed in warm ochre marble to be compatible with the honey-coloured stone of the Louvre façade above, the subterranean hall was usually vibrant with sunlight and tourists. Tonight, however, the lobby was barren and dark, giving the entire space a cold and crypt-like atmosphere.

The speaker paused for dramatic effect. “That’s from page twenty-two of the airport edition!” they all laughed. “Have a nice one, guys,” he added, before disappearing off down a corridor in the general direction of La Pyramide Inversée. The tour party applauded. “Way to go, bro,” the porcine pastry purchaser shouted after their bespectacled, backpack-wearing informant. He raised his baseball cap and waved over his shoulder, without turning round.

Ordinarily, Francine Lafarge would have welcomed the erudite contribution. It was a pleasant surprise that bonded the group. And a bonded group meant bigger tips. But there was something vaguely disturbing about the softly spoken American stranger. She’d seen him before, somewhere. A previous tour party? On the Champs-elysées? At Saint Sulpice, where she usually sat outside having a cigarette and watching the world go by while the party pottered and poked and, occasionally, prayed within?

Francine couldn’t remember. She wasn’t as young as she used to be. It would come to her.

Unsettled now, the interruption disturbed Francine’s flow, her time-grooved spiel. She ploughed on regardless. Group tickets bought and distributed, she led the way to the Denon wing. As per the “Louvre lite” tour in Brown’s book, she paused to point out Winged Victory, steered the group around Venus de Milo – wryly adding that authentic replicas of her nail varnish, hand cream, fingerless gloves and charity wristbands were on sale in the museum shop – and finally emerged into the resplendent Grande Galerie. With its famous parquet floor, unbroken line of Renaissance masterpieces and non-existent security gates that dropped down to trap intruders (wrong again, Dan!), it was far and away the highlight of the day, the moment when the Mona Lisa made her imperious entrance. The Salle des Etats was the holy of holies, the sanctum sanctorum, the room with a view – a very distant view – of Leonardo’s greatest hit.

It was only during her recitation on the history of La Joconde – tour groups, she’d found, much preferred to hear about the 1911 theft than debunking Dan Brown’s daft symbology – that a curious thought hit Francine. Maybe it was the author himself who’d delivered the word-perfect peroration. Surely not. She’d have heard if Dan were back in town. Wouldn’t she? The other tour guides would’ve talked. Wouldn’t they? Maybe not, it’s a dog-eat-dog business, where juicy titbits of information were hoarded rather than shared.

Dismissing such unproductive thoughts, Francine reassembled her group. She reminded them that they were free to roam around the galleries when the tour ended and herded them towards the bank of elevators at the mid-point of La Grande Galerie. Talking excitedly, the tight-packed party descended to the lower levels, where they went one way to see La Pyramide Inversée and she went the other to the underground car park. Some would wander back up to the peerless galleries, others would make do with the subterranean shopping precinct, where every other store stocked Da Vinci Code souvenirs. It was hard to believe that the Louvre’s bureaucrats once dismissed Dan’s book as a cretinous cultural travesty or that the crusty clergymen at Saint Sulpice initially refused entry to Da Vinci Code enthusiasts. Money talks the world over, but in the City of Light the tourist euro shouts loudest of all.

Time to say Francine’s fond farewell. She usually concluded with a dash of Dan’s doggerel, a word-for-word recap of the final lines of Brown’s book, the ones that pointed to La Pyramide Inversée. But Brown had been recited once already that afternoon. L’étranger had stolen her thunder. So she settled for “merci, merci, merci,” shaking hands with each individual in turn. Naturally, she started with the ones most likely to give a gratuity – they were easy to spot, since they’d fiddled in their pockets and purses on the way down – because once one started, the rest inevitably followed suit, regardless of their reluctance. No one likes to appear cheap, not on holiday anyway. Actually, much as she disliked Americans in the round (and many of them were very round indeed), this particular cheese-eating surrender monkey recognized that Freedom Fries-lovers were very big tippers. “Enjoy the rest of your stay in Paris. Au revoir.”

“Au revoir,” they called out, as each went their separate ways.

“Another day, another Danfan,” Francine sighed. She’d done well, despite the unsettling interruption and the pastry incident earlier. Fantasizing about the hot bath to come and maybe a revivifying glass or two of Pouilly-Fumé, she walked quickly along the long corridor that led to the car parks. Passing Starbucks, she glanced haughtily at the godforsaken American pissoir. Call that coffee? Merde, maybe.

Then she saw him. There he was. That’s where she’d seen him before! At the table by the window. Watching, watching, watching. Always watching. Every day this week. Francine accidently caught his eye, then looked away quickly. She hurried to the elevator, descended three levels and looked around for Fifi. Where was she? Which bay? Wrong level? She wandered, lost, around the crypt-like car corral. “Ah, there you are, you cheeky scamp.”

With a smile of relief, Francine squeezed her key fob. Fifi’s sidelights flashed flirtatiously. The locks released with a resounding thunk.

“Pardonnez-moi, Madame Lafarge.” The voice was American. Masculine. Menacing.

Panic-stricken, Francine whirled round wildly, eyes agape, mouth open.

Her interlocutor laughed. “Sorry to frighten you, Francine. I forgot my scarf.” It was Mr Pastry. Panic over. Phew. Punters were always leaving something behind in the van. Gloves, hats, perfume, passports. You name it, they forgot it. She opened the sliding side door and let him sidle in. The Burberry scarf lay curled in the back seat, like a plaid python. Obviously embarrassed by the scare he’d given her, Mr Pastry started chatting about his holiday plans. Eiffel Tower ascent. Day trip to Versailles. Notre Dame. Sacré Coeur. Blah, blah, blah. Out of politeness, Francine walked him back to the bank of elevators then said her final fond farewell. Yes, she’d definitely drop in when passing through Peoria, Illinois. Mon dieu!

Fifi burst into life, eager to escape the lowest Louvre level. Francine slipped her pride and joy into first, prepared to release the handbrake and automatically eyed the rear-view, even though there was only a blank wall behind.

There was a face as well. His face. She tried to scream, but a hand covered her mouth. She stood on the accelerator but the handbrake held firm. She made a grab for her assailant, but he snapped her head back sharply. She so wanted to live but that wasn’t going to happen. She felt the knife slit her throat and saw bright red arterial blood spurting everywhere. All over Fifi, her precious! This isn’t happening. This can’t be happening. This isn’t a trashy Dan Brown thriller, where a minor character gets brutally murdered in the very first chapter. Or, even worse, the prologue…

The Lost Logo by Stephen Brown (Marshall Cavendish) is out now.