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By the author of Sharp Teeth, a novel of love, spies, and witches in 1950s Paris—and a cop turned into a flea
Will is a young American ad executive in Paris. Except his agency is a front for the CIA. It’s 1959 and the cold war is going strong. But Will doesn’t think he’s a warrior—he’s just a good-hearted Detroit ad guy who can’t seem to figure out Parisian girls.
Zoya is a beautiful young woman wandering les ...
By the author of Sharp Teeth, a novel of love, spies, and witches in 1950s Paris—and a cop turned into a flea
Will is a young American ad executive in Paris. Except his agency is a front for the CIA. It’s 1959 and the cold war is going strong. But Will doesn’t think he’s a warrior—he’s just a good-hearted Detroit ad guy who can’t seem to figure out Parisian girls.
Zoya is a beautiful young woman wandering les boulevards, sad-eyed, coming off a bad breakup. In fact, she impaled her ex on a spike. Zoya, it turns out, has been a beautiful young woman for hundreds of years; she and her far more traditionally witchy-looking companion, Elga, have been thriving unnoticed in the bloody froth of Europe’s wars.
Inspector Vidot is a hardworking Paris police detective who cherishes quiet nights at home. But when he follows a lead from a grisly murder to the abode of an ugly old woman, he finds himself turned into a flea.
Oliver is a patrician, fun-loving American who has come to France to start a literary journal with the help of friends in D.C. who ask a few favors in return. He’s in well over his head, but it’s nothing that a cocktail can’t fix. Right?
Add a few chance encounters, a chorus of some more angry witches, a strung-out jazzman or two, a weaponized LSD program, and a cache of rifles buried in the Bois de Bologne—and that’s a novel! But while Toby Barlow’s Babayaga may start as just a joyful romp though the City of Light, it quickly grows into a daring, moving exploration of love, mortality, and responsibility.
When I was living in Paris, we had an expression, a very American one, which in a way explains it better than anything else. We used to say, “Let’s take the lead.” That meant going off the deep end, diving into the unconscious, just obeying your instincts, following your impulses, of the heart, or the guts, or whatever you want to call it.
—HENRY MILLER, The Paris Review
Time was bothering Zoya. She lay on the broad bed amid the crumpled silk sheets, listening to Leon scrub and gargle in the bath. There was almost a cartoon melody being composed in the various noises of his evening toilette. He always fastidiously washed and perfumed himself after they made love, immersing himself in soaps, talc, and a cloud of eau de Lisbonne before he returned home to face his wife. Even on nights such as this, when his Claudette was out of town, he performed the ritual out of habit. Usually Zoya did not mind, but tonight the music made her sad.
Coming out of the bathroom with the steam billowing out around him, he looked like some gray ball of boiling fat spit out from a cauldron. “What is wrong, ma chérie?” he asked.
She remembered the day he had first found her while strolling through the Jardin des Plantes. When had they met? Was it the spring in ’45? Not long after the war had ended, when the Paris streets and nightclubs thronged thick with a mix of wide-eyed American and British soldiers fresh off the train from Calais and sniffing about for fun. She had her pick of any one of the swarm, but she found Leon instead, a stocky middle-aged Parisian of square chin and broad shoulders, far from the slouching fat man he had grown into. So much time had passed as she had watched his profile slip and slide steadily down from stout to rotund to fat, eyes growing cloudy, his bright blue irises dimming to a mottled gray, folding bloodshot beneath the heavy lids and puffy circles of wine-swollen flesh. When he was drunk on brandy, he loved to recount how he had once been a formidable athlete, back in his Catholic school days, but she had a hard time convincing herself of that, looking at him now, for he was simply a doughy old man, while she still looked as fresh as she had the day they first met.
“I have a small headache, I need fresh air,” she said. “Why don’t you get dressed and we can have a stroll before you go home?”
“At this hour? Ha! Have I not exhausted you yet?” As he toweled off his back, his vast white belly shook. It was almost too silly to watch.
“I slept all day,” she said. “It is a pleasant night and it will do you good to move those bones of yours.” She looked around the room—the tall dresser, the modest crystal chandelier, a framed dark oil of the dead red fox surrounded with ripe autumn apples that hung above her small desk. Though the artwork seemed merely decorative now, she could remember when still-life paintings of heaping bowls of blushed fruit kept verdant hopes budding during the bleak seasons of cold cabbage and cellar potatoes. Look here, the pictures said, and do not lose faith. Pear, peach, apple, and plum, all will blossom again.
Beside the painting, three silver clocks sat on the mantel. Leon had told her they were from the collection of Princess Mathilde. Zoya did not know if she believed him, her pompous and proud Leon was certainly prone to exaggeration. But she did enjoy the comfort each of these intricately designed timepieces provided. One clock counted the months along with the hours, another tracked the phases of the moon, the third was astrological, showing the zodiac arcing above the hours as the year progressed. Through the day and night the clocks’ light, gentle chimes provided a charming accent to the quiet apartment, grounding her in her well-appointed surroundings and bestowing a small delight with their delicate tones. Over the years, Leon had periodically presented these precious gifts to her, along with perfumes, pendants, pearls, fox stoles, and soft leather gloves, repaying her undemanding patience, her indulgent good humor, and her generous physical attentions with luxuries that had, over time, soothed and almost succeeded in letting her forget what was coming. But it was never too far from her mind. She knew she would miss all these delicate and beautiful treasures; she would not be able to take much with her. Like the summer birds now instinctively leaving the branches of the Paris trees for their warm Mediterranean refuges, it was time for her to go. The river of time was loud in her ears now, foaming and surging, washing the whole room away.
That first day, so long past, she had been sitting with Elga, the squat old woman napping with her eyes half closed, sinking down into the bench like a fat, cooling scone on a baker’s shelf, while Zoya relaxed with a novel. She tried to remember who it was, a Russian no doubt, Gogol or Turgenev. At that point they had not been in Paris long. She did recall very clearly how the shadow crossed her page, and how she looked up to find a grinning Leon standing there in the evening light. Zoya had offered a polite smile.
She shook the memory off and rose from the bed. “It is our last night together before your Claudette returns from the country. I want to walk with you. Don’t worry, nobody will see us.” Leon was always easy to read, simple to lead. “Come,” she said, tossing him his shirt from the bed. “We can go down by the river. You can tell me about your week while we walk, and then I will tell you an old country tale as we return.”
He smiled. Her Leon, like every man she had ever known, liked her stories, the old Russian sagas she would often spin to make the men grin or laugh or lull them to sleep. Many of her yarns were made up, while others were true, some were bawdy, others bloody, but she couched them all in the velvet warmth of folk fables. Each one held a kernel of a lesson, there to be found by the attentive and curious, but although Leon savored the adventures of lost children and dancing, bell-chiming bears, of damp, hungry soldiers finding false comfort in lone cottages, and of brides with serpents curled up in their hair, Leon never bothered to grasp any of the morals. Few of her men ever had. She had come to believe that fables and tales and even epics from history taught very little, they held not enough sting for their lessons to stick.
Leon squeezed his pants up around his wide waist, pulled his suspenders over his shoulders, and straightened his stiff collar as she gathered up her own chemise, stockings, and dress. It was a nice, unseasonably warm, autumn night; the season was coming on slow, but still she would have preferred to remain inside. If only he had not asked such a seemingly innocent question moments before, lying beside her and still breathing hard: “How do you stay so young?”
A small inner voice nagged at her, asking her to put it aside and wait. He was so dense, perhaps he did not know what he had noticed. They could lie together a few more nights, or maybe even two or three months, and she could listen to his fat snores gurgle, sputter, and snort—which she found endearing—if only for a few more dawns. What was the rush? After all, it had only been a muttered phrase, a pillowed kindness. She could make him forget if she wanted to, but what was the point? Over time, she knew, he would only notice more. Even a dull, blustering bull such as Leon was not that stupid. What once were clumsy compliments would echo and twist over the years into a wiser, sharpened suspicion. He would observe that his aches were not hers, his hazy, milky gaze would look resentfully down at her clear, pure features, her soft skin and ever-focused eyes, and then a low, seismic anger would slowly take hold in his thick mind. From that point, certain predictable difficulties would emerge. No, there was no need to rush, but better to attend to it now. As Elga often said, pluck out the troubling eye before it blinks again.
“Good day, mademoiselle” were the first words Leon had spoken to her on that long-ago day, bowing slightly and tipping his straw hat as a gentleman of the Old World might have done. The green abundance of the summer garden framed his body, so that in the twilight he appeared like a great topiary creature coming to life before her. Sizing the stranger up, the first thing she sensed was money—she had a well-honed talent for spotting that. Better yet, his flat, dull smile revealed a man with no great capacity for wonder, or even curiosity. He took things to be as he saw them, and he did not see very much. This was ideal. Added to that, there also was a grinning kindness and, it seemed from his eager gaze, a hearty appetite, too. She did like hungry men.
“My dear,” Leon said tonight, “you are truly beautiful.”
She hugged him, wrapping her arms around his wide waist and resting her head on his soft shoulder. If he were truly a sensitive man, he might have felt her deepening sadness. But he was not. Raised by servants and conditioned amid the rude, patriarchal abuse of religious schools, the only other intimacy he had ever known was the cold affection of a smartly arranged marriage, leaving him with all the emotional range of an old, seasoned workhorse.
As they headed to the door, she glanced at a framed picture on the mantel. It was the only photograph of the two of them that existed; they had had it taken on a night when they had been out for another evening walk and had stumbled upon a neighborhood carnival. Wandering past mimes and magicians, monkey grinders, flea circuses, and nimble jugglers, they had come upon a photographer’s studio. Caught up in the spirit of revelry, Leon had dropped his usual guard and paid for a portrait. In the picture, taken with a gray velvet backdrop, she demurely held his hand, her black hair tucked under a hat, her eyes looking up at him with clear affection. He stood beside her, erect, grinning into the camera the way a safari hunter smiles while holding up the antlers of some magnificent, dead prey.
Leon was such a funny man, she thought, not brave at all (he had bribed his way out of the war), but kind enough. An adulterer, a liar, a larcenous man who clumsily cheated his clients and then paid to make the problems go away, he was all of that, but these were the burdens of most of the rich men she had known. She had stolen much from him, he had stolen much from others, and who knows where the first theft occurred? So few who touched a coin were pure or innocent. But as far as men went, his heart was decent. She knew she was being sentimental here in these final moments, painting him to be better than he was. She was like the farmer’s daughter who lovingly watches the sweet, obese pigs lolling and snorting in the mud the morning of the winter slaughter. “Do not forget to turn off the light,” she said.
Earlier, through the open apartment window, they had heard what sounded like distant firecrackers going off, but now the streets were quiet. They wandered up rue d’Ulm. The markets were closed, the bistros empty, a few automobiles rattled by. She held his hand, gently stroking the fat side of his palm with her thumb. She wondered if she had, in fact, ever loved him. They turned up rue Erasme. Leon complained, as he often did, about his frustrations with his ancient mother. Zoya had never met the woman, but Leon painted a picture of a stern, frigid creature who never appreciated her youngest boy, always favoring his older brother instead. “For me, she has only the most spiteful milk.”
Zoya was barely listening. Her mind was busy trying to remember a foggy collection of words while her eyes glanced about, searching in the sidewalk’s shadows for a sharp-tipped rail she recalled. It would be a handy place to stick his skull.
Will Van Wyck sat only half listening to Mr. Guizot; his mind kept wandering. He was trying to piece together what his life was going to be like now. He realized this was no time to be distracted, he needed to focus on whatever Guizot was going on about at that moment, because the little ball of a man bouncing around in front of him had just become Will’s very last client.
Earlier that morning, Will had still been running two clients for the agency, while eighteen months before that Will had been personally responsible for every single client in the office. But over time the French directors of the company had slowly, deftly, ever so politely, reduced his involvement in their business. They always smiled as they took away his accounts, and it was always over a generous four-course lunch at Fouquet with a few good bottles of white burgundy. But try as they might, and they did try, they could not completely dislodge him. The home office back in the States wanted him to stay in the Paris office managing one very special client, and that is what he had done, with never a word of complaint and nary a missed deadline. He had quietly given in to his French colleagues’ awkward and obvious Machiavellian politics, happily handing off responsibility whenever pressure was applied because, up until today, he knew his most important client kept him securely in place. The one unexpected surprise had been the loyalty of his other client, Guizot. This self-made mogul had started his beauty-care company only a few years before the war with a bathtub full of homemade hair tonic that he had tirelessly flogged until his empire stretched across western Europe. Even at that scale, his account was of no critical importance to the agency, not like their automobile, cigarette, or liquor accounts, and the senior managers grinned and nodded when he insisted that Will continue to run his account. “Americans know how to sell!” Guizot had proclaimed, and they happily agreed, but mostly because they could not stand Guizot.
“Watch! Boom! Yes! Bang! Our campaign explodes across the countryside! Perfectly timed, catching all our idiot opposition with their piss-stained underpants down around their ankles.” Guizot could not contain his excitement, he was practically jumping around Will’s office. He always acted this way as they prepared an advertising campaign. Will negotiated for him, deciding which newspapers and radio shows they would buy, while Guizot enthusiastically provided the product, the capital, and even the advertising copy, which he did not trust anyone in the agency to write. “What do your copywriters know about art or business that I do not know? If they are such great writers, where is their poetry, where are their literary prizes? And if they are so smart, why are they slaving away at their typewriters, working for me!” Will usually found Guizot’s antics entertaining, but not today.
“We will completely blitz the opposition! Bam! Bam! Bam! It is a true campaign, not an advertising campaign but a military campaign, with military precision!” Guizot was almost shouting now, his fists flew wildly in the air like a punch-drunk boxer. “They won’t be able to escape us, we have them in our sights! Because they are—how do you put it, Will? Oh yes, ha, our ‘target audience.’ See what I mean! See our target there, innocently opening the pages of Le Monde? Bam! There we are! Kaboom! The target opens Bonne Soirée or Vogue, ah ha! Rat-tat-tat! And when they turn on the radio, oh, Will, that is where our most secret weapon will be unleashed! Yes, ha ha, our sweet little girl’s innocent voice will be sapping their strength, sucking them in with her song, “Chase your pimples away. Chase your pimples away. Ah ha ha, Ah ha ha…” He was dancing now, hopping and slapping the bottoms of his shoes for rhythm as he performed his self-composed jingle. Will stared blankly at him, barely listening, his mind still mulling over the very different meeting he had been forced to endure a little over an hour before.
The room had been much quieter during the earlier meeting, almost too calm, and his American client, Brandon, had spoken in much more sensible tones. Brandon had tried to seem nonchalant, making all the facts sound perfectly reasonable and logical. It was, Brandon explained, the kind of change that happens, priorities simply shift. “Listen, Van Wyck. I’m not happy about it either, but it’s not the end of the world. They have accounts for you in Chicago, right? That’s where you’re originally from, isn’t it?”
“I’m from Detroit.”
“Perfect, see. Go get a job there. Those car accounts are strong.” Brandon had leaned back in his chair; it was as if they were talking about a baseball game or a boxing match. His attitude did little to comfort Will. Will’s previous Parisian clients had always been somewhat deferential. Not all of them worshiped him like Guizot did, but they all generally believed they could learn something from American marketing, and so they listened respectfully to what Will had to say. But being from the States himself, with an East Coast style and a crooked nose from playing football at Brown, Brandon had always dealt with Will as if he were little more than a foolish underclassman, there to be bullied or charmed, depending on the whim of the moment. “Detroit’s got, what, AMC, Chrysler, GM, and Ford? It’ll be a different game, sure, but you’ll be fine. Marry a Michigan girl and buy a nice house outside of town. They have great suburbs there. You’ll want to be in the suburbs. The niggers have taken over the city. But I guess you knew that.”
Will was having trouble digesting the news. He reached for a cigarette. “Exactly how long before the billings stop?”
Brandon had shrugged. “After the election. Nothing will happen until Ike’s out. No sense in pulling the plug till then. But no matter who wins, even if it’s Nixon’s fucking dog, this move is going to happen. The action simply isn’t here anymore. The government’s moving its spending to Asia. All our budgets are migrating there.”
“They’re moving you, too?”
“Me?” Brandon smiled a funny smile, surprised at Will’s question. “They’d like me to go south with them, but I’d rather not. I’m cooking up a project that might keep me here at least a bit longer, but it’s not going to involve any kind of advertising. So I’d say you’ve got a year, tops. But I’d start making plans now. Never hurts to be prepared.”
Will had looked around the room. He was thirty-one years old with a corner office in Paris. He had worked hard to get here. If he went back home he would be stuck working for the old guard. He’d be trapped at a desk, listening to the old guard drone on about how things were done. The old guard would pile him up with dull research assignments before heading out to swoon their clients at the country club or screw their secretaries at the motor lodge. And in twenty years, if he was lucky, he would be the old guard. “Fuck.”
His assistant, Madame Belec, poked her head in the door. “Monsieur Guizot est arrivé.”
“Thanks, we’ll only be a minute more.”
“Il semble très impatient.”
“He always is,” said Will. She left and Will looked at Brandon. “I’m going to have to wrap this up. It appears I have a real client waiting.”
“Aw, whaddaya mean.” Brandon laughed. “I’m a real client. We pay you guys good money. If I could figure out how to keep you on the gravy train I would, believe me. But they’re shutting down this side of the operation and the stuff I’m into now is way out of your league. You wouldn’t want it anyway, it’s grueling stuff, day and night.” Brandon snapped his fingers. “Oh damn, that reminds me, here”—he reached into his vest pocket and pulled out two tickets—“I was gonna swing by this reception over at the Hotel Rothschild tonight, but I can’t. The ticket’s yours if you want it. It’s up on rue Balzac, only a few blocks away. Full bar, and I bet the booze’ll be the good stuff. Go get yourself drunk, take a girl with you or meet a girl there, or better yet, meet two girls there.” Brandon laughed at his own joke as he rose to leave. “Seriously, you didn’t think it would last forever, did you? Now give me that report so I can show my guys you still care.”
Will had handed over the Rhône-Poulenc file. Meticulously compiled, the file was a summary of the chemical company’s growth plans, its supply base, and its accounting, along with a separate analysis specifically focused on the company’s current relationships with various branches of the French armed services. Brandon gave it a cursory glance. “Looks like you covered all the bases.”
“We always do.”
“You got anything else coming for me?” Brandon had said.
Will winced slightly; Brandon always wanted more these days. Not so long ago, he’d been content getting a monthly report on whatever Will found of interest. The Americans used the reports to keep an eye on Europe. Will’s other clients had had no idea that the secrets they shared with their advertising agency were being passed on to a foreign government, and they would certainly not have been happy to find out. The home office did a good job of keeping it a secret, even from the local executives. That’s why they had kept Will there for the last few years. He was the only one who knew exactly what the reports were for, and who was receiving them. He knew he was, in essence, spying on these companies for Brandon. It did not bother him since it felt so far from sinister. There was nothing more than raw data in the files, reports on commodity pricing, production cycle estimates, supply levels, and shipping analyses. Lately, though, the requests from Brandon had grown more constant and generally focused on pharmaceutical, chemical, and medical supply firms. Will had given Brandon five write-ups on five different companies in the past six weeks, and he had two more reports in the works. Normally it wouldn’t have bothered him, but it didn’t seem right for Brandon to come in and basically fire Will and at the same time be demanding so much more. Still, the client was the client. “I’ll have the one on Bayer ready next week,” Will said.
“Great. Keep ’em coming”—Brandon smiled—“at least till we shut out the lights. You don’t want to piss off the Central Intelligence Agency, right?”
Will nodded. “Right.” Depressed at the thought of going back to America, he didn’t even look up as Brandon walked out.
Mulling it over now, Will realized this was the final card in the deck; he no longer had enough business to keep him in Paris. It was only a matter of months before he booked one of the new transatlantic TWA flights back to the States. There was so much that he relished about Paris, from the bright lights of the brasseries to the wild parrots of the bird market to the garden view from Montparnasse. Of course, there were also the yellow-and-pink-pastel-skirted girls who looked as tasty as macaroons as they carried their books to their Sorbonne classes, and then there was this thick, little puffball of a man who was singing about pimples and dancing around Will’s office. Watching Guizot bounce about, Will realized that he had thoroughly enjoyed, savored, and celebrated every single day he had spent in this city, and now it appeared it was over. “Fuck,” he said.
Guizot stopped and held up his hands. “Come on, it’s a good song!”
Standing in the finely furnished apartment, Detective Vidot felt guilty. Crimes were always bad, and all too often they were tragic, terrible, and truly awful things, and yet whenever they involved peculiar or unusual circumstances, Vidot inevitably felt a wondrously delicious feeling rise up inside his heart, a delightful sensation that bordered on giddiness, and one that almost always inspired him to break out in an enormous smile. It was a shameful habit that he had long struggled to suppress. He thought it stemmed from the fact that ever since he was a young boy, he had derived enormous pleasure from puzzles, crosswords, jigsaws, anagrams, word games, and riddles. The great mystery stories featuring Dupin, Holmes, and Lecoq had sparked the initial ambition that led to his career. But once he actually became a police detective the smile itself caused unfortunate results, especially when his duties included querying a victim’s grieving relatives, neighbors, or traumatized colleagues. Too many times, that impish grin had slipped across his face, sending the sad souls he was questioning into even more wildly distraught states. Calls had been made, complaints lodged, and over the years, he had strained to erase it from his features, attempting to appear more consoling and sympathetic, yet the little smile always found a way to creep back, dancing at the corners of his mouth, mischievous, almost like a nervous tic.
It was a good thing no friends or family of the unfortunate victim were around now, because this case had him grinning from ear to ear from the moment he had first encountered it.
Atop the hill that rose in the 5th arrondissement, not far from rue Mouffetard, there had once, long ago, been a tall, spiked gate on rue Rataud that protected the chaste, devout nuns living within the monastery. Late in the nineteenth century, city life had grown too chaotic, so the sisters were moved away and the gate had been almost completely disassembled. But due to a series of arguments between the hired laborers, devotees of the protosocialist Saint-Simon, and the more conservative Catholic accountants, the final work was never completed. The gate’s top was left intact, arcing above the lane, its sharp and heavy pointed hooks, primitive precursors of modern concertina wire, curling menacingly down toward the cobblestones below. It was here that they found the body of Leon Vallet hanging early on Monday morning, the iron spikes impaling his thick neck and skull. Blood was splashed down the wall and across the cobblestones like spilled paint.
“How did he even get up there?” had been the first, and remained the most, obvious question. There was no clear answer. One policeman suggested he had somehow fallen from the neighboring building, but Vidot could see that was impossible. The hooks faced downward: Leon Vallet must have been thrust up into them. The small team investigating the scene offered up various theories. Perhaps he was riding atop a tall truck that had driven beneath the gate. But a truck would not be found on these narrow streets, and besides, what would a successful man of finance be doing atop such a truck? Was he taking a hayride? No, no. Perhaps an explosion had thrust him upward? This was easily dismissed, as there were no signs of combustion, either on his body or on the ground below.
“Did anyone report hearing any unusual sounds?” Vidot asked.
“No,” said a patrolman. “We have asked around the neighborhood. They said it was a quiet night.”
Vidot nodded. He looked at the corpse that lay on the street. It had taken the team the better part of an hour to unhook and carefully lower the victim. It was incredible that his skull and neck had been able to support such heavy weight. Vidot would have thought gravity would have pulled the torso down from the hook, splattering the lower body’s contents on the pavement while leaving the impaled head alone on top, but then, he realized, anatomy was a tenacious thing as bones clung to bones much the same way that life clings to life.
Over the following two days, the preliminary basics of the investigation had been covered. Vallet’s wife, Claudette, was informed of the murder. She had been away, at their country château, and learned of her tragedy only upon returning home. She was grief stricken and though she remained a suspect, Vidot deemed it not likely. His one meeting with the woman had revealed a small, murine creature who was most likely easily frightened by strong summer breezes and afternoon shadows, not the sort capable of an act so macabre. Cursory professional inquiries had meanwhile pointed to a wealth of potentially vengeful enemies, as it was revealed that Leon Vallet had not run the most scrupulous business.
More promising still was the discovery, uncovered while inspecting his account books, of an apartment Leon Vallet had been paying for located only blocks from the crime scene. Vidot went to visit the flat, accompanied by three policemen. Entering the spacious rooms, it was immediately clear that whoever had been living there had been well provided for during their stay. There were oil paintings on the walls, expensive linens for the large bed, and a full set of fine Wedgwood porcelain in the sideboard. It did not interest Vidot that Leon Vallet had such a nicely feathered love nest. What did interest Vidot, as he sniffed in the empty dresser and poked at the bare closet, was that Leon’s lover had flown away.
He stood in the middle of the bedroom, considering the various possibilities, as the other policemen continued their search, looking under the bed, behind couch cushions, pulling out the drawers of the small escritoire and knocking gently at the sides of the grand armoire, listening for secret panels. Smiling the way a boy being tickled grins before he finally breaks into laughter, Vidot walked over and examined a silver picture frame. He focused on the empty space inside the frame for a moment, as if observing details of the image that was not there. Then he moved down the mantel, turning his attention to two clocks perched near the center. He went up so close that his inquisitive nose practically touched their glass faces and then pointed at a wide space between them. “A gap,” he said, turning to the young policeman who stood by the door. “You, what is your name?”
“Well, Bemm, I would like you to ask around at the local pawn shops and antique stores, anything in a five-kilometer radius, and see if you can find a clock, I am guessing it is a very rare clock, that has either been sold to the shop directly or left there on consignment. And if the proprietors have not received one recently, please ask them to keep their eyes open. Indicate, but do not promise, the possibility of a reward.”
Vidot then went into the kitchenette. Looking down past the sink, he was excited to see that the policeman had not yet looked into the small metal garbage pail tucked in beside the counter. This was one of Vidot’s favorite places to search. People tended to be thoughtless with their trash, and even the most cunning criminals had a habit of leaving a wealth of useful materials behind—notes, letters, in one case even a grocery list of various pharmaceutical poisons. Clues dumped in the bin were almost always forgotten by the guilty parties, as if all garbage vanished from reality the moment the lid closed shut. Vidot knew better. He had spent more than a few afternoons knee-deep in the dumps and landfills on the outskirts of the city, foraging for soggy and rotting evidence amid the rich layers of debris. He knew nothing really ever disappeared, it only changed form.
He dumped the bin’s waste into the sink and began picking through it. There was no mail and no personal papers, only three eggshells; a few lemon rinds; scrapings of burnt rice; the unused ends of a baguette; cucumber, onion, carrot scraps; a hunk of moldy cheese; and some soiled sections of Le Monde. There were also fragmentary pieces of bone that at first he thought might be chicken, though they were oddly enmeshed in what seemed to be a tangle of peat moss. He carefully separated this mass from the rest of the trash and placed it on the counter.
The policeman going through the kitchen drawers glanced over his shoulder. “I haven’t seen one of those in a while.”
“What is it?” asked Vidot.
“We used to hunt for them on the forest floor out at my grandparents’ country place. We called them owl balls.”
Vidot grinned at him. “Owl balls?”
“Yes, they are the remnants of mice, voles, or baby rabbits, whatever the owl has caught and swallowed. The owl pounces on the creatures and gobbles them up whole. Later the owl coughs up the indigestible bits in small pellets. That’s what you have there, I’d swear to it.”
“Owl balls,” said Vidot, looking down at the fragments while rolling the idea around in his head with a delicious sense of wonder.
Although it had been almost two months since they had last seen or spoken to one another, neither had said much when the younger one showed up at the door. Elga had let her in and then put a kettle on the stove. Zoya dropped her bags and limped over to the couch. Before the water was even boiling, the younger one was fast asleep. Over the next few days the old one said little, cooking for them both and going out every so often to get stock for the soup and ice chips for Zoya’s black eye. Elga only asked a few questions.
“He beat you?”
Zoya shook her head. “No. He would never. The words made him kick, his shoe caught me as he was going up.”
“He went up?”
“The spell went wrong. There were spikes above me I didn’t see. The words pulled him there. I was aiming for a gate on the corner. It happened fast and he kicked as he flew.”
“Who can blame him for kicking? Nobody wants to go.” Elga nodded. “Did you empty your place?”
“Mostly, there was too much to take it all. But do not worry, I was thorough enough. I tagged one trunk and shipped it to the Luxembourg Station, the taxi dropped another at the North. I’ll send for them when I have a place to stay.” Zoya felt the exhaustion of her breath crawling out of her body. Perhaps this was the end. That would be fine, her bones were so tired. Her stomach felt as if there were rotting weeds stewing at the bottom. Here she was again, counting on the patience and tolerance of this stooped and ancient creature who tended to be neither.
She realized that over the course of the years, the length of her stays with the old woman had shrunk to fit Elga’s vanishing patience. Perhaps, after so much time, they had finally outgrown one another. But she also knew that she still needed and even wanted the old woman in her life. They were, as far as she knew, the only two left.
There had been many more of them once, and not only the women they had traveled with but still others, sighted and acknowledged in glances and knowing nods caught amid early-morning markets and in the busy, bustling streets, but the ones she had known by name had vanished long ago, and no new faces had stepped out from the crowd. So it seemed there were only the two of them, now too ill fitted to one another’s company, and so after this small pause she would be off on her own again, probably before she had even wholly caught her breath.
Over the next few days, Zoya lay on the couch, listening as a tone-deaf accordionist practiced bal musette somewhere in the floors above. She did not know how Elga paid for her small basement flat, it certainly was not with money, the old woman was too tight to ever part with a coin when a trick would do. Perhaps she was dangling a sordid secret over her landlord’s conscience. Or maybe she had convinced him that she did not even exist, though that would be an ambitious spell, even for Elga. This woman was hard to hide. The room brimmed over with stacks of dusty papers, piles of dried herbs, and long rows of packed bookshelves all lined with discolored jars stuffed with pickled organs, hoof and snout. A dank, permeating odor of mildew mixed with burnt ginger and soured cheese leaked from the walls, and there were constant rustling, scratching, and scraping sounds off in the shadowed corners.
Elga brought out another kettle and poured the tea. Zoya looked down at the old woman’s spotted, knotted hands; the veins reminded her of the gnarled tree roots that clung tenaciously to the lichened boulders up in the northern forests.
“I have a present for you,” Zoya told the old woman. Digging into her bag, she pulled out a large object wrapped up in a sheet. Placing it on the couch, she carefully peeled off the fabric and held it up for Elga to admire.
The old woman gave it a blank look. “What do I want with a clock?”
Zoya shrugged. “I thought you’d like it. Look…” She pointed to the small golden swan perched on the top. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Like the treasures from the palace.”
Elga said nothing but took the clock out of Zoya’s hands and shoved it atop a cockeyed stack on the shelf. The old woman had always been impossible to predict—Zoya had seen her cackle and hop with joy at the gift of a simple sugar cube—but these past few days her mood seemed even more erratic and dark.
The old woman sat down on the floor, shelling sunflower seeds, while Zoya lay back on the couch. A squeaking in the room kept her awake. Zoya opened her eyes and watched the scrawny black rat finally emerge from beneath the couch to chew at the corner of the rug. “Don’t let Max bother you,” grunted Elga. “I will send him out on his errands soon.”
Zoya nodded and shut her eyes again. She felt as if she had been drugged, but she knew it was the spell that had drained her. Also, she always hated being without her own bed and her own room, wherever that might be. Being a guest always left her ill at ease, especially with Elga. Their journeys always brought them together for a handful of days, a full cycle of a moon, or even at times for years, but then they eventually diverged again, Zoya to the arms of another warm patron and Elga back to her busy stews.
When Zoya woke again from her nap the old woman was sitting across the room, her pudgy feet propped up on the cold woodstove, leafing through the pages of Figaro. “There’s nothing in here about your Leon. I guess all they could say is, what? His wife is sad and the policemen are still snooping around.”
Elga balled the newspaper up and threw it into the stove. Trudging over to the couch, she squatted beside Zoya. The old woman lowered her head and nodded, muttering to herself. Zoya waited. The room was silent, even the rat was finally still. When Elga looked up, it was as if she had come to a firm decision.
With one fierce stroke she slapped Zoya across the face so hard that the shriek was torn from the girl’s lips. The old woman grabbed Zoya’s hair, pulled her close, and stuck her red bug eyes up into the girl’s terrified face. “There wasn’t a train he could fall in front of?” she hissed. “Is poison too slow? You have always been too showy, too stupid, such an awful and tiresome creature. Mistakes can be avoided. They must be avoided. My god, you can disgust me.” She slapped her again, harder this time.
Zoya’s words fell out through her tears. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I panicked. He had noticed, Elga. I was frightened.”
Elga let go of her hair and got up. “So what, he notices? Suck a man’s cock and he forgets so much. It’s easier than sticking his head onto a spike.” She went back to her chair, leaving the girl curled up in a weeping ball. “Bah. Fine. Pull yourself together.” She took a box of matches off the shelf and leaned over to light the stove, not even looking at Zoya anymore. “You make things too unsafe. Police sniff-sniffing around. We will have to leave town and begin again. Why do I want to waddle these bones of mine for you? I am fine here alone without you showing up and ruining it all.”
“No, Elga, it’s fine. I’ll go. I won’t bother you.”
“Fine. Go soon. You make it hard for me to think, and the neighbors will notice you. I don’t need their questions. So yes, go.”
A little less than an hour later, Zoya was packed up to leave, relieved to be going. With no kindness in her gesture, the old woman shoved a grocer’s bag filled with carrots, red potatoes, and a handful of leek sprouts into her hands and then tucked a pair of small white eggs into her pockets. Zoya thought Elga might offer a kind word too—not an apology, but perhaps some phrase laced with tenderness—but all the old woman said was, “Don’t come here again. If I move, I’ll let you know, but don’t come back. If you need help, well, keep an eye out for Max. He’ll be close. Now go.” The girl looked down at the rat, which sat watching from the corner. She nodded to herself, her mouth set firm and determined. Elga was right, it was time. She had probably rested enough, and her injured eye’s swelling had receded; there was now only a dark streak, more a smudge than a bruise, that made her look like a sooty chimney waif.
The old woman followed her out to the stoop and then stood watching as Zoya walked off down the cobblestone street. A nausea itched in Elga’s guts. The girl boiled her blood. For so many years she had needed Zoya, leaned on her, used her to find safe harbor as they were pitched about the brutal landscape. It had been a tiresome journey for them both, from the far-off country quiet of long vanished woodlands through the black billowing exhaust and shrill screech of steel railway wheels as they made their way on, station to station, ducking and stepping between the dueling engines of empire wars and burgeoning progress. Civilization was ever encroaching, barreling down upon them, crowding them and clouding their path with the gunpowder haze and steam-engine smoke, pressing and pushing them down narrow lanes toward dead-end corners, forcing tricks from their hands and curses from their lips as they found a way to leap free over and again.
But things were peaceful now, now she did not see the girl for weeks at a time, even months, and never missed her. There was no need. The continent was as quiet as a sleeping lamb, and the two of them had settled down with it. The papers called it a “cold war” but that seemed an odd phrase to Elga, she knew cold wars, they were the ones where hatchets and knives wielded by frostbitten fingers chopped solid meat sides off frozen stallion corpses. Those true cold wars had nothing in common with what she found in the newspapers now, but it was certainly an easier time, and as the din died down, she found the pretty dark-haired girl with the slender hips and the fulsome bosom to be growing tiresome. Each time she saw Zoya it bothered her more, like some silly farmer’s song you hate hearing but are forced to endure a thousand times until it claws at your ears. She could not place a reason for the irritation, but the feeling was so strong it felt almost cystic inside her. Time to cut it out, she thought, and good riddance.
The wind kicked up and she sniffed at it. Coal soot, sea salt, ham, yeast, and dog hair, nothing new, nothing to worry about. She stood there, distracted, random words tumbling round in her mind, until a neighbor noisily emerged with a crate of empty milk bottles. Broken from her daydream, Elga waddled back into her flat, shutting the door hard behind her.
The tuxedoed jazz trio was playing a bouncy tune he didn’t know, there was no one in the black-tie crowd who he recognized, and the average age of the women there was somewhere north of fifty. But Will stayed on, seduced by the charms of an open bar. The event was ostensibly a book party for a Parisian politician’s wife, but the chatty guests didn’t look very bookish to Will. It seemed more like an up-and-coming chapter of Paris’s down-market society crowd. The men’s suits all seemed a size off, and the women’s dresses were either drab and dull or taffeta loud. Beside him, an ancient pair of grandes dames wearing outfits that looked like they were cut from wallpaper samples prattled on about summer shopping in Monte Carlo. One of them caught Will listening and abruptly asked, “Êtes-vous un critique?”
“No,” he answered politely, “I am only here for the cocktails.”
The women both laughed, a little too loud. “Of course, we are too,” said the one in blue. With their excessive makeup and painted eyebrows, they both looked like wax figurines caught melting in the sun.
“Are you British?” one asked.
“American,” Will said.
“Ah!” The women both beamed at this news. “Are you a writer? An artist?” asked the red dress.
“Are you from New York?” the blue dress chimed in.
Will shook his head to both questions. “Actually, I’m from Detroit. I work for an advertising agency here.”
At this news, both women made a funny face, as if they had each simultaneously bitten into a disagreeable dish. Will was unsure if it was the word “advertising” or “Detroit” that had ruined their high spirits, though he suspected both. He excused himself with a polite nod and began working his way across the crowd until he found a more peaceful corner by the table where the books were piled up. He lit a cigarette, listened for a bit to the jazz, and began leafing through a copy. According to the cover, Rendezvous at Saint-Cloud was a memoir of forbidden love in the French resistance. He was flipping through it, looking for pictures, when a voice speaking in a distinctively Brahmin American accent interrupted him from behind.
“A pretty piece of fiction, don’t you think?”
Will turned to see a tall, thin man with sandy blond hair eyeing the book stacks with a slight grin.
“Excuse me?” Will asked.
“Their so-called underground resistance,” said the man, gesturing toward the books. “Totally charming nonsense, absurd, nothing more than a collective hallucination, really.”
Will was a bit taken aback and looked around nervously. “Well, I’m not sure I would go so far as to—”
“You know”—the man picked up the book and studied the cover—“I once met a former GI who had parachuted in here during the height of the Occupation. By the time I met him, this fellow was one hell of a drunk, the sort with the grand gin-blossomed beak that scares off small children, but in his prime he must have had real guts. He told me about how the OSS dropped him in with a crate packed with Browning rifles, revolvers, grenades, a couple of Thompsons, a veritable cornucopia really, all gifts for our friends in the underground. The problem was, once he landed he couldn’t find a soul willing to take the stuff off his hands. Wandered around the city for weeks, and all he ran into were your usual run of perfidious black marketeers, reprobate collaborators, and more than a few fast Nazi bullets he had to dodge. In the end, he buried the guns on the southwestern side of town, down someplace in the catacombs, and then skedaddled back across the Channel. He and I had quite the chatty night at the Algonquin. He even gave me a map he’d sketched out of where his stash was hidden.” The man placed the book back on the top of the stack. “Care to see if we can dig it up?”
“Excuse me? Dig up what?” Will felt a little confused.
The man smiled. “The guns, of course. They’re out there somewhere.”
Will was not clear if he was being kidded or not. “No, that’s okay.”
“Another time perhaps.” The man took a sip of his drink and patted his lapel. “I do always carry his map here in my wallet on the off chance I ever find myself in need of a Thompson. Seems prudent, don’t you think?”
Will looked around, nobody else seemed to be noticing this curious man with the strange ideas. The fellow stuck out his hand. “Hullo there, sorry. Oliver Pierce Ames.”
“Will Van Wyck.”
“‘Van Wyck,’ yes, like that new expressway back in New York. I hear it’s marvelous. Say, what kind of cigarettes do you have on you?”
“Chesterfields. Want one?”
“Ah, yes please. God bless you. I can’t stand to smoke any more of that nag hay they sell over here.” Oliver managed to take the cigarette and light it without pausing in his speech. He was a talkative fellow. “You know, I saw you walk in and knew in a snap you were a Yank. You’re too broad-shouldered to be French. And such American teeth. So what brings you to this corner tonight?”
“A friend gave me a ticket.”
“A friend? What sort of friend sends you to a party like this?”
“Well, actually, it was a colleague; he got stuck with a ticket. Brandon must have thought it was going to be a different kind of party.”
“Well, you never know with book parties. The better ones can be outrageously good.” Oliver gave him a curious look. “Actually, when I first saw you I thought you might have been escorting those two grandes dames over there.”
Will laughed. “No, no. I came alone.”
Oliver sipped his drink again and looked around the room. “Brandon, you say? Wouldn’t be Bob Brandon, would it?”
“Yes. I sort of know him through work. You know him?”
“Only slightly. It’s a small town for Americans, you know. Seems like a good man. You work at the agency?”
“Yes, I do. I was transferred over from the States two years ago.”
“Really?” Oliver said. “So what do you do there?”
“Not a lot these days,” said Will. “I used to manage a lot of different things, but it’s gotten kind of quiet.”
“Yes, well.” Oliver sipped his drink. “Can’t say I know much about how the agency works. No reason to, I suppose. Golly, nothing’s more boring than shoptalk, is it?” Oliver gave him a quick, curious look. “Though I am curious why on God’s green earth Brandon ever thought this would be fun for you.”
“Like I said, must have been some sort of mix-up.”
“Either that or your friend has a bit of a cruel streak, throwing you out like fresh carrion for all these dusty dowagers to descend upon.”
Will smiled. “How come you’re here?”
“I know the publisher, we play belote now and again. I’d hoped to find some real writers here, but they are such an elusive bunch.” Oliver looked at his watch. “Actually, I’m supposed to be meeting up with a couple of girls right around the corner in a bit. At Taillevent, ever been?”
Will shook his head no.
“There are two girls and only one of me. So perhaps you should join? The restaurant’s a touch stuffy but the food’s fabulous, and their crab remoulade is beyond words. Please, come. It’s always nice to have a fourth.”
Will felt a little uncertain if he should say yes. Oliver looked him in the eye and smiled.
Five hours later, Will lay stone drunk on a bench below the Pont Neuf, blearily gazing at the lights playing across the dancing surface of the night-blackened river. A few feet away, Oliver was humming a waltz tune as he slow-danced with the young brunette named Juliette. She was wearing a short white dress with matching pearls. The other girl, more beautiful than Juliette, and far too lovely for Will, had found a taxi home hours before. The yellow moon was verging on full and the stars up in the sky looked blurred and undefined, as if someone had splashed water across them before their ink could dry. Will tried to recall what day it was and prayed it was Saturday or Sunday. The sun would be up soon and he was in no condition for work.
The dinner had been enjoyable. Oliver had introduced Will as an old friend from America and the two French girls had quickly complimented him on his fluency. He explained how his mother’s family had emigrated down from French Canada to Detroit (“Ah, Detroit!” exclaimed Oliver, “the Paris of the Midwest!”) and so he had grown up with a rough-hewn colonial version of French bouncing around the house. It had grown more refined in his time in Paris, though it was far from perfect (“Absolument!” the girls laughed. “C’est pas du tout parfait!”). He was going to tell them more, but Oliver interrupted with one long anecdote that spilled into another, and as the evening progressed, that turned out to be just about all Will had a chance to say. Instead, he and the girls listened on while the seemingly ever-present sommelier popped bottle after bottle of ’47 Clos Saint Jean’s and Oliver bubbled over with gossip, rumors, anecdotes, and broad, flirtatious innuendos that made the girls blush and giggle into their napkins. Will did not mind, Oliver seemed to be both fascinating and humorously silly as, over the course of the evening, he described swamping his mother’s vintage Jordan roadster in the Connecticut River, sang them a smattering of old Phillips Exeter fight songs, butchered some Keats verse in a slightly slurred attempt at oration, and then drunkenly reenacted the march he had made entering Rome with the American army.
“You were in the infantry?” asked Will, now a bit tipsy too.
“Yes, nothing very brave, mostly clerical work. Supply-line stuff. My father, of course, harbored much greater ambitions for me, firstborn son and all that, but it turns out the dreamy, poetic types make for rather poor officer material.”
“Well, he must have been proud of you, you did your part.”
“Oh, in the end he was proud enough. I sent him a photo of me with Patton. That positively thrilled the old man,” Oliver said, refilling his own glass. “What about you? You look too young to have served then, did you do Korea?”
“No…” Will hesitated, feeling a little self-conscious. Coming out of a working-class family, he knew he had been fortunate not to have been drafted, and an academic scholarship had kept him from having to sign up to cover the costs of school. But he never felt lucky about it, especially when he was talking to a veteran like Oliver. It was one of the reasons he liked living abroad in France, he felt less surrounded by those pressures. The subject rarely came up; people in Paris tended to be quiet about what they did during the war.
“Well, maybe you didn’t serve then, but you certainly serve now, don’t you?” Oliver said, leaning over with a knowing smile. “We all serve.”
The line puzzled Will and he was about to ask what Oliver meant, but instead his friend plucked up two spoons and made them dance the cancan, which again got their dates giggling and the moment passed, dissolving into various chocolate and meringue desserts served with fruit brandies and followed by more servings of Oliver’s effervescent chatter, this time about a conspiracy he was obsessed with, a cover-up involving a silver flying saucer that had been found somewhere in the deserts of New Mexico. Everyone laughed at his imitation of a little green man from Mars.
The two girls began asking Oliver’s opinion on various topics, and Will realized he should know a bit more about the range of subjects they touched upon, the fashionable filmmakers like Chabrol and Truffaut and the new authors he had never heard of—Robbe-Grillet, Butor, and Duras. He knew a little about current events, the situation in Algiers and the return of de Gaulle, but only what the headlines told him, not enough to have anything resembling an informed opinion. Listening on as the subjects went by, one by one, like train cars clattering along through the night, Will was aware again of how, despite the time spent here and all the things he had done, Paris remained vast and impermeably foreign to him. For the first time since that heady season when he was literally fresh off the boat, the city once again felt exotic.
When he had arrived, more than two years before, Will had earnestly planned to immerse himself in the arts, the museums, the theater, and great stacks literature, to become more cultured, even sophisticated. He imagined taking tours of the Louvre’s galleries and attending lectures at the Sorbonne. But, wearied from the tedious days at work, he had wound up spending his leisure time focusing only on the food, the wine, and the women. He had spent more time chatting up the owl-eyed girls with the straight gray skirts and bare legs he met browsing the shelves at Shakespeare & Company and Galignani than he did reading the actual books. In fact, he rarely got to the books. But it was hard to feel guilty about it when even the basest pleasures of Paris were so abundant and entirely elevating. Tonight, though, he did feel a slight pang of guilt for all the time he had wasted. He nodded and smiled along, feeling the shame of his ignorance as he quietly scraped the last mocha out of his pot de crème while his dinner companions chattered on about protosocialist revolutions and structural linguistics.
To Will’s relief, not only did all the intellectual conversation finally peter out, but, as the last cheese plate was picked clean and the table finally cleared, Oliver picked up the check too, with a reassuringly confident gesture indicating that he had it happily covered. Then, still laughing and chatting, the four of them crowded into a taxi and began a drunken, fruitless search for a mythical Latin Quarter jazz band. Oliver claimed to know the players in the band. “These cats are mad with talent! Their music is absolutely phosphorescent!” he kept shouting, though after many stops and drinks, it turned out the band wasn’t playing at any place they could find, nor had any of the various waitresses or bartenders ever heard of them. Eventually, the prettier girl yawned and peeled off, leaving polite farewell kisses on Will’s flushed cheeks. He wandered on with the other two as they eventually found their way to this secluded spot beneath the bridge on the Seine.
The last of the bottle of Drambuie that Oliver had bought off the last bartender had been finally drained dry and the Chesterfields were all ground dead into the stone. Will lay on the bench, listening to Oliver hum his little waltz to the girl as they danced along the gravel path. Gazing past them, across the water, Will watched a low barge slowly work its way up the river. To his sideways mind, the small glimmering gas lanterns on the boat’s sides seemed to be heading off to a rendezvous with the flickering stars above, their luminous sisters in the floating constellations.
The sound of the water against the barge’s bow reminded Will of being a young boy back home, standing on Jefferson Avenue, watching the massive gray cargo ships churn down the Detroit River on their way to the enormous and looming Rouge mills. Those vast, ugly ships, so large they seemed to barely fit bank to bank, were laden full of the raw, mined ore pulled from the Iron Range that would be forged and molded and stamped into the new industrial skin for the whole wide world. And what were these charming Parisian barges filled with? Sacks of grain for little baby lambs? Ground corn for pecking geese? Fresh-milled white wheat flour for warm morning croissants and baguettes? And why did he find the small boat so beautiful and romantic while those much larger ones were to his eyes only ugly and overbearing? Why do we love the little things so? Will grinned to himself. See, he thought, I can be philosophical. He drunkenly chuckled and his eyes flickered low as, one by one, a string of imaginary yellow ducks nimbly swam across the sea of his mind, each one kissing out puffs of vanishing smoke.
He awoke twisted up in his suit, as the dawn’s first flush was tinting pink, yellow, and orange off the clouds and glinting gold and bronze off the Paris rooftops. He sat up on the bench, rubbing his eyes and glancing around. Only here, he realized, could one wake like a vagrant and feel so lucky and blessed. The city was dappled in light, looking Impressionistic and wholly refreshed from its own nocturnal slumber. Checking his jacket to make sure he still had his wallet, he found a note scrawled onto the back of the dinner receipt: “Pricey dinner. We’ll sort it tonight. Meet me at 9 rue Git-le-Coeur at eight p.m. Be prompt. Ta, O.P.A.” He studied the note. Was Oliver saying that Will owed him for dinner? That didn’t seem right. What else did they need to sort out? Plus, there were a few other words scratched at the bottom that he couldn’t make out. Finally, studying the handwriting carefully, he deciphered it: “p.s. bring a knife.”
Most French men, like his father and uncles, were completely happy to leave the kitchen work to their wives. But Charles Vidot enjoyed cooking with Adèle. Their kitchenette space was tiny and cramped, but after ten years of patient practice they now moved about one another in what felt to him like a smoothly choreographed routine. She diced while he mixed, she poured while he simmered. All while he recounted the details of his days to her, and with this series of small, brisk movements, Charles Vidot was able to unwind from his life at work and reattach himself to the cozy and satisfying comforts of home. The radio was whistling out Debussy. “You see,” he said to her, “it seems Monsieur Vallet had a lover.”
“A lover,” she said.
He could not tell if she was merely repeating what he said or asking for more details. “Yes”—he put the pan on the burner and turned on the gas—“a lover who has utterly vanished, leaving nothing but the faintest trace of her scent on the pillow.”
Adèle smiled. “You smelled the pillow?”
“Well”—he smiled—“I would not be much of a detective if I had not.”
Adèle nodded. “And what did it smell like?”
Charles paused to think. “Citrus and jasmine … expensive.”
“So, perhaps whoever killed him also frightened his lover away.”
“Perhaps,” he said skeptically. He put the two chicken breasts on the skillet, letting them simmer with the garlic and the butter.
“But you suspect her?”
“Probably, yes. She is certainly the most interesting element in this case.” He told her about the girl’s garbage bin and the strange remnants he had discovered there.
“A few mouse bones spit from an owl do not necessarily make her a suspect,” said Adèle.
“That is quite true. And if she were present I am sure she could have provided a reasonable explanation. But she is not, so…”
There was so little room in the kitchenette that her waist slid against her husband’s as he shook the pan. He smiled at this, savoring the small satisfactions that fed their life together. He watched as she squeezed lemon onto a bowl of shredded carrots and placed them to the side. She gave him a small smile. Was it a remote smile? A hesitant one? He could not tell. She had been difficult to read as of late. “Have your headaches been back?”
“Yes, earlier this week,” she said, “but the new pills from the pharmacist seem to help.”
“Better than the tea?”
“I don’t know. Perhaps. The doctor tells me my tea recipe is merely an old wives’ tale.”
“Ah well, if it works, it works.” Charles leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. “I am glad I could come home early.” He had thought of staying at his office desk to peruse various notes on the case, there were interviews to comb through and the coroner’s statement to study, but he hated being in the station of late. A new chief of police for Paris, Maurice Papon, had recently been installed. In Vidot’s opinion, Papon was a thoroughly dishonorable man who, twenty years earlier, had stood out as one of the very worst of the Vichy collaborators. But history in France was a fickle thing, and as the nation healed from its great trauma, the powers that be had found a place for Papon. Once installed in his new office, this quisling had moved quickly, placing numerous other regrettable characters in various high positions throughout the department, including Vidot’s new superior at the station, a stout, lethargic toad of a creature named Maroc. As a detective, Vidot had encountered many disagreeable sorts, both criminal and civilian, and he liked to think he had a patient spirit and could tolerate any soul so long as they did not obstruct his path; but Maroc strained his patience. The man’s every expression insinuated either dishonesty or lethargy. Vidot found him nauseating and hated even being on the same city block with the man, and so this evening, after typing his case report in duplicate and leaving a copy in Maroc’s in-box, he locked up his files and made his way home.
But he was not done with the case that day, for work was not something that Vidot ever entirely left at the office. He lived and breathed and often dreamt about his cases until they were done. “My husband is a man of passion,” Adèle used to dryly joke with their friends. “Unfortunately, his passion is police work.” So, there in the kitchen, his thoughts now turned to the puzzle of Leon’s missing lover. Vidot did not judge the man too harshly for having a mistress. It occurred all too often in French society, it was as ordinary as the sliver of lemon rind that came with his morning espresso. But, in his opinion, it did signify a weak man and a dull mind. Any fool could seduce, but it took a true intellect to know and love his partner. Women, to Charles Vidot, were absolute and thrilling mysteries. They moved through the world as if a different gravity applied to them and answered to untranslatable calls of the body and soul. So many times, especially of late, Adèle had utterly befuddled him with her sudden moods and reactions to events. Tears would arrive and tempers would flare with no warning, vanishing again as if carried away by some unseen benevolent wind. He understood that these sorts of unpredictable mood changes often frustrated and shut lesser men down, sending them searching for other, seemingly more simple, beds; but to Vidot a woman’s riddles were nothing to run from, each was another enigma to be solved, another curious knot to untie. He knew he could never completely comprehend the wonder, the strangeness, that was his wife—how could one soul ever know another?—but he did completely love every small challenge that she gave him, every shadowed and mysterious moment she delivered. They may not have been as physically intimate as they once were, in fact lately she seemed even more distant from his touch, but that was fine; after all, they were not lusty schoolchildren. As far as Vidot was concerned, their union was a complete one, encompassing all the harmonies and inherent contradictions any relationship could hope to hold.
They sat at the table, held hands, and said their habitual small prayer of thanks. Charles opened a thick volume of the encyclopedia to a chapter on owls and read as he ate. He found himself quickly distracted by a description of this strange bird’s incredible powers of hearing (a high perched owl could detect the sounds of a tiny mouse moving beneath a foot of snow!) as Adèle slowly finished her food in silence. She never seemed to object when he worked at the supper table. In fact, it was how they spent many evenings. She was employed at the university library and would often bring him home books on subjects related to his cases. It made him happy to share his work with her, and he was always grateful for her thoughtful assistance and insights. To him, it was like they were one organism, different arms and legs carrying the two lobes of one great mind.
Adèle finally rose and began clearing the empty plates. “Perhaps the woman is also dead. They could have thrown her body in the river,” she said as she headed into the kitchen.
“No,” Charles said, looking up from his reading. “I am certain that Leon Vallet’s lover is very much alive. Not only were her dresser drawers cleaned out but also the bottom of her closet was completely bare. And a dead woman rarely takes all her shoes with her, however much she might like to.”
Zoya chose the hotel down the hill from Place Pigalle because it was two stories higher than the other buildings on the block. Also, it was inexpensive and the block it stood on, though busy, had none of the loud nightclubs or neon that filled the rest of the district. In the small, yellow-tiled lobby, the man working at the front desk was not wearing a suit or even a jacket, only a sleeveless white T-shirt with a pair of suspenders. He itched at himself as she signed the register.
“That’s not from bedbugs or fleas, I hope?” she said.
“No,” said the man with a self-conscious grin. “It’s only a little rash.”
She knew a simple myrrh cure for his ailment but she was not in a mood to be generous. “I need a room on the top floor if you can, one with a bath.”
“No problem,” he said. “The top floor is mostly empty because the elevator is broken. I only have one room up there with its own bath, but it is our most expensive.”
“Quoi? The most expensive? With no elevator?”
The man shrugged. “It’s a big room. Lots of sunlight.”
“Fine, I’ll take it,” she said. “But I will need some assistance with my luggage when it arrives from the station. I hope that will not be a problem.”
The clerk smiled. “Not a problem for me. I’m off in ten minutes. The next fellow can take it up.”
She counted out franc notes to him as he explained that each room had a kitchenette with an electric coil, but that the only working phone in the building was behind the front desk. “We do not let guests use it unless it is an emergency. Otherwise, there is a phone booth down the hill on the corner. They sell the jetons for it down at the tabac.”
When she reached her room she found it was quite spacious. She ran the faucet. The pipes rattled and banged but the water came out clean. She opened the windows and, reaching into her bag, took out a small stub of a red candle. After lighting it, she removed a few small striped feathers from her pocket and placed them on the outside of the window. She dripped the candle wax onto their thin quills to fasten them to the sill, pressing them into place with a centime. The birds would find her, maybe not tonight, but soon.
From another pocket she took a piece of chalk and wrote a row of small words on the inside of the hotel room’s door. Then she filled the tub and took off her clothes.
A hot bath almost always made her recall the fierce, frigid cold that had, through the years, so often clenched its teeth into her bones. She had to be careful with memories. When they flooded her unexpectedly, triggered perhaps by something as slight as the scent of blooming dianthus or the sharp taste of anise, they could overwhelm and debilitate her. But it felt safe to recall those deathly days of ice and cold when she was tucked in a warm bath. It was as if, enshrouded and cloaked in the thick cloud of rising steam, the ever-hunting frost could not find her.
There had been five of them when they began their flight west from St. Petersburg. They had watched every train pull out of the Warsaw Station, the cars headed west toward the Balkans, packed full of deserting soldiers, all pale-faced and drunk with desperation, impure vodka, and the mighty relief of escape. The city’s spare horses were all gone—eaten or seized—and the handful of automobiles in the city had been taken too, commandeered by panicked priests and overflowing with the frightened remnants of their splintered congregations. Their faces stared out as they sped by, heading fast to the border in their stolen cars. Too tired to coax their passage, still exhausted from weeks of furiously wrought protective spells, the five women watched as all those in the city who could took flight, and then they followed, on foot, trailing the last vehicles’ sputtering black exhaust, steadfastly heading down the frozen roads toward nothing.
The first lost had been Mazza, a day into the journey, shot dead as they stole a pair of mares from a barn. Zoya had looked back when she heard the gun’s report and saw Mazza’s eye explode out in wild, crimson red. They had not slowed their pace and the woman’s body was left behind, lying crooked, facedown, with the snow staining scarlet around her as they galloped their new horses away.
Three days later, the hard-driven mares already dead, the women had been running across a frozen estuary when Lyda broke through, sinking with only half a gurgled shriek, the heavy hidden current hungrily gulping down her last gasp, her thick knit woolen clothes making the swallowing simple for the river. Again they did not pause—no one looked back and nothing was said. Any words spoken would only slow their momentum.
Basha was the last to go. Sneaking from their campsite into a nearby village to forage for food, she had muttered a small charm for protection and disappeared down the road. Elga had slept soundly that night, curled up in her guttural snore, but Zoya lay awake, staring up at the stark claws of winter branches looming above her, waiting for Basha’s familiar footsteps to return to camp. When Elga finally rose the next morning and saw Basha had not made it back, she insisted they leave at once. Tucking her bulky Nagant into her belt, Elga patted the pistol. “We can sit here and wait, see who comes. But if it is not Basha, well, I only have so many bullets. You know, I always say the best plan is to run.” And so they turned south, and they ran.
For the rest of their journey, Zoya could sense the three lost women following their trail, one bloodied and blind, one soaked, spitting fish scales, and one invisible, a ghost in a ghost. She could feel them at her heels, haunting and hovering over as she and Elga pressed on, bearing down side roads, hiding from passing armies, and digging out forgotten root crops and semispoiled cabbages from the hard soil. Finally, in the warrens and maze of old Krakow, she and the old woman slipped free from the noose of their past, finding a rich bounty in the classical warming comfort of wealthy men’s laps and thick bankbooks. Pianos gaily played while she laughed and giggled, bouncing down into the deep plush divans and soft velvet lounge chairs, eating goose pâté, mushroom pierogi, and hot nalesniki topped with Finnish cloudberries while sipping bottomless crystal glasses of sparkling Perlwein and foamy steins of cold winter ale. The world was new once more. She remembered Elga laughing too, peering out from behind curtains and fogging service windows, staying back in the shadows of the kitchens and coatrooms while chuckling and clapping with relief as Zoya’s snares caught their prey, watching her kiss, swoon, and giggle for the magistrates’ fathers, the costermongers’ sons, and every furrier’s drunk uncle. Drowned out by the musical, mirthful tambourine jingle and bass drum din, Zoya’s three ghosts finally receded, like water seeping away into the soil, though she sensed they were merely settling below the sediment, always close, constant in their waiting.
There was a knock at the door. Zoya rose from the bath and wrapped herself in her robe. The new desk clerk, a tall, sweating boy with acne, had hauled up one of her trunks. She tipped him and let him go.
Picking through the luggage, she found the white dress with the faded orange polka dots and the red high heels. It was not much, but it was all she needed. Krakow was long past, and now time had chased her into this corner, this bare room, this bone-stark poverty. But she had been here many times before. Looking herself over in the bathroom mirror, she saw over a hundred years of this race, this unending run. She knew its predictable rhythms, its steely electrical hum, she knew the necessary steps she would have to follow. She could almost hear the tempo starting up now, the tune that played for this dance she knew so well. It led to the unrelenting hunger of hearts, to lustful, searching eyes, and creeping, confident hands, to souls who believed that what they could touch they could own. She would give them all they wanted. There would be amorous whispers, false promises, ecstatic moans, and, if they wished it, even pleading, playful cries of pain. Every desire would be fulfilled, for night after night, and mornings too, until, in a snap or a sip, a slice or a shove, that final question, the greatest mystery, that which they had pondered for so long in their church pews and lecture halls, would finally be revealed for them. What a gift she would give. She smiled nervously at her reflection. Yes, she would provide them with everything. She always did. All her remembering was done. Now it was time to hunt.
Will checked his watch. It was only eight-twenty but the little nightclub was already a loud, crowded haze of Gitanes and Gauloises. A Cannonball Adderley LP bopped alto saxophone out through poor belabored speakers and people shouted in a rough cacophony above the music. Will was not surprised that his new friend was late. Oliver seemed to possess that sort of joie de vivre that did not lend itself to punctuality. Will was only surprised to find himself there. He did not particularly need to seek out new friends, as there were always nice ex-pat dinner parties to go to—the Lion’s Club was hosting its weekly dinner that night, where he could have caught up with the many merry midwesterners who now lived here—and, even more preferably, he could have been on dates with pretty girls who were never too hard to find.
Though he had to admit, he had been growing a little wary of romance of late. When he had first arrived, he had quickly and happily embraced the ease of Parisian romance. Initially, he had only dated expat girls, but found that the British and Americans not only smoked too much (in fact, constantly) but also shared the habit of holding every cigarette in the same pronounced pose, as if they were about to say something of vital importance. Then, inevitably, they talked breathlessly and pretentiously and said nothing of interest to him at all. They were all young, overheated Rosalind Russells or Kate Hepburns, but without the scriptwriters on hand to supply them with decent material. Besides that, far too few of them remembered to relax enough to smile, and even when he got them into bed he found they were still affected, as if they were doing what they thought a woman was supposed to do, but nothing for which they had any instinct, or even desire.
Over time he built up enough confidence to start dating the local girls; they were more at ease with him, playing, teasing, and fun, and they enjoyed helping him improve his French. One girl called herself his “sleeping dictionary,” and, in the depths of many nights, his fumbling attempts to convert his rustic French-Canadian into cosmopolitan Parisian had provided a good laugh. The Paris girls did make him feel a little self-conscious, like a redneck newly arrived in the big city, but they were almost all kind and generous girls, thoughtful and easy to get along with. More important, he enjoyed their boldness and their sexual style: they were much more physically open than the Americans or Brits; some insisted on being spanked like bad girls and others wanted to be wrestled down like wild animals, while still others simply swooned and sighed like modern dancers and then shared a cigarette with him after. But it was all entirely comfortable; they came into his life and then wandered off again with an ease he found surprising.
There were two of them, Marie and Nicole, whom he had dated for lengthy stretches, taking one skiing up in Morzine, the other sailing along the coast of Brittany, but in each case, the girls had drifted away, taking longer and longer to follow up on the messages he left until ultimately his calling cards went completely unanswered. He did not mind, for while he had been happy enough to buy them the cigarettes, silk stockings, and chewing gum they desired, he sensed they were aiming for the sort of men who also came with their own ski chalets, open cars, and cruising yachts.
Occasionally, he would see a girl he had once been with riding along down the avenue on the back of a Vespa or drinking wine with another boy at a bar, and they would all innocently wave and smile. It all seemed perfectly natural, but after a while it began to wear on him, leaving him feeling as though all he had been to any of them was an exotic treat, “l’américain,” or, as the menus in town put it, “le dessert du moment.”
So, while he continued to date fairly regularly, going out dancing or catching a movie, he found spending a whole night with them to be what those pretentious British girls might have labeled an existentially empty event. He didn’t quite know what to call it. All he knew was that when he woke up with some new girl sleeping beside him, either in his flat or hers, he often felt substantially less whole, as though he was losing a piece of himself through every encounter, slowly dissipating, dissolving, bits of him vanishing into the vacuum of the world, and, with every conquest, becoming in some manner more hollowed out. It was exactly the opposite feeling he had expected to feel with these sorts of heady, libidinal victories. He had been raised to believe they would provide him with some sense of validation; that’s what he’d gathered from the way his uncles had talked about women (“babes,” “honeys,” “broads”) when the men took him hunting up in northern Michigan. They’d boozily spit out ribald stories of stag parties and bawdy burlesque shows involving generous fat-bottomed and bosomy women who would put two tits in your face for a quarter but whose names no one could ever recall.
The emptiness was easy to shake off and move on from, but it had its effect. He had lately found himself less inclined to chase the pretty smiles of Paris and spent more time wandering the streets alone, eating in the bistros and reading the paper or sitting up late with a book, a Herman Wouk novel, Hemingway’s Nick Adams tales, or a collection of Stephen Crane. He was not lonely, but he had grown isolated. He was ready for something different. Perhaps that was why he was here, he thought, glancing around the bar, waiting for his charismatic new friend who seemed like the sort who would come primed with volumes of trivial anecdotes, personal connections, and pertinent intelligence.
The couple sitting at the bar to the right of Will had been busily necking since he got there, and although it was still early, there was already a man at a table nearby apparently asleep though still upright in his chair. The sleeping man’s head bobbed, either along with the music or simply out of reflex, it was impossible to tell. Will finished his Pernod and put out his cigarette and was rising to leave when he felt a tap on his shoulder.
“Hullo, hullo,” said Oliver with a smile. “Sorry we’re late. William, I’d like you to meet Boris and Ned.” He nodded to the odd couple standing beside him. One of them—Will guessed it was Boris because the man looked like a parody of a Russian brute—loomed at a height Will guessed to be somewhere north of six foot six. This Boris was a lantern-jawed man with a chest as broad as a Klondike bear’s and shoulders so wide they blocked Will’s view of the rest of the bar. His features wore an unpleasant expression as if his face had been shoved into a dingy, wet dishrag. The woman standing beside him was as short as Boris was tall, maybe five feet at best. She wore her hair in a short brown bob, and her vulpine face held the same dismal, distasteful scowl as the Russian’s. She was puffing a nickel cigar that made her look like an ornery cowboy from some old Walter Brennan oater. “Boris’s real name isn’t actually Boris,” explained Oliver with a chuckle, “but it suits him to a T, don’t you think? On the other hand, Ned here really is named Ned. Ha ha. She looks meaner than she is, Will, I promise, though I warn you she is an absolute terror at dominoes—play that woman at your own risk. So, then”—he leaned over conspiratorially toward Will—“did you bring that knife?”
Will was about to answer when Ned tugged at Oliver’s sleeve and pointed to the neighboring table.
“Oh my, look! There’s Jake!” Oliver shouted, grabbing Will by the arm and leading him over to where the sleeping man was still bobbing his head. “Jake, old man! Wake up!” he said, kicking the man’s chair.
The man lurched awake and gave them a wild, disoriented look, then grinned and settled down again. “Oh, Oliver … yes … hello.”
“Pull yourself together, friend, we have vital things to discuss. Come, I’ve reserved a private room for us in the back.” Oliver strode to the far corner and dramatically pulled aside a black curtain, revealing a small, dimly lit table set for five.
Will followed as they filed in and each found a seat. “Let me introduce our new friend,” Oliver said, pulling the curtain closed and sitting down to complete the circle. “This is William, he works with the agency. And, Will, these fine people all work with me in one capacity or another. We each have unique skills, passions, motivations, but what we definitely share is a collective dream of what this city could be, and what we can do here, so I’d like—”
“Wait, these guys work for you? I don’t understand.” Will did not mean to interrupt, but he was confused. He looked around at the cast of characters. “Didn’t you say you were a writer?”
“Oh my. Did I? I am sorry, ha ha.” Oliver laughed amiably. “You know, I thought the agency would have provided you with a bit of background. Honestly, we must be less important than I like to think we are. Fine, then, let me back up. I am a writer of sorts, yes, from time to time, but more pertinent to this particular conversation is the fact that I am the founder and editor of The Gargoyle Press, and these good people here are, in one capacity or another, some of my esteemed colleagues.”
“The Gargoyle Press? Is that some sort of a magazine? I’m afraid I haven’t heard of it.”
Oliver forced a smile. “Ah, yes, Will, it is a literary magazine; we publish fiction, essays, good and bad poetry, interviews with whatever ambitious authors we can corner, and occasional artwork. But if they didn’t tell you about all that, then I’m not surprised that you are ignorant of our journal’s existence. At the moment, we enjoy only a modest circulation.”
“‘A modest circulation’ is a modest exaggeration,” muttered Ned.
“Ha ha, yes, thank you, Ned. Possibly so.” Oliver grinned. “Which is exactly what we’re here to discuss tonight.”
“Okay, I see. I think I get it. You have some sort of a problem with your circulation?” Will said, slowly coming to life. So far, the entire gathering had been confusing him, but now he felt he was getting a grasp on the situation. Very often people approached him for advice on how to advertise their small businesses; in fact, only a few months ago the little Basque fellow who ran his neighborhood’s corner bistro had asked for his help in attracting more patrons. Will had gotten the boys in the paste-up room to design some new window signage for the Basque, bolding the font up a bit and adding drop shadows so the name would pop out at passersby, and though it was unclear that it had actually helped increase business, the Basque was happy now and always ready to pour Will a Belgian ale on the house. He had then connected Will with a florist and a haberdasher, and Will had his people redo their logos. Will hadn’t charged any of them a dime; his agency earned so much good money from their large accounts that even thinking about billing these tiny shops would be a foolish distraction. But these acts of generosity made him feel more like a part of the real Parisian community, less like a tourist who was merely passing through.
So now he sat up and happily offered his help again. “Listen, maybe the agency could give you some advice on your ad sales, or drum up some subscriber interest? I’m sure there’s a whole bunch of action items we can put together. Have you ever thought about running some sort of a mail-in contest, or a sweepstakes…” By the time the last words had left his lips, the entire group was gazing at him with a set of stunned expressions that made him stop, suspecting that he had, in some inexplicable manner, gravely misspoken.
Boris coughed. Ned stared down at the table. “Gosh, well, a sweepstakes you say? I’m not sure that is exactly what we want,” Oliver said slowly. “Actually, it’s not even about wants, it’s really about needs, and our needs are entirely … well now, I am confused, what I actually both want and need at this moment is a drink. How about I get some whiskey for us?” With that, he jumped up and dashed out of the room.
As the curtain settled behind him, a silence fell over the table. Will felt awkward. Nobody said anything for a few minutes until, finally, Ned turned to Jake. “While we have a minute,” she said, “Boris tells me your doctor friend is looking for more help. I know the sorts he’s been working with, he can do better. Boris and I are both willing to sign on, but the doctor will have to pay.”
A sleepy-eyed Jake nodded. “I don’t know if I’d recommend working with the doctor, Ned. But if you want I’ll pass the word on.”
“Yes. Please do. With all these cuts, we could use the money.”
Will had no idea what they were talking about, but felt happy not to be the center of attention. At that moment, though, Jake looked over at him, seemingly wanting to shift the subject away from whatever Ned had brought up. “So, friend, what department in the agency do you work for, anyway?”
Will smiled, feeling unaccountably nervous. “I run some accounts for the agency here in town. Well, I help manage one of our European clients here. I used to do more but, you know”—he shrugged—“politics.”
“Clients?” said Jake. “Interesting. What sort of clients have you worked for?”
“Oh, I’ve worked for all sorts,” said Will. “I’ve done research and media work for automotive, pharmaceutical, hotels, soaps. Anyone who wants or needs advertising.”
Jake gave him a curious look. “Advertising? What do you mean, advertising?”
“Well, I’ve worked on all the kinds of accounts an advertising agency works on.”
“So, you work at an advertising agency?”
“Yes, of course, where else would I work?”
Nobody answered Will’s question. Jake sat looking stunned while Ned had a single snort of a laugh and Boris broke into a grin. This disturbed Will, especially when no one offered up an explanation as to what they found so entertaining. Except for Ned’s chortling, the table once again was quiet. They all sat there in what Will now found to be an exceedingly uncomfortable silence until the curtain was dramatically pulled back and Oliver returned to the room carrying two bottles of whiskey precariously topped with glasses. Seeing their expressions, he stopped. “Well, well, well, what did I miss?”
“Oliver, I’ve got some news of your friend here,” said Jake, pointing at Will. “He doesn’t work at the agency, he works in an advertising agency.”
“My gosh, really?” Oliver looked befuddled. “But I thought you said you worked with Bob Brandon at the agency?”
“No, I only, I only meant…” Suddenly understanding too much, and blushing with embarrassment, Will rose quickly from his chair. “I’m sorry, I probably need to go, you all have things to discuss and I … have an appointment. There seems to be a bit of a mix-up here anyway. I’m not sure I can help you. I actually only know Bob Brandon socially.” Will’s heart was racing, nobody was supposed to know the kind of work he did. This odd series of events had almost tricked him into betraying the very thing he was never supposed to disclose, a fact he had not told anyone the entire time he had been in the city. How stupid. He couldn’t believe he had even let on that he knew Brandon in the first place. How had that happened? He remembered his conversation with Oliver at the party, how easily and innocently Brandon’s name had slipped from his tongue, all because he was talking to another convivial American. Had either of them mentioned the Central Intelligence Agency that night? It was hard to remember. The sinking feeling got worse. Maybe it had all been a setup. What if Oliver was in with the Russians, and the two pretty girls at dinner had been agents too. If that was the case, then, Will realized, he was playing way out of his league. He should have stayed at his desk, working on reports. He was really better as a manager, no more than a glorified clerk, not someone who should be out wandering the streets of Paris, spilling his guts to any smart fellow who happened to cross his path. He should be home, working, he still had the Bayer report to finish, what was he doing out on the town?
“Relax, Will, it’s fine, a simple misunderstanding.” Oliver seemed to shrug it off. “How about a drink?”
“Thanks, but no.” Will pulled on his coat as quickly as he could. “It was great meeting you all, really, thanks. Honestly, I’ve gotta run.” Putting on his hat, he nodded a quick farewell to the slightly stunned table. Sitting together in the dimly lit room, watching as he stumbled over himself, the four staring figures collectively reminded him of a dark gathering from some somber Rembrandt. Will pushed the curtain aside and the sound of Cannonball Adderley’s sax blasted loud in his face, sending his head spinning even faster as he bolted for the door.
A cold light rain was falling. The air was foggy and smelled of sooty chimneys. Looking up and down the street, he couldn’t see any cabs coming so he walked fast toward the metro, hoping that the evening air would clear his mind. Shoving his hands into his overcoat pockets to stay warm, he jammed his palm against the long knife he had brought along to show Oliver. He realized he had forgotten all about it and thanked the Lord that it was folded shut.
The knife was sentimental: a fourteen-inch antique ox-bone folding knife his grandfather had given him for Christmas when Will was only six or seven, still too young for such a gift. He could remember his grandfather telling him it was from Toledo, Spain, which had sounded funny to Will since he was pretty sure Toledo was down the road from Detroit someplace. He remembered too his grandfather explaining that this particular knife was best for fishing, and that there was a whole range of other knives he could collect that were good for hunting, campfire cooking, and woodwork. “What about a knife for fighting?” Will remembered asking. “Oh,” said his grandfather. “Every knife is good for fighting. Even a butter knife can kill a man, if you know where to shove it.” Will remembered how all his uncles had laughed at that.
He had worshiped his grandfather, a sly-eyed wily French-Canadian who had worked the shipping lanes up in Sault Ste. Marie before moving south to open a boatyard on the shores of Lake St. Clair. He taught Will dozens of knots and was always pulling exotic gifts from his coat pockets: tortoise-patterned Petoskey stones, banded agates, and Sauk Indian arrowheads that he had found while sailing the Great Lakes. But the knife was the gift Will treasured most. He could remember playing alone with it in his backyard as a boy, opening and closing it repeatedly, mesmerized by its sharp, hungry mechanical snap. He would dance around in the shadow of the trees; in his childish fantasies he had moved with the grace of Errol Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks as he stabbed at the air in his imaginary swashbuckling battles, his knife the most potent point of realism in his whimsical adventures. As he grew, he had always kept that gift close, on the shelf at his bedside as a child and tucked into his desk drawer in college before bringing it along with him to Paris. Now here he was, out on a real misadventure, fumbling along and banging his hand with it. He remembered that Errol Flynn had died only the week before, he’d read it in the paper, and Fairbanks had died years ago. His grandfather was gone as well for almost two decades now. All the cavalier and capable adventurers were vanishing, and there were only awkward oafs like him left stumbling on the earth. Will wondered why Oliver had even wanted him to bring the knife in the first place. It didn’t matter, he told himself, it was none of his business now. But he had a hard time putting the evening’s events behind him.
As he stood beneath the white-tiled arch of the metro platform waiting for the train, his anxiety nagged at him. “It’s okay, it’s okay,” he kept trying to calm himself: after all, nothing of importance had been revealed, the secrets were still safe. It was even sort of funny. How could you confuse the cloak-and-dagger world of the Central Intelligence Agency with a bunch of guys writing snappy jingles for laxatives and breakfast cereals? It was ridiculous. By the time the metro pulled in and he found a seat in the train car, he had finally begun to relax. It had been a simple misunderstanding, that was all. He could clear it all up. When he handed the Bayer file over on Monday he would tell Brandon all about it, if only to stay on the safe side. Maybe he could make an amusing story out of it, that’s what his grandfather would have done, with a chuckle and some spit.
He changed to the Line 1 at Châtelet, boarding a train that was nearly empty. The only other passenger in his car was a solitary woman sitting on the bench halfway down. She smiled politely at him. As he found his seat, she said something to him he could not quite hear over the train’s rattle. He had never seen strangers speak on the train except to complain or argue. It was one of the things he liked about Paris, people generally left you alone. But she was pretty so he moved closer.
“Pardonnez-moi?” he asked.
“La nuit, c’est belle,” she repeated. She spoke with an accent of some kind. Polish? Russian?
“Yes, it’s a very nice night, if you like rain,” he answered in French. He grinned and she smiled back. They did not speak as the stations passed. He looked at his feet and then looked up to read the signs posted in the car, but his eyes kept wandering back to her. She wore a red sweater, yellow scarf, and a simple beret that her long black hair spilled out, falling down around her shoulders. Her cheekbones were high, framing a pair of strong, clear blue irises that managed to find his gaze whenever it wandered back to her face. Then they would both turn away with a blush and a smile. A small dark bruise below her right eye made him feel instinctively protective. Had she been hit? Who would hit a woman?
Finally, as they approached the George V station, she said, “I’m sorry, have we met before?”
“No, maybe, I don’t know, I think I would remember if we had.” He fumbled his words, embarrassed and awkward. The train screeched to its stop and he rose to leave. He thought about asking for her number, but it felt too awkward, too sudden. Still, that gaze.
“Well then,” she said, rising to go, “until we meet again.”
He nodded politely. As they left the car, she turned toward the station’s southeast exit. He thought about going back to stop her, to say something funny or charming, at the very least to catch her eye one more time, but it seemed silly and he was tired. Although it was still relatively early, it already felt like it had been a long night and he did not have time for any more foolishness. Up on the street the rain had stopped. He turned off the Champs-Elysées and walked up into his neighborhood, where the comforting scents of bread baking and simmering kitchens seemed to leak out from every apartment and café. It was late into the dinner hour and the aromas of roasting lemon chickens, garlic sausages, and peppered lamb all spilled onto the street, mingling there with the pungent petrichor that always followed an autumn rain. Will realized he had not eaten yet, so he stopped in at the Basque’s place for a bowl of steamed mussels and a pichet. There was a newspaper lying on the table that he picked up and read. An article described how the world’s leading nations had met at a conference and divided up Antarctica, cutting it up into slices like pie. He paid the check and went home.
There was no mail in his slot and the elevator was slow going up. When he finally opened the door to his dark apartment, Boris hit him hard in the face with the phone book, knocking him down onto the cold, tiled floor.
A light was turned on and he opened his eyes. “Hullo.” Oliver stood above him, wearing an expression that reminded Will of the grin young boys give their captured butterflies right before they begin plucking off the wings. Then Will passed out again.
Witches’ Song One
Wait, wait, don’t rush past too fast,
such the busy bolting red squirrel, you there
scurrying around the hard, bare field, to what?
That there? That nettled haven of a hedge?
Careful, teeth may lie in those shadows too.
Glance back here first, through the tumble of time
yes, here, see that bundle of dirty laundry
stuffed now with so much useless flesh,
all spilled about to soil the pure snow,
with deep red blood, leaking free
from my cracked, hollowing husk,
as sisters and life all gallop away
with freshly stolen horses.
Mourning, lonely and lone as the black moon,
I trailed the four, trudging till I found my Lyda
wandering lost like some untethered blinking mule,
a sole specter dragging wet
along those rough timbered banks of ice,
the shoreline stacked with bleached stone and winter branches
as gray as my drained, dried veins.
Lyda was sputtering, spitting out scales,
already talking dumb as a dead fish.
I told her to come along and she came.
The trails of the dead plod on,
we never stop for feast or song,
following beneath winter’s skeleton trees,
our weight no greater than a hard frost’s whisperings.
We finally sensed Basha too, looming
invisible, sulking, and brooding,
her only substance the shade of darkness
that comes to murderous concentration.
Silent as slate, hear me say solemnly,
her ghost frightens even me.
So, some company I’ve got,
a river’s raw stew, a stomach’s turgid gas,
the two each saying nothing I can fathom
but poking, pointing, divining a path.
Lacking the firmness of fates, we are no more than
broken pianos, warped keys, shattered hammers,
our sheet music dancing off with the wind, blowing loose and bleak,
but we have our certain melody, yes, we do, don’t we?
See the girl meet the young man?
See the man meet the young man?
See the young man become what then?
Not yet? Maybe never?
All souls believe they make their own way
and spin out their path’s filament through bold free will
and yet we are the spiders, aren’t we, yes,
voracious and certain,
shuffling on, luring and stalking,
tracing out the perimeter
of those tautened spans.
Basha is the one guiding the way,
with the sure force of a cemetery’s gravity,
she and we go here and there
and then she stops from time to time
to softly seethe with hissing vipers, to hoot with shrewd owls,
and to whisper with other sapient creatures.
She is our vengeful matchmaker
all thoughts set fast
on village death.
There is a set point, a marked destination,
And while we cook, chop, and boil,
I cannot say what its flavor will be.
But watching our busy Lyda, helping too,
I’m fairly sure it will taste like fish.
Exiting the metro early before work, Charles Vidot took his time strolling to the precinct house. Maroc, his recently appointed superior and now day-to-day nemesis, had posted the week’s assignments the evening before and, spitefully it seemed, had assigned Vidot an extra shift. This meant for two nights a week Vidot would have to remain at the station until two in the morning. It was not an assignment an officer of Vidot’s seniority and rank should have received, but it seemed he had, in some manner, accidentally initiated a battle of wills with his new boss and this was one of the consequences. Well aware of the dynamics of power, Vidot did not like the odds he was facing.
After pausing briefly to pick out his usual Reinette apple from atop the pile at the corner market and offering, as usual, to pay the toothless grocer for the fruit (the man would never take a sou), Vidot went on his way, continuing to mull over this slightly sticky political situation. He knew from experience that any sustained antagonism, even repressed, against a superior was ultimately going to be self-defeating, as bitter words could easily slip out and a carefully managed career could quickly be swept onto the ash pile. He knew he would have to find a way to extricate himself safely from this thorny dilemma. He was not worried, Vidot was a practical, pragmatic man with a keen strategic sense; quixotic idealism was far from his style, he knew full well that merely despising Maroc was not a plan nor was it an option. He had his retirement to consider, and a wife to provide for, so he knew he would stay focused, make a few prudent, tactical adjustments, and work his way to better ground. The bitterness within him began to subside, dissolving into that more familiar pleasure as the small smile crept across his lips and he found himself actually savoring this little riddle. Climbing the last steps to the station, Vidot was so preoccupied with his thoughts that he was almost run over by Officer Bemm rushing out through the doors. The young man looked excited.
“Monsieur! Good morning, I was trying to find you! I received a message this morning from one of the antiques shops, an old woman tried to sell an antique clock.”
“A clock?” Vidot had to pause for a second before his eyebrows shot up. “Ah yes, a clock, I remember! Well done! Let us go immediately. Yes! Get a car. Right away.”
Minutes later they found the antiques shop at the edge of the 6th. It was a narrow crowded street and they had to park more than a block away. The thought of making real progress in this mystery sent all of Vidot’s issues with Maroc flying from his mind. Entering the store, he had to force himself to suppress his giddiness. Now was the time to act professionally.
Unlike the spacious and well-appointed antiques shops that sat toward the center of town, this store was a hodgepodge of clutter. As they worked their way down the narrow aisle of cabinets and bureaus, a small, fat man with a bushy mustache and bulging eyes popped out from the back of the shop.
“Je peux vous aider?”
“Yes, monsieur, you called the police station and left a message,” said Bemm.
The man immediately switched into a state of extreme urgency. “Mon dieu, you’re almost too late, she’ll be here any moment. Quick, come into my storeroom, vite, vite!”
He led them into the rear room that was even more packed with antiques. They stepped gingerly around piled-up chandeliers, rows of paintings, and stacked-up jewelry boxes until they could find a space to talk. “She came in as I was closing up last night,” said the man. “I told her I did not have the cash on hand and that she should return today. She has a mantel clock, late-eighteenth-century, very fine craftsmanship, rococo style. Worth more than a few thousand francs, I’m sure. How a Gypsy like her got her hands on it I cannot imagine. I called you right away, of course. I run a very honest operation.”
The inspector nodded respectfully.
“So, what sort of crime is this?” the shopkeeper went on, rubbing his hands together. “Is she a thief? Some kind of gang leader? Is this contraband from the war? I only ask because I know the reward will likely be based on the nature—”
Vidot made a small tsk-tsk sound. He never liked to share information about cases he was investigating. He was relieved that the tale of the Parisian man impaled impossibly high on the irons above rue Rataud, had so far, miraculously, not appeared in the local papers. He did not need the attention. He would have thought an incredible death like that would have headlined as the crime of the year, but Mitterrand’s scandal, Cuba’s charismatic young Fidel Castro, and the ongoing unrest in Algiers continued to eat up the headlines. Vidot thought these were indeed amazing times, when a man could be hung high on the street with a spike through his neck and nobody paused to notice. He took the shopkeeper’s hand and patted it gently. “Patience, sir. If the information proves to be useful, we will happily reward you. But first, please tell us, when is this Gypsy woman set to return?”
“At any moment! That is why I had to bring you to this room. Now wait here. When she comes in you can pounce on her!”
Vidot shook his head. “No thank you, we will watch from across the street. Simply pay her, and please act as naturally as possible.”
He and Bemm went out the storeroom door, which opened onto the side street and, walking around the corner, entered a pharmacy located right across the street. There were no customers in the shop, and while Vidot explained the situation to the couple behind the counter, Bemm turned around the “Closed” sign in the front door. Then the two policemen positioned themselves discreetly behind the window and waited.
After a little while Bemm asked, “Would you like me to go get you coffee?”
“No, no,” said Vidot, “this should not take long.”
“Why don’t we simply arrest her?”
Vidot smiled. “Do you think a weak old woman could hoist a fat man up onto those spikes? No, there is more to this story. Let’s get to know her a little bit and see what we can learn.”
Twenty minutes later they saw a squat ancient woman carrying a large heavy package work her way down the street and turn into the antiques shop. Five minutes later she came out again empty-handed. As they started for the door, Bemm said, “There’s a radio in the car, I could call for assistance.”
“Please,” Vidot scoffed. “I believe we can handle her ourselves. You’re in uniform, she’ll easily spot you. So stay far behind and keep your eye on me, I can stay close.”
Trailing behind her, Vidot carefully kept his distance, subtly gesturing back to Bemm, who was more than a block behind, to keep a proper length away. This proved to be wise since the old woman stopped and looked around every so often. Vidot could not tell if she was being careful or simply trying to get her bearings. He was not particularly concerned; after years of experience he knew how to follow a suspect unobserved, and with the streets bustling with midday shoppers, the officers had no trouble staying on her trail.
To Vidot, she seemed painfully old. Watching her swollen varicose legs work their way down the lane, Vidot sensed the ache of every step. As he slowly followed her through the maze of cobblestone streets—pausing occasionally to window-shop whenever she glanced around—Vidot found himself preoccupied with thoughts on the expansive arc of life, how slowly old age stretches out long after youth has flown by, and how, he thought as he watched her make her way, the nomadic people of earlier times must have built those first simple towns and villages for no other reason than to give their own ancient mothers and fathers a place to sit down and rest. Vidot dreaded the thought of aging, his own father had died relatively young, in his early fifties. But his mother was nearing ninety now and was cared for at home by a private nurse. Of course Vidot was glad she was still alive, not only because he loved her, but also because, after his father passed away, she had actually grown noticeably kinder, even gay. Every afternoon in her sun room, the nurse would play old phonograph records while his mother happily waltzed with invisible partners. Perhaps she danced with the memory of his father, Vidot imagined, or maybe lost suitors recalled from another age.
Following behind this tired creature now, Vidot had a feeling those legs of hers could never dance, let alone carry her another block, and, sure enough, she turned off into a small dead-end lane. Vidot peeked around the corner and saw her disappear down into a basement apartment.
Bemm caught up with him moments later. “Come,” Vidot said, “let us see what our new friend has to say.”
The old woman did not look surprised when she answered their knock at her door, and her eyes showed little concern or interest as they introduced themselves. Vidot felt as though they could have been electricians or plumbers she had been expecting. “Fine, yes, hello, come in,” she said, shutting the door tightly behind them.
Vidot was immediately intrigued by the contents of the small, packed apartment. The light streaming in was tinted yellow and the air was heavy and mote-laden. Every nook was stuffed and filled. Stacks of books labeled in Cyrillic script were packed and shoved roughly into the uneven shelves, and more were piled crookedly in the corners, all topped and lined with tied bundles of dried herbs, jars of pickled roots, and bole-colored soils. Small growths of mushrooms cropped from mildewed cracks in the windowsill, and as Vidot peered into an open copper pot, he saw tiny orange minnow creatures swimming about in a brackish brown-and-mustard-colored liquid. The creatures seemed to glow.
“Bah, don’t touch that pot. That’s dinner,” the old woman said, trundling off into her kitchen. “I was about to put a kettle on, would you like tea? Who did you say you are again?”
“I am Inspector Vidot and this is my colleague, Officer Bemm,” he said, now trying to decipher the titles of the books on the shelves. “We have a few questions regarding the clock you offered the shopowner down the street.”
“Mmmn,” she said. “Did you say you want tea or no?”
“We do not need anything to drink, madame, but thank you for your kind offer.”
Vidot and Bemm listened to the banging about of cabinets, dishes, and pots before the old woman emerged again from the kitchen. Now clutching a steaming mug, she brushed by them and sat herself down on a threadbare upholstered chair in the corner. “The clock? The clock? Mmmn. Oh, yes, that clock”—she shook her head with a scowl—“a girl gave it to me yesterday.”
“May we ask who this girl is?”
“A girl, she is a girl, she is trouble, she is bad news. Her name is Zoya Fominitchna Polyakov. She was moving, leaving town, and she did not need the clock. I certainly did not want it either, look at this stupid place. Where would I put such a pretty thing?” She kicked the beat-up ottoman in front of her. “No room. Nothing pretty here. Ha. Plus, at my age, staring at a clock is worse than a dagger in the eye. It’s like kissing the enemy. Ugh, I don’t have to tell you about that. But as I say, this girl, Zoya, she owed me money, so I took this clock. You want to sit down? You two make me nervous.”
Vidot and Bemm both sat awkwardly on the couch. Vidot tried to suppress his smile. “This is all very useful information. And can I get your name?”
The old woman leaned forward and pronounced her name very clearly, “My name is Elga Sossoka.”
“You are Russian?”
“Yes, but I left there in, what, ah”—she counted in the air with her fingers—“1917.”
“You’ve been here since then?” asked Vidot.
“I’ve been all over.” She went back to sipping her tea, and then stopped. “Why are you grinning like such an idiot?”
“To be honest, madame, I have been working on this case for a little while now and we have had no real leads. So it is very refreshing to receive even this small bit of information.”
“Ah! I see, I see. Ha ha.” Her eyes lit up, suddenly she seemed bright and lucid, almost young. “So you’re that sort, you like to hop about and think on puzzles, yes, of course, of course, hmmm, yes, then you should see it, a problem, a strange troubling problem you can help me with. You certainly look like a man who can figure things out, so this will be easy for you, I am sure.” The old woman balanced her tea precariously on the ottoman and, stiffly pulling herself up, waddled over to the bookshelf. Watching her reaching up to dig through the shelves, Vidot again sympathized with the woman’s aches. He found himself wondering at the strange ratio between pain and age, how when we are young and without suffering we lead such careless lives, physically risking all without the slightest thought, and it is only when we’re older, when we’re given such misery in bone, joint, and tooth, when our sense of smell and taste are long gone, our eyes have clouded over, and our ears have waxed shut, it is then that we cling to life so fiercely, struggling to continue on when we are only little more than a compendium of agonies.
“Ah, there it is,” she said. The ancient woman was up on her tiptoes now, grunting and reaching toward a dusty, thick tome perched high on the shelf. “I think I can reach it.” Vidot was about to rise up to help when, in her clumsiness, the old woman knocked two jars down onto the floor. They both fell with a loud crack as the glass shattered and a dark, red dirt spilled out onto the rug. “Ah, forgive me, such an ass,” she said, leaning over.
“Oh, no need to clean—” Vidot began to say, when suddenly she bolted upright, letting loose a loud raspy scream and throwing handfuls of the dirt into each of the policemen’s faces. The mixture of dirt flooded his lungs, and immediately Vidot felt immobilized, incapable of even turning to look at Bemm. None of the words shouting out of the woman’s mouth were recognizable, they did not even sound like language, merely a serpentine thread of barks, hisses, shrieks, and throaty rasps. Veins bulged out of her brow and neck as she lunged backward, grabbing another jar off the shelf and fiercely shattering it onto the floor. More dust billowed around them, blotting out everything but the thick streaks of ocher light streaming through the curtains. Vidot felt weighted shadows come crawling in around him; looking down, he was shocked to see his fingernails extending backward, running up his arm, splitting open his flesh. His body shook and his old skin smoked off him, like dry autumn leaves burning in a pile. Then his spine suddenly twisted and contracted as extreme cramps in his thighs and stomach caused him to lurch over and collapse onto the floor. He caught a glimpse of Bemm as he fell down, his partner reeling too, his face covered in a sheet of blood and his mouth open in a silent scream.
Looking up, the last thing he saw before it all went black was the old woman’s pained expression and her hands madly weaving around in the air, as if she were playing some great and terrible harp. Then the pain ceased. He felt as though he slept for months, maybe years, and when he opened his eyes Vidot was stunned at how impossibly large the room had become.
Zoya sat on the bench across from the apartment building and gazed up at the distant lit window. She was almost certain the man had not seen her slipping up behind him as he left the metro station. He had been easy to pursue, she simply trailed him at a short distance, sticking to the shadowed side of the street. After trailing him from the station to the restaurant, she watched him eat alone as she sat perched behind a column at the bar, disappearing behind the menu whenever he glanced her way. After that, it was only a few more steps of stalking to reach his apartment building. Moments after he disappeared into the lobby the lone light went on up on the seventh floor, so she assumed that was his home. She watched and waited and thought.
First impressions were critical to her, though she could not always articulate why she chose one prey over another. From his pressed suit and his clean-cut style, she had taken him to be a businessman of some sort. He seemed both a little less successful and also slightly brighter than poor Leon. Perhaps it was his American accent that drew her in; she liked the idea of an outsider who would not know the things he should be suspicious of, the subtle cues that might make a young woman from a foreign land too intriguing. Each of them had come a vast distance, from opposite horizons, which made every question and each curiosity that much easier to imbue with myths and fables and lies.
From time to time she wondered if she did not, in fact, get to choose her prey at all, if perhaps it was the long hand of fortune that marked the quarry. She did not like the possibility that she had no control. “Fate is as fickle as a drunk at a piano,” Elga used to say. “Listen to it at your own risk.”
Zoya saw shadows move up in the room, not one but two silhouettes. A lover? A wife? Wives made things easier, keeping men preoccupied and paranoid. Guilt came with the busy building of excuses and alibis, and often introspection too, and she preferred her men looking backward and inward, anywhere, really, so long as it was not too closely at her.
But there was also the chance that a wife might not bode well for Zoya, it generally depended on the man’s predisposition. In their brief exchange on the metro, this one had left her with the impression of being almost too uncomplicated. Men such as this, once married, often worked hard to stay true. She didn’t meet many such men. Still, one with a solid faith in his vows was never wholly unconquerable, she had plenty of tricks tucked in her charms, but it often took effort. She was more comfortable with men of duplicity. The sinister ones were so much easier for her to handle. After all, that was where she had first begun.
Her first adventure with a boy had been Grigori. She worked then at the estate belonging to Grigori’s father, a prosperous but minor count who spent most of his time out hunting with his hounds. Her own father, Foma, managed the stables. Her mother had died giving birth to Zoya, and so she was raised alone with her father in a small cottage that sat behind the manor house. Grigori was the count’s only child, and the household had let them play together; they enjoyed hiding games in the gardens and skipping stones in the fish pond. By the time she was old enough to begin making the beds, he had already been sent off to a military academy.
His school was too far away for him to return for every holiday, so she did not see him again until the late harvest break. Almost immediately she sensed a change. He was now stiff and formal with her, and she found herself ducking his gaze. When he did look at her, it was as if he did not know her, the boyish spark gone, as if the light in his eyes had been snuffed out. The change in his demeanor made her young heart ache in a disorienting way, but she went about her duties, washing and steaming and laying out the clean towels and linens. Instinctively, she avoided him, staying as much as she could in the back of the house, but she could still hear his voice, bluntly ordering the servants about, shouting for Foma to saddle his horse. Evenings were filled with the sound of Grigori’s hard boots pacing across the floorboards of the large manor, walking room to room.
On the final afternoon before he was to return to school, she was changing the bedding in the guest wing when she heard his boots coming down the hall. She did not pause but kept focused on straightening the pillowcases and smoothing the duvet. The boots came closer, the echo of every step seemed almost deafening as he approached, until finally the sound stopped and she knew he was there in the room with her. She looked up. Grigori smiled at her. She smiled too, blushing with relief, for finally she had a sign of warmth from him. Then she paused, nervous again, sensing that his smile was not that of the boy she once knew. It came with a steel glint she did not recognize. “It is my birthday,” he said.
She smelled the liquor on his breath as his cold hand grabbed at the back of her neck, pushing her down onto the bed. She did not struggle much, for if she hurt him she sensed there would only be more trouble.
Seven weeks later her angst-ridden and nervous father prepared to go talk with Grigori’s father, the master of the house. Foma was a proud man, he wanted what was right, and as he stood in front of the small stove, rocking nervously back and forth on the balls of his feet, his hands shoved deep in his pockets, he carefully practiced what he would say. He did not expect Grigori to marry Zoya, clearly that was not possible. But Zoya had not asked for this, she was a good girl. They were a decent and God-fearing family, devoted and loyal. Foma knew incidents like these occurred in every big house, but he did not know what was supposed to happen. If his wife were alive she could provide advice, but alone, with a daughter, what could he do? Perhaps he could be moved into a new position in a relative’s house, or caretake the patriarch’s home in St. Petersburg? Or maybe there was a management position out among the field hands, with living quarters that were larger, to make room for the bigger family? Could they possibly arrange a marriage for Zoya to another worker? Foma was unclear what choices, if any, they had. But a solution would have to be found. He could only ask for his landlord’s advice, father to father.
She watched Foma change into his best shirt, proper buckle shoes, and church coat. She did not expect he would be gone long, but hours passed. She sat in mute terror, rocking in the chair, her heart a cold stone. Finally a sharp knock came at the door. She opened it to find Pyotor, the farm’s foreman and one of the few men her father considered a friend. His face held no kindness. “You need to be gone by sunrise, take what you can carry. Talk to anyone here, ask anyone for help, and you will be as dead as your father.” All the emotion that was frozen within her suddenly transformed into a wild, burning streak of lightning and she was about to scream out when Pyotor slapped her hard across the face. “You have killed a good man, whore. Feel free to kill yourself, only do not do it here. I do not want to clean up any more of your family’s blood.” His spit hit hot on her face, and before she could unflinch he had already slammed the door.
At midnight she started off with a small satchel of quickly gathered possessions. Her path only lit by the star-pocked sky and a broken shard of the moon, she did not know her destination. The closest village was more than two hours away but it was not worth aiming for, she knew the town well enough to realize that no one would offer her any warmth. Even the road itself was not safe, only months before a pair of men had been attacked and killed by bandits. She needed protection, she needed shelter. Finding a trail into the woods, she disappeared into the absolute darkness of the trees, exhausted and confused, hoping to find some mossy, soft spot to lay her head.
Fifty years past that night, the same fractured moon was hanging low, slightly obscured in the overcast sky, when the team of horses pulling Count Yaroslavich’s carriage suddenly stopped dead in their tracks. The driver waited as the stewards came out to watch the footman whip and kick at the immovable beasts. It was a quarter of an hour before the count himself finally stepped out from the coach. He did not want any more delay, he told the driver. He was due at his new grandson’s christening in three days.
The air was crisp, a frost had come early. The driver was offering his apology for the stubborn horses when the count silenced him and pointed out across the rough burdock field. “Who is that out there?”
A group of figures was emerging from the darkness. Preparing to defend himself from a possible bandit attack, the count thought first of calling for his saber. But then he saw it was nothing more than a small group of peasant women, four of them in all. A young one was leading the way, and as she neared the road, she pulled the wool scarf from her head and offered him the warm, comforting smile of an old friend. Her gaze shook at the doors of his memory, but he could not place it.
“Grigori? Grigori Yaroslavich? Today is your birthday, yes?”
He looked again at the women and spoke with the condescension that came naturally to him. “Yes, it is. But how do you know me?”
“Oh, you are a very great man, many know of you, and today I wanted to visit you on your birthday.”
“It does not matter. We are only here to tell you that though your journey has stopped, you will be the cause of much felicity and joy on this night. Your son may have died, but with every tragedy comes a bit of good, yes?”
He looked at her, puzzled by her words. He shook his head. “You’re confused, my son is in Tver, his wife gave birth to a baby boy, my grandson, there is—”
“Yes, yes, you will be the cause of much felicity and joy tonight,” she said again, and giving a quick bow, she turned and led her small group away. The count was confused, he felt like calling her back to ask her more questions or simply to slap her for her impertinence. The familiar tone with which she spoke to him, it was not right, especially not with the footmen watching. As the group of women slowly vanished across the field, becoming one with the cold darkness, he thought he could hear them singing in low tones out to the night.
Their song brought the wolves in. It was a large, hungry pack running fast, too many to fight off. The wolves curled round on every side, quickly closing the circle around the carriage. Someone tried to pass a gun up to the driver, from his perch he could have done some damage to the pack, but in his panic he lost his balance and slipped, falling down as the wolves dove in.
The count kicked at them, trying to keep them at bay. It was only once they had taken him down, when a wolf’s breath was in his face and he could see the glint of the moonlight in its bright grinning teeth, that he finally remembered the girl. He could not quite believe it, it seemed impossible, but there was no time to wonder.
Sitting on the bench in Paris, Zoya shivered and shook off the recollection. To distract herself, she opened her purse and pulled out a small mirror. She was curious to see what those shadows in the American’s apartment were up to. Muttering a tiny trick spell, she aimed the reflection carefully and coaxed the stubborn light to bounce and curve to her will. As she worked, the ancient echoes of Grigori’s desperate screams faded into the folds of her memory, along with all the agonies of stallions, servants, and centuries.
The happy sound of a clarinet was playing as Will came to. His hands were bound, his mouth gagged with some cotton cloth—what was it, a washcloth? A dirty sock? He hoped not. He looked around, trying to get his bearings. He was lying on the couch in his living room. Boris was standing against the doorframe, looking sleepy. The woman named Ned was busy at the desk, a tiny camera in her hands, taking pictures of what Will guessed was the Bayer file. An Artie Shaw record was playing on the turntable as Oliver stood by Will’s open closet, trying on various hats. Hearing Will waking up, he looked over with a smile. “Ah, you’re alive! Excellent, we were growing weary of waiting. I was just going to teach Boris here how to play pinochle, you know, to pass the time a bit.” He came and plopped down next to Will on the couch. “Jake had to go home to rest. Poor boy suffers from narcolepsy and there’s no medication for that. When I first met him back in school he would fall asleep on the football sidelines and the coaches all feared he’d had a concussion. Now he falls asleep in bars and comes off like the village drunk. Then last month he fell asleep in the front row of a preview for Roussin’s new play, the result of which, my lord, the poor playwright almost killed himself. Can you imagine? Context changes so much. Care for a drink?”
Will looked at him in dumb disbelief.
“Oh, let’s take the silly gag off. Sorry about that. It’s only that I didn’t want you going bonkers when you came to. What would the neighbors think? Boris, please.” The Russian untied the table napkin from around Will’s head and took what appeared to be a balled-up handkerchief out of his mouth.
“And my hands?” Will sputtered.
“Of course, of course.” Oliver blushed. “Clearly, this sort of nonsense really isn’t my forte. Boris?” The Russian untied Will’s wrists and Oliver handed him a drink. Will sat there with a knot of rage in his gut while he tried to play along with their game.
“Want to tell me why your friend’s photographing my file?” asked Will.
“Oh yes,” said Oliver, looking over to the desk as though he had forgotten Ned was there. “Well, every Monday Ned here goes to the embassy and gives the agency—not your agency, mind you, but the one we work with—a packet. If they don’t get the packet, they don’t pay us. Used to be we were on a regular retainer, but lately, I have to say, the Central Intelligence Agency has not been acting all that intelligent.”
Will sipped his drink and wondered what time it was. The record came to an end and the room was quiet except for the sound of Ned’s small camera clicking away and the soft slipping of the ice melting in their drinks. Oliver wandered over to the shelves and started looking through the record collection. “You’ve got some great stuff here, Will. Oscar Peterson, Teddy Wilson, very impressive. I would have thought you’d be more an aficionado of those sexed-up Negro spirituals Elvis Presley sings so well.”
Will still didn’t answer; he was too busy stewing with anger at himself and the mistakes he had made. Watching Ned at his desk working with her little camera, he realized he should not have brought the Bayer file home, it was not secure there, the apartment had no safe or even a file cabinet with a lock on it. But then again, he reminded himself, there had been no reason to expect anyone would ever break in like this. Will thought about informing Oliver that the file was already heading to their mutual friend Brandon, but he sensed that offering any more information would not be prudent. Better to stay quiet. He wondered what Brandon would think if he knew Oliver and his friends had gotten hold of the file. It wouldn’t be good. He could already imagine Brandon’s condescending look. Will realized he might be sent back to the States even sooner than he had expected.
“What made you come here? How did you know I would have anything you’d even want?” he asked.
“Oh.” Oliver shrugged. “At some point you mentioned that you were in research, so we thought we would pop by and see if you’d researched any subjects we might be interested in. Now, I don’t know if they’ll be interested, but it’s worth a shot.”
“How did you find my place?”
“Ah, a marvelous invention called the telephone book,” Oliver said, lowering the needle on the turntable. Lionel Hampton’s vibraphone started playing.
Will ignored his sarcasm. “Okay, well, so tell me this, how do you know I won’t call the police the minute you leave?”
Oliver went over to where his overcoat hung casually on the chair. Digging into the pocket, he pulled out a brown paper bag. “Well, here’s why. This bag contains your knife. We took it off you while you were resting and now it’s covered with your fingerprints. So, yes, I suppose you could call the police, but the minute one of us is picked up, that very knife of yours gets stabbed right into the side of some poor Pigalle prostitute.”
Will was shocked. “Wait, seriously? You’d kill a woman over this?”
Now it was Oliver’s turn to look incredulous. “Oh heavens, no, that would be some rude work. First of all, we need the girl alive to tell the policeman how you attacked her. Secondly, we like the girl. You’d actually like Celia too, she’s a zaftig one, quite roly-poly with a massive set of bosoms. They’re like a pair of great pointy Luftschiff Zeppelins. She claims they were the secret to her splendid success back when she danced in the Folies Bergère.”
“So, then you’ve done this before?”
“Boris has, Ned has, me, I’m only along for the ride.” Oliver leaned forward. “Look, I am so sorry about all this. It was a terrible mix-up. I suppose I had too many in me the other night, we had quite a time, didn’t we? And somehow I got the impression that you were with the agency. In fact I could swear you said you were. Anyway, I fear I’ve revealed some things I shouldn’t have, a bit more than was proper. Not very professional on my part, but there you have it. So, what to do? Originally, I had a much more innocent plan for the knife, but now I’m afraid I need a bit of leverage here. You understand, right? I’d be pretty sore if I were standing in your shoes, I know, but I can’t afford to have you running around like the proverbial loose cannon. Don’t worry, please, be a good fellow about it if you can. You have to understand, I’m merely trying to manage a rather sticky situation.”
Will was quiet for a moment, puzzled by Oliver’s clumsy blend of justifications, rationalizations, and attempts at friendly sympathy. “I can’t let you copy that file,” Will finally said.
Oliver shrugged. “Fine. I don’t want to be unreasonable. Give me some other shiny toy I can distract them with.”
Will nodded. “I’ll try. Tell me what they’re interested in so I know what to look for.”
Oliver shrugged. “Anything, really. Scraps on Algerians, hints on Russians, rumors of some potent or burgeoning movement, Fascist, Communist, doesn’t matter. Bits and bobs and curiosities, that’s all the agency wants. If it happens to be relevant to their work, they’ll pay me a little more for it.”
“Well, you’re not going to find anything along those lines at the advertising agency.”
“You’d be surprised. For instance, that Bayer file’s nice because they’ve been specifically asking us for anything related to the pharmaceutical world.”
Will wondered if that was somehow related to Brandon’s request for the Bayer file. He had never provided Will with any explanation for the agency’s various interests and Will had never bothered to ask. “Any idea why?”
“Ours is not to reason why, only do and die, yes?” He smiled. “I don’t think they honestly expect substantial information from us; it’s the evidence of our industry that counts. The key is to appear tireless and eager, to keep the action moving, keep the eye busy. We’re like those Puerto Ricans with the three-card monte games up in Spanish Harlem. It’s exhausting, really. Brandon’s people used to be much more generous. But now the money’s tight and they’ve got us sweating for every franc.”
Will nodded. “The U.S. is spending more in Indochina now.”
Oliver gave him a funny look. “Your friend Brandon tell you that?”
“Not too hard to figure it out from the papers,” Will lied, not wanting to draw any more attention to his relationship to the agency. “With France pulling out, makes sense that we’re going to have to go in there to keep things stable.”
Oliver smiled. “You know, they call Saigon ‘the Paris of the East.’ I’ve never been there, but I’m fairly certain I prefer the original.”
Across the room, Ned switched off the desk lamp and tucked the camera into her coat. “I’m done.”
Will pointed at the camera. “You’re not taking that, are you? I told you, it will be traced back to me.”
“I need something, Will. I haven’t got enough to make payroll at the journal right now and I desperately need that embassy cash.” Oliver buttoned up his jacket and reached for his overcoat. “I’m happy to make a trade, though. We can give you twenty-four hours. Find us a good tidbit and I will give you Ned’s film from tonight. Fair enough?”
“Not really, but I don’t see that I have much choice.”
“Yes, well, apologies again.” Oliver grinned. “Of course you know it’s all toward great and noble ends. And I am sorry for that bruise; at least it won’t be a bad black eye. Take some aspirin and knock it back with some scotch, that should do the trick.” He gave a half-salute farewell and followed the other two out the door.
Will listened to their footsteps disappear down the hall. Once he was sure they were gone, he got up and locked the deadbolt. He was surprised to find his initial anger already dissolving into some milder form of irritation. Why wasn’t he more upset with the three of them? Shouldn’t he be furious? Somehow Oliver’s apologies, combined with his bemused and detached manner, made it hard to take the odd course of events seriously. The entire evening simply seemed preposterous. He walked over to the bar and refilled his drink, rubbing his sore jaw as he looked around the room. Lionel Hampton’s mallets were bouncing across “Stardust” on the stereo and a few LP albums were spilled out across the table, empty cocktail glasses sat on coasters, a few hats lay on the floor, and the last of Boris’s Gitane was still smoking in the ashtray. In the past two hours he had been assaulted, tied up, and blackmailed, and yet his apartment looked no different than if he had been hosting a few friends for drinks. Perhaps that was why he wasn’t so angry, he thought. Maybe it had been nice to have company come over.
Elga pulled her head up from the sink and wiped the bits of vomit from her lips, sick with dizzy anger, her breath puffed full of hysterical rage. What a goddamned gutted sour fish, she thought, what stinking putrid marrow. That bitch. That horrible bitch. Zoya had led them here, she knew it, her bowels screamed and gargled this truth to her. Why? When they had first appeared at the door, panic’s hammer had struck hard at Elga’s tired heart. Policemen! In her home! What were they asking? Why? Their presence kicked her mind spinning, and now she could not remember much of what they had said, the echoes and static of their questions buzzed about her skull like honey-drunk bees. In her tangled thoughts, the policemen’s words were clotted and mottled, wet bits of sonic matter that clogged her brain. She tugged at her ears, trying to unstuff the meaning. Her stomach cramped and she retched again, spitting gray and green into the basin. Think, think, get their faces back; when she tried to imagine them she only saw big sturgeon fish burping fat bubbles underwater. She slammed her hand on the counter, trying to remember. It was hard, the nosy policemen’s questions were slipping away, like silver coins rolling off a sinking deck, every phrase drowning in the murk. She grabbed and grasped at the words before they went. Yes. Wait. There it was, it was the clock, the shit of a clock. Damn the little mite. The clock had been a snare. Zoya had given her the clock, like a piece of cheese baiting a trap. That bitch, that serpent, that double-crossing fork-tongued asp. Ah, yes, that reminded her.
Staggering up, she moved at a stumbling, sclerotic pace, fumbling over to the shelf where she pushed the books and vials about till she found the glass jar she was looking for. She dumped the teal powder on the counter by the sink, pulled a thin silver tube out from a pot of spatulas and mixing spoons, then leaned over and snorted up the dry dust of the snakeskin. Her head kicked back as electricity sprayed chaotically inside her head, bringing her heart racing fast to life.
Refueled and regaining focus, Elga supported herself against the doorframe and steadied her legs. The small rooms were choked with a dusty smoke that curled slowly in the weak light, filling the air with the sulphur stink of rotten eggs. After so long, she thought, to have so little, less than nothing. She glanced down at the empty police uniforms lying limp at her feet and the sight brought her small satisfaction. She grinned grimly to herself. Stupid trespassers, they were on their own now. Scum toads. She spat out more gray, and scratched the small, thin whiskers at the end of her chin.
With the snakeskin in her blood and the anger pulsing through her veins, she had enough to push her on. She crouched down and stared at the uniforms. So how did these two get here? Where did they begin? They must have followed her from the antiques shop, that was the only path that made sense. Logic was hard for her, more difficult every day, it seemed, but her mind could still follow a path and keep focused; it took effort but it worked, so long as she had some purpose, some goal. She imagined Zoya’s head severed from her body, lying sideways on the pavement like a dropped melon. That did the trick, now Elga had her motivation. She made clicking sounds with her tongue and the sniffing rat came scurrying out from below the couch, joining her as she began searching through the pockets. Where was it? What was here? She found a black wallet. The rat emerged from deep in a pocket with keys in its mouth. “Good, Max. Wonderful.” She emptied the cash out of the wallet and pulled herself up from the floor, sucking in her soured stomach to keep from heaving again as she reeled over to the bureau. Opening a drawer, she pulled out the old pistol. “Come.”
Moments later, standing in her doorway with a stuffed satchel on her shoulder, she spoke a few sharp words that sealed her apartment safe from thieves and prying eyes. Then she locked up and headed off, still woozy and unsteady. A passing man in a plaid suit glanced over his spectacles at her, and she held back a hiss. Chart a course, she thought to herself, the way the sun sets its path across the sea, then follow it—or sink and drown. A few steps behind her, the rat scurried along the lip of the storefronts’ gutters. She had only taken what she needed for now, yet her load was heavy and made her stagger with effort. She tried not to knock against the passersby. Her mouth was set open, her breathing raspy and hard, and her eyes had to squint to keep focus. Every spell takes its toll.
She turned left at the corner, past the bookstore and bakery and on up the hill. Three blocks up and she was close. She sniffed deeply—snot gargled in her nose—she wanted an odorous clue, but the air was empty of meaning . Step after step, passing Citroëns and Peugeots, she eyeballed each one quickly as she went. Keep looking, she scolded herself, it’s here, those policemen would not have walked, they would not have taken the metro, she kept searching. She reached the antiques shop but staggered past without stopping. They would have come in a car. But where was it? Where? She circled around one block. Then another. There, finally, she spotted the police car, parked like a turtle sleeping in the sun, waiting to be cracked open for its meat. She tried the key and, sure enough, it worked. As she got in behind the wheel, the door still ajar, she sighed with an ancient relief. The rat hopped in behind her. She put the key in the ignition. Wait, she thought, wait. She put her fingers to her temple and felt a balled-up thought pulsing there, ready to be opened. There is no time—but there is always time. She looked down at Max; the rat stared up at her from the passenger seat. Yes, she thought, a loose thread to cut. She pulled herself up out of the car and started again toward the antiques shop. The rat waited behind.
One minute later, the dull sound of a shot rang out. Three minutes later, she climbed back into the car with the clock under her arm. She shoved it over onto the passenger seat and stuck the key in the ignition. Exhaling hard, she looked down at the dash. Elga had only driven an automobile a handful of times, but it wasn’t hard to remember how they worked, the logic of both men and their machines were always painfully stupid. Bah, she thought, a wheel turns a wheel and they call it civilization. She gunned the engine, shoved it into gear, and lurched off down the street, cutting off a Renault, and receiving a sharp horn blast for her trouble. Nobody would stop her now, she knew she had the momentum. Elga muttered a few quick words to make her unnoticeable, to keep her safe, and the car became anonymous and indistinct as it zoomed down the street. Impulsively, she turned on the police radio: “Car number 17…” Max squeaked, and she nodded. He was right, there was nothing to be won by listening in; she needed to concentrate. She turned off the radio and looked for the street signs that would lead her out of town. In a matter of moments, her squad car was gunning up the Champs-Élysées, heading northwest.
As she drove, the hate boiled and popped in her blood. Yes, I will kill her for this, Elga thought to herself. I will drown her in the frothing rapids and racing current of my anger’s yellow bile. I should have held her under a long time ago. “The juicy tart set me up, mmn-hmm, that soiled hump-rag framed me but good,” she said out loud. Max was silent. She threw a disgusted look at the rat. “Stay quiet. I know you. You fall for the big blue eyes, the fat tits. Yes, and look where that got you. Stay quiet, you little shit, or I’ll bite you in two.” She shook her head—that’s right, she thought, I’ll bite, I’ll be the toothsome viper biting down deep into that girl’s naked throat. I’ll bite her palm, those tits, her thigh. I will bathe in her blood and eat her alive. You send the cops after me, donkey girl, and I will send so much more after you. Feel it in your bloodstream, you slime of slithering worm. For I am coming, I am on my way, quiver and wait for me, you pathetic bitch beast. I will get a friend to help me, yes, a nice, sharp little fox of a killer with an eye for the hunt. I will find her and then we’ll both come for you, girl. I’ve got your big stupid clock. Oh yes, I’ve got it. I’m going to make you choke on it. Watch out, woman, because I am coming, and I am not coming alone.
Inspector Vidot could not stop hopping up and down. He was wild-eyed, he was exhilarated, he was tiny. It was a tremendous feeling, so much excitement, so much power, in an instant he was halfway across the room. Then, in no time at all, he had hopped back to where he’d begun. He paused to catch his breath. He stared at his strange, bristled legs in dumb wonder. Hearing noises, he looked up and watched the giant old woman as her mighty rat pawed through the cavernous pockets of his limp uniform, which lay like a vast blue mountain range across the floor. He watched her varicose-veined legs, so covered with moles they looked like the barnacled hull of a ship, stumble around the apartment as she packed and cursed and snorted up a blue-green powder before mumbling and belching her way out the front door. In his excitement, he felt the urge to follow her, but the chain of events had been too fantastic and disorienting; he had to stop and assess the situation. Besides, his partner was missing.
Vidot looked around the room for Bemm—where was the poor boy? How would he even recognize him? Vidot looked himself over: yes, no doubt, he was now in the form of some sort of insect. A hopping insect, to be exact. A louse? A flea? This was too shocking to be comprehended. Bemm must have been transformed as well. The simplest solution was that Bemm had been turned into the same kind of insect. And so, that was what Vidot looked for. He leapt up high onto the bookshelf and tried to get some perspective on the room. He scanned every corner, anxious for any sign of his colleague. Where did he last see Bemm? There, yes! Bemm had been sitting in that chair. Vidot aimed his jump well and landed on the stuffed arm. He tried to shout, but no words came out. This was fascinating!
Là-bas! He saw a small bug scurrying through the fabric of the cushion. Vidot hopped, aiming his descent so that he landed eye-to-eye with the creature. The pest froze and stared at him. Was it Bemm? Vidot attempted a small hop as a signal. The bug cocked his head. Vidot hopped again. He could feel his strange heart beating fast with anticipation. Could this be him? Yes! Yes! The bug gave a small hop back. It was Bemm! Poor little thing, he looked so frightened.
Fleas, Vidot decided, they were fleas, not because he could honestly tell the difference, but because the thought of being a louse would be too disgusting for words. However, being a flea, well, that flooded him with inspiration. He actually had a bit of experience with fleas, not entirely negative either, so a flea was definitely a more comforting thing to be. Yes, he thought, we decide what we are and then act appropriately; a man says, “I am a saint,” or “I am a cheat,” and there you have it, these conclusions determine our course through life. Well, thought Vidot, I am a flea, and it appears this other flea is Bemm. He hopped once more, just to be sure. The other insect hopped in mimicry. Yes, he thought, now they could begin.
Vidot leapt a small distance and looked behind him. Bemm followed. Ah, what a good soldier, Vidot thought. He took a more decisive hop toward the door and the little creature was still right there behind him. One more jump and they began to crawl under the doorsill. He was relieved his transformation had come with an innate notion of how to manage his strange, new insect legs, for this was not unlike much of the training he had done in the army, crawling on hands and legs in the mud beneath razor wire. There might not be beer steins and barracks full of singing soldiers at the end of this particular exercise, but at least he knew what to do.
He remembered, a long time ago, as a small boy, being taken to a neighborhood carnival where, amid a warm chestnut afternoon of atonal organ grinders and pugilistic puppet shows, he had been delightfully transfixed by two English street performers, the amusing Sir Billy and his beautiful assistant, Dottie, as they presided over their little flea-circus stage. One by one, the fleas were introduced by sir Billy with great fanfare, as if they were stars in a Folies review. Then, as Vidot watched in awe, the small creatures miraculously came out dragging around toy cannons and chariots, writing out legible letters in wet ink, and hopping back and forth across taut strings to the rhythm of Dottie’s warbling piccolo tunes. Watching as one fabulous act followed another, little Vidot had laughed and clapped along, gleefully cheering each new feat of the fleas. How magical and charming it had seemed, not merely the tricks themselves but also the fact that these two minstrels had transformed such pestilent nuisances into fabulously playful creatures of awe and amazement. Perhaps, thought Vidot, this is why I am not so bothered by my own transformation. But what of poor Bemm, how was he weathering? He looked back but could not discern much about the state of Bemm’s mind. He saw merely a pair of insect eyes, beady and attentive, staring blankly back at him, waiting to be led.
Finally, the two made their way out from under the door. As the shadows grew long in the afternoon, they reached the edge of the doorstep. Having accomplished the escape from the old lady’s warren, Vidot knew it was time for a plan, but he had no idea where to begin. He knew nothing of the woman or her possible destination, and he had no hope of summoning any help in his current state. Besides, there was some pertinent fact about his current condition, a piece of critical information about an insect’s life nagging at the corner of his consciousness, that he knew he needed to remember. What was it? He thought hard, finally recalling again that long-ago day when he had returned to his family’s modest flat with the thrills and delights of the strange flea carnival still alive in his mind. As he often did when he was in such a state, Vidot had gone straight to his father’s crowded library and, after climbing up the ladder to take down book after book from the tall shelves, he began thoroughly reading every volume, poring through all the facts he could find about the fleas he had seen. What had he learned that day? Not much that he could recall now. Fleas have six legs, yes. Obviously so. Fleas are vampiric, absolutely, they are parasites that survive off animal blood, that he already knew. What else? What was it? Then there it was, the crucial fact suddenly returned, coming into clear and sharp focus after being obscured in his mind for so many decades: a flea lives, on average, for only ninety days. Making every single day for a flea roughly the equivalent of a human year, and two hours was a month and four minutes a day. Remembering this now, time immediately became a very different thing than it had ever been to Vidot, so absolutely present it was almost palpable. The need to find a solution was immense and overwhelming. At the one time in his life when he desperately needed to act, he felt paralyzed with panic.
He concentrated, reminding himself of the adage that had always sustained him in times of trouble: there are rarely any truly big problems, only collections of little problems that pile up. Also, one thing his investigations had taught him was that nothing ever disappeared; this was a rule of the natural sciences as well, substances evolved and transmuted but no energy was ever lost, it merely reformed itself, which meant the rest of him was out there in the ether, as gas or a shadow, existing in an unknown or unknowable shape, waiting to be reclaimed. So he could solve this. He had to solve it. It was, in all probability, the greatest mystery he would ever encounter. He tried to imagine his success, thinking of how, at the end of this journey, he would hold his Adèle’s hand and kiss her pale forehead and tell her about his incredible victory over this strange and surprising adversity. Ah, sweet Adèle: the thought of his wife consoled him. He had ninety days to live, ninety days to find a way back into her arms, not as an insect but as a man. He would succeed, there was no choice. He would go to the station, rally the troops, marshal the resources of the entire nation, send legions of men out to scour the streets, search every basement and garret until they found that old wicked crone again and forced a cure from her. Now was the time to act! Voilà! He signaled to Bemm, pointing to a dog passing by, and then, blending intuition and calculation, they leapt out and jumped aboard.
In an instant he and Bemm were bouncing down the alley, riding a small bulldog out for his evening constitutional. Vidot carefully crawled to a spot in the middle of the belly where he felt he would be safe from any chance of the dog scratching. He checked to see that they were all heading in the right direction, yes, he could see the boulangerie they had passed, wait, no, they were now turning into a house, time to jump again. He leapt and Bemm followed. They landed in the crack between the street’s rough paving stones. These stones that had once seemed to be a quaint vestige of his city’s ancient past now had grown impossibly large, like massive dark mausoleums that loomed up above him. Quickly, they crawled to the side gutter and waited for their next ride.
Two dogs later (one an oversized mutt and the other a squat corgi) and they were at the edge of the river. He had been tempted during each ride, out of some vicious newborn impulse, to sink his teeth into the flesh of the dogs for sustenance, but he denied himself the satisfaction. I draw the line there, he said to himself. I am a man, not a beast. Having leapt off their last ride, Vidot and Bemm now waited by the Seine. He guessed they were only a quarter of the way to police headquarters, but he had no idea how long it would take them to get there. They were at the mercy of whatever creatures passed. It was dark now, not many dogs would be out for their evening walks at this hour.
There was the rustling of debris and then a small mouse appeared, scampering out and darting past them, busily following its own sniffing nose. “Allons-y!” signaled Vidot, and in a synchronized jump they both were on its back. Vidot felt quite satisfied, this was no worse than pushing his way onto the metro at rush hour. The mouse moved fast, making his way down the stone staircase to the water’s edge and then along the masonry and then up again onto the Pont du Garigliano. Vidot checked to see that Bemm was still riding beside him. He knew he needed a plan for what they would do once they reached the station, but it was their best destination, as good a place to find help as any he could imagine. As the mouse continued on its path, crawling beneath the debris and pausing to sniff the garbage, Vidot felt an immense respect for all the tiny things in Paris that were forced to get by on whatever small crumbs fell their way.
He was mulling this over when, from above, he heard a deep thumping noise coming down. At first he thought it might be a passing bus or a burst of thunder, but as its volume rose, his brain ceased to wonder and his body intuitively reacted with an adrenaline burst that sent him jumping away from his host. Behind him, there was a massive tearing sound, like a fat wineskin being ripped open, as enormous talons tore into the mouse’s flesh. A great piercing squeal of death filled Vidot’s ears, like that of a locomotive train’s brakes screeching as it slid to its fated collision.
Landing on the pavement, he quickly hopped around and looked back for Bemm. The sidewalk was empty and the great owl was already off, flapping its broad wings high up over his head. A few drops of the mouse’s blood splashed loudly about him on the pavement as the massive bird carried its prey away. Owls again! First in Leon Vallet’s apartment with those strange bony pellets, and now here. He had lived in Paris his whole life and never seen a single owl, and suddenly they seemed to descend upon the city. They were like a plague! Where did they come from? And where was Bemm? Had he jumped clear? Vidot gazed out at the broad flatness of the empty sidewalk and waited for his friend.
The night crawled on and there was no sign of life. The loss of his companion filled Vidot with a terrible loneliness. Finally, he decided to set out again on his journey, changing his destination to the one place where he knew he belonged. There was no need to head for the station, he realized: he would find no one to listen to him there. They would no doubt merely crush him like the bug that he was. So instead, he now headed to the comfort of home and his wife. He needed her consolation, as for the first time since this adventure began he found himself anxious and worried. Overwhelmed and vulnerable, he longed for the solace of his small living room, kitchen, and bed. He did not know how he could possibly communicate his situation to Adèle or what she would say. He imagined pulling off a series of tricks, improvised variations on the flea-circus acts those bohemian British street performers Sir Billy and Dottie had shown him so long ago, perhaps writing messages to Adèle on the steamed bathroom mirror or leaping from the inkwell to spell out his dilemma. Yes, that might work, he thought, realizing almost at the same time that this was an inspiring example of the power of love, as all he had to do was think of Adèle and the puzzles began solving themselves. She would be his muse, his soldier, his salvation. Together, they could solve “The Mysterious Case of the Flea Detective.” The thrill of possibility again flooded his heart. He was ready to go. Vidot looked about in vain for a wandering rodent who could be his ride home. The cobblestone streets and gutters were quiet and empty, not a shape or shadow stirring. Ah, he thought, what a truly cursed city, the rats are never around when you need them.
Witches’ Song Two
Ah, look, so rash and wrong,
so sure and shortsighted,
watch Elga’s little spells scurry,
see her black intention tearing into fortunes,
tearing like a startled, blind mare
breaking through a weaver’s beaded loom.
Elga, Elga, oh, I’ve crawled alongside this crone
for how long now? Solstice to solstice, far back to where?
To there, when I eyed her quayside on that cold slimy wharf
arguing over a broken crate of rotting root weeds.
Orts and offal were her wrangled trade and at first sight I could see it all:
skunk cabbages, bleeding radishes, and a fistful of horsetail,
a telltale mirror to her tangled soul.
She traveled alone then, and, curious for company,
we gathered round, compared char-scribbled crib notes,
congealing into a dark hymnal congregation
all muttering, humming, and spitting for luck.
Ravenous for the musty, mystery spoils
we pulled from the clasp of those new found lands,
we tested and tried much, oft with bitter ends for the unlucky
(sailors shrunk to pea size, shrieking whores sprouting curled pig’s tails).
Our effort was tremendous as our new age dawned,
never a belfry rung to our victory but hidden here in the cellars,
proud hard work, seeds dried, stews simmered,
round sounds married to sharp tones
and turned backward like a citrus peel until
our fresh curses were cooked and our efforts done.
The loot was split fair,
Elga loaded a half dozen bartered asses
and rode off, beating them down the lane,
laden with potent bounty.
It was only long later that she turned up again,
sprouting in our path like a drizzle-day mushroom might,
now pulling Zoya along, fresh bait for her fancy.
Elga was always a barb, you know her well enough now,
even a small taste of her bitterness lasts a cur’s age.
And the young one too often caused us grief,
too pretty. Such wide blue eyes, such fulsome paps,
pulling like a strong northern tide.
Elga and Zoya were good enough companions
but at times so dark, too conniving for me—
their trick was idiot simple,
Elga dangled the girl,
first luring in arguably deserving devils,
then milking them of their shiny kopecks,
before cutting them free of life’s loose grasp—
In these days our bickering was slight but needle sharp,
and so when we were chased to the fens, pauper poor,
or bulge-eyed with bare-bones famine,
I was more than happy to say farewell.
Thusly we would come, we would go,
and the years passed like bloody feathers
ripped by hungry hands
off a barnyard hen.
And now here we are,
death running fast toward fate,
fate running fast toward death
as a sour Elga waddles the cold cobblestones,
hissing out ancient maledictions.
Will found a tuxedoed Oliver in the back lobby of the Hotel Lutetia. He was sitting on a love seat with a lit cigarette and the remnants of a Bellini. There was a pianist playing in the corner, but otherwise the room was empty of patrons.
“Oh, hullo,” said Oliver. He began to rise, and then, on second thought, settled back down.
Will sat down beside him. “Nice penguin suit.”
Oliver forced a smile. “I’ve got a premier tonight.” He looked at his watch. “My companion’s in the powder room now, she shouldn’t be long, then I’m afraid we’ve got to dash. So let’s make this quick.”
“No problem,” said Will, pulling a fat envelope out of his briefcase, placing it on the cocktail table. Since it was a Sunday, getting the file had turned out to be a reasonably simple task. Will had spent less than an hour at the office going through the agency’s filing cabinets. It turned out there was an abundance of material that looked weighty and substantive but was actually useless stuff.
Oliver took the envelope and slipped it under the black overcoat beside him. “What is it?”
“Hoffmann-La Roche’s file. A sizable company. Swiss, growing. You said you could use something pharmaceutical, right?”
“Yes, exactly.” Oliver looked at his watch and glanced around the room impatiently. “And they’re a client of yours?”
“No, it’s a competitive analysis.”
“There are a few bits some might find of interest,” Will exaggerated. He knew no one would find one iota of valuable information in that file. There were, however, a lot of words.
“Yes, well, this should be enough to feed the beast. The agency is stuffed to the gills with data addicts, pure and simple. Here, as promised.” He pulled out a small silver film canister from his pocket. “These are the shots Ned took at your place last night. Cigarette?”
“Thanks,” said Will, taking both the film and the cigarette. “I’d like that knife of mine back too.”
Oliver slapped his hand to his forehead. “Oh gosh, that’s right, your silly knife, I’m so sorry, I forgot all about it. It’s at home, I’m afraid.”
“That’s not funny.”
Oliver put out his palms. “I’m not joking, Will, honestly, it completely slipped my mind. I’ve been fairly distracted in the last twenty-four hours, and not only by our little misadventure. You see, I also met up with the most delightful old friend—” Suddenly, his face brightened. “Ah, here she is now!”
Will looked up. She looked familiar walking across the room, but he couldn’t place her. Her dark hair was pulled back, her blue eyes sparkled, and she was smiling at him in a familiar way, as if they were old friends at a school reunion. He and Oliver both rose to meet her. “Will Van Wyck, this is the lovely Zoya Polyakov,” he said.
She smiled. “It is nice to see you again.”
Will paused, confused. “I’m sorry—”
“We spoke, on the metro last night, about the rain. Do you remember?”
“Last night?” Will remained confused even as the memory dawned. The accent should have reminded him, but her black hair pinned up changed her face, her cheekbones seemed stronger, her neck longer, and in her elegant low-cut black dress she only vaguely resembled the woman he had met the night before. He did recognize her eyes, though; they were hard to forget.
Oliver laughed. “My, that is amusing, what a small town, eh? People do have a tendency to pop up out of the blue. Right, well”—he slipped his arm around Zoya’s thin waist—“I’m afraid we have to make our exit. I would invite you along, Will, but I’m not sure it’s up your alley. It’s a profligate and atheistic work, designed to shock, hence the Sunday screening. But I’m fairly sure it’s going to be dreadful. We should be ready for a good strong drink afterward, if you’d like to meet up.”
“No, that’s okay, I—” Will’s gaze was still stuck on Zoya. He was thrown by the coincidence, and, given all that had occurred that weekend, he didn’t quite trust it. But more than that, the girl intrigued him.
“You stole my eye,” she said, ignoring Oliver.
“You have a bruise there, I put cover-up over mine.” She touched her face where the mark had been. “Perhaps I should lend you my makeup?”
Oliver chuckled. “Yes, I heard you got yourself into a scrape aiding a damsel in distress.”
She looked at Will with a small, complicit grin. “That’s not really true, is it?”
“No. It’s not,” said Will. He didn’t know what to add. He wanted to make her laugh, or at least smile. But all he could do was stand there, struck dumb. There was an essence to her gaze—the way her eyes connected with his—that took the simplest words in his mind and effortlessly broke them down into small, useless heaps of letters.
“Yes, well, dying to hear the real story but haven’t got time, I’m afraid. And now you’ll excuse us, Will, we’re running late,” said Oliver, guiding Zoya to the exit. “Thank you again. I’ll call you later to—” The hotel’s revolving door clipped off the end of his phrase as they spun away into the night.
Standing in the empty lobby, Will felt cheated. It was as if some captivating salesman had danced a collection of precious jewels in front of his eyes before whisking them away and locking them up in some unseen vault. Will played back the short conversation he had shared with the girl the previous night on the metro and then let his imagination jump to all the things he could have added to that brief exchange: the well-timed phrases he could have impressed her with, the little jokes to make her laugh and the observations to make her wonder, all of which could have culminated in Zoya Polyakov being on his arm tonight, looking up into his eyes.
There were charmed souls who always seemed to say the right things in the perfect manner, deftly slipping the precise amount of weighted meaning into every nuanced phrase and achieving their goal with a minimum of effort, squeezing every sugary drop of opportunity out of every ripe moment and always getting their way. That simply wasn’t Will. But Oliver did always seem to know what to do, what to say. He was so silver tongued, he could blackmail you and steal your girl and it was still hard to hate him. Probably because, for Oliver, none of it was serious. Like the boys back home on the field at Tiger Stadium, he was simply playing a game while the rest of the world struggled on. He held the world in the palm of his hand, the same way pitchers like Hal Newhouser and Dizzy Trout held a baseball. Will wanted that control, he wanted to possess his share of the graceful victories that came easily to some and never to him. But it was no use, he could improve and try harder, but in the end he knew he was too earnest and straight, he didn’t have the luck, the charisma, or the air of money that opened the secret doors and won the loveliest girls. He had been raised to follow the rules, and for the most part he had, knowing all the while that those rules were invented to keep everyone in their place. He had to live within those limits, he didn’t know what else to do. Besides, sticking to those rules had gotten him this far. Here he was, living in Paris, after all. He had no right to complain. Still, though, he didn’t have that girl, Oliver did. Will stood there for a few minutes, finishing his cigarette while staring down at his plain brown shoes. In the far corner of the room, the hotel’s pianist was playing the final phrases of a Schubert sonata. Will didn’t know the piece, all he knew was that its beauty hurt.
The rising sun sent bright rays of fresh light flooding across Zoya’s room. She was still awake, though out of her party clothes. She sat perched on a stool, leaning over her kitchen sink busily picking apart one of the pellets the owls had left. She separated out the larger bones from the small, tangled ball and rolled the remaining contents together in a paste with marzipan and chicory, spitting on the ball to hold it together. A pair of houseflies buzzed about as she dipped it into a teacup filled with elderberry wine, letting it soak before taking it out to dry on the sill. One of the houseflies landed on the ball and walked nervously along its surface. Go ahead, she thought, taste it, you will be surprised at what you find.
She went back to the bed and lay down, waiting.
Her plans for Oliver could not have gone better, he was so smug with his lofty attitude, so ready to go through all the motions of seduction. It never occurred to him that he might be the prey. She enjoyed this sort of man wherever she found him; more than once she had seen empires undone by the ignorance that pooled around such grand, unflappable confidence. Where would the world be, she wondered, without all these blind and greedy men?
Two nights ago, she had sat on the bench with her small, enchanted mirror, bouncing and bending the thin light from Will’s apartment. She watched as the tall man and his two accomplices had bullied Will. She had seen him tied up and gagged, she saw a knife flash. She could not hear anything, but it did not matter. Eventually things seemed to settle down. Will was untied. The tall man talked to him at length, clearly trying to make a point, while a short woman sat at the desk, taking pictures. Worried that she might be observed by some curious passerby, Zoya finally tucked her mirror away. She knew enough. Her path usually brought her into contact with the small, garden-variety deceptions people habitually dabbled in—hidden mistresses, larcenous accounts, or rude domestic violence. This was notably different. Will was like a rabbit she had been carefully stalking and tracking through the woods, only to have it stolen out from under her nose by another pack of predators right before she could pounce. This was interesting. She sat and waited.
When the tall man and his friends had finally emerged from the apartment building, Zoya fell in behind. When the three grabbed a taxi, she jumped in another. “Suivez le taxi là,” she told the driver.
They drove out of the 8th, down the Champs-Élysées, and crossed the river. Driving up the Left Bank, she watched the short woman emerge at one corner and the large oaf of a man crawl out at another. Finally the cab stopped in front of a café and she watched the tall thin man pay the cabbie and head in. This would not be too difficult, she thought. For starters, he was alone. Also, he was handsome enough, lean, and sharp looking. She’d done her fair share of work with ugly ones in the past, men with faces so pimpled and flabby her stomach turned merely at the memory of them.
She found Oliver sitting at the bar, hunched like a thirsty crane over a Pernod. She sat down in the manner of an old friend, and with, six words, whispered backward, had him convinced that they actually had met before. Three drinks later, a few double entendres, and a hand on a knee had him convinced he would be seeing much more of her.
She had asked very little, but as he smoked and drank through the night, Oliver told her quite a lot. He was a writer and a publisher, he said. He had rowed crew in college, his parents had hoped for him to study law, following the family tradition (a grandfather on his mother’s side had been a Supreme Court justice). Zoya had listened, smiled, and nodded along, though it all meant very little. He said he had fallen in love with Paris after the war and had lived here off and on, ever since then, now over in the 5th arrondissement.
“Decades of lessons and tutorials plus years spent here, and the locals still say my French is only fairly good,” he said.
“You understand my French,” she said. “That’s good enough, oui?”
He smiled warmly at her. Testing the spell of familiarity, she had said that he seemed happier than he’d been the last time she saw him, but at this, Oliver shook his head in dismay. “Glad to hear I’m putting on an optimistic front, but no, the thunderheads are looming, I’m afraid, and nothing’s panning out. My humble little magazine’s about to go under, we’ve lost our biggest benefactor, you see, and if I don’t come up with some grand stroke of genius, well, I’ll have to pack it in and go home.”
“Perhaps your writing will be successful.”
“You’re an author, no? Did you not say—”
“Oh, yes, I did, didn’t I?” This had made him erupt with a burst of drunken laughter, a startling sound that reminded her of a mule’s braying, but then his face grew somber again. “Well, I was a real writer for a stretch, banging away at the typewriter every morning, big ideas billowing like thick cumulus clouds across the horizons of my mind, and all that bunk. Hemingway says the best writing is when you are in love, and it’s true, but then something happened, a kind of personal tragedy, and I was forced to stop. You might say I was scarred. Anyway, since then, my mind’s been a blank. Oh wait, I did have one idea, I thought I’d write down the crudest pornography I could think of, then hit the Roget’s hard and doll it all up into a novel. Figured if I dead-on nailed it I could get the book banned in the U.S., a nice nasty scandal would erupt, and international sales would shoot through the roof. Miller and Nabokov both managed that trick quite well, of course. But then of course mother would want to see it and, well…” He stopped to sip his drink. “For quite a long time I felt guilty about abandoning my writing, but then I heard a story that helped. A taxicab driver told it to me—he was Russian too. You see, before the revolution there was a Muscovite writer, magnificently talented, who was known for his brutal realism, real hard stuff, like Gorky, only darker. His work exposed the callous ugliness of the tsars, the starving peasants, the pestilence and fever, the whole shebang. Then, of course, the revolution came and, like the rest of the true believers, he bought all of it, brotherhood, unity, fraternity, the works. Of course, then comrades began disappearing into Black Marias; the state was seizing journalists, neighbors, all of them, poof, vanishing like some sort of terrible magic trick, and this writer began to worry. So he worked up a canny little strategy to dodge the ax: from that point forward, he only wrote nonsense. Kitchen sinks barking recipes to mops, cattle mournfully mooing out tennis scores, salt shakers singing nursery rhymes—the man had no agenda, but he had to write, because all he knew how to do was weld verbs and nouns together into some kind of powerful harmony. In the end, of course, Stalin suspected this fellow was up to something, so bang, they shot that writer dead. End of story. Well now, this tale certainly shook me, but I also took some solace from it. When the revolution does arrive and the committee gathers to judge, they won’t be able to hang me for any of my work, for I am the writer who never writes.”
“I see,” Zoya said. She was interested in the way he told his tale, beginning with an emotional truth, a point of clear vulnerability, and then quickly burying it under drunken tangents, glib humor, and randomly grabbed pages of history. Here, she realized, was a man afraid of his own heart. He would rather hide it beneath layers like some papier-mâché mask, pasted together for a carnival. He was simply a coward. This was not a condemnation; she genuinely appreciated it about him. The truly craven were, in her eyes, nothing to despise; she had spent much of her life hiding with them, cowering in the dank, dark corners of root cellars, hiding up high in the branches of trees, or cringing below the putrid edges of half-full latrines, listening as pillaging troops and blood-lusting rioters tore apart their homes and villages. She remembered looking into the cowards’ quiet, knowing eyes as they huddled together, listening to the gunshots and the screams and then the receding din of the marching boots mixed with the clatter of looted spoils, all followed finally by the perfect silence of death. Cloaked there in that petrified darkness, crammed shoulder to shoulder with the breath of their fear on her neck, she learned that coward was often only another name for survivor.
“So, you never write?”
“No,” he said. “Every so often I think about dashing off a stanza about the crystal winter frost or the blush of a girl’s cheek, only to keep the blood going, but I rarely get round to it.” Oliver finished the last of his drink and seemed ready to change the subject. “Say, look now, here’s a thought. I’ve got two tickets for a cinema premier tomorrow night. Wasn’t planning on attending, but maybe we should go?”
“Didn’t you already invite me?”
“When?” He looked confused.
“Earlier.” She liked shuffling the deck of time, keeping him off balance.
“Did I? Yes, maybe, who knows. Lord,” he said, chuckling, holding up his drink, “I suspect someone slipped some alcohol into my cocktail. Ha ha. So, how about we meet up at the Hotel Lutetia, say at six?”
She had agreed and then excused herself, leaving Oliver with kisses on his cheeks and a warm smile promising more. As she was leaving she saw him shake his head, clearly a little bewildered and slightly thrilled by their encounter. She paused to look back through the window as he signaled the bartender for another drink; clearly she had excited nerves that now needed soothing, better with a bottle than another woman. Wives were fine, but other lovers tangled plans.
Arriving home that night, she had looked around for a sign of Max’s visit, but it was clear he had not been in the apartment. She didn’t think much of it, the rat often took days to make his way, sniffing over the rooftops and up the drainpipes until he tracked her down.
She found the two owl pellets lying inside the open window and placed them in an empty pickling jar. Then she prepared for her work. Inside a wide, shallow bowl she placed Oliver’s handkerchief (which she had furtively slipped from his pocket), along with the calling card he had handed her as they departed. Before she placed the card into the bowl, she licked both sides and poured in a spoonful of honey, sprinkled tea leaves, ground star anise, white pepper, and cinnamon. Then she placed the bowl on the sill and, singing a quick spell, spit into it twice.
The next evening, she met Oliver at the hotel. She had not expected Will to show up, she had not seen or prepared for it, and when she came into the brightly lit lobby and saw him sitting there, she paused and thought, Well, hello, rabbit.
She felt the dust stir in her heart. Perhaps it was the simple pleasure of surprise, or the deliciously wicked feeling of having a plan surge ahead. But possibly, she thought, those wisps of girlish sentimentality that always floated around inside her had been blown to life, those gilded and hopeful fairy-tale notions that Elga always scolded her for harboring.
Stay focused, she thought, but it was all moving very fast. In the old days it would take eons of plotting star charts and memorizing stagecoach schedules to choreograph the right coincidences, but now, with combustion engines roaring and the sky scratched thick with telephone lines, gears meshed quickly and plans flew together. Walking toward him, she adjusted her dress, one of the few couture items Leon had ever bought for her (petite lace negligees had been more his style). She was tempted to toss a quick trick into the air but hesitated, reminding herself that spontaneous spells too often went awry (there were countless rows of countryside graves attesting to that); but also she was curious to see what she could accomplish naturally. Watching the slow recognition on Will’s face as he saw her, followed by his realization that she was accompanying Oliver, made her wonder if this enchantment might work entirely organically; after all, coveting another man’s possessions tended to come with its own dark spell.
Moments later, when Oliver put his arm around her waist and swept her out the door, she barely had time for a quick glance back at poor Will, still standing there, watching her go. The look on his face told her the deed was as good as done. The fish had swum into the net, the bear’s paw had found its trap, and this little rabbit was now all hers.
Elga steered the patrol car off the country road and bounced it up the farm’s muddy driveway. She parked between a small flatbed truck and a shed. Getting out of the car, she paused to look around. Past the small farmhouse a yellow bicycle rested against the large barn. She walked up onto the farmhouse porch and, without knocking, went in. The rat scurried in behind her.
An old man wearing a priest’s cassock sat at the table, eating a bowl of soup. He paused for a moment to look up at Elga, then returned his attention to the soup. The rat crawled from behind Elga’s feet, jumped up onto a chair, hopped up onto the table, and started licking at the edges of the bowl.
“Tell him to stop that,” said the priest, raising his spoon in protest.
“You tell him, he’s your brother,” said Elga.
“Max, stop it,” said the priest, but the rat kept at the soup. The priest put down his spoon and watched as the rat steadily emptied the bowl, licking it clean.
“He was hungry.”
“I can see that. Where’s your Zoya?” said the priest, taking a green apple off the sideboard. “Curled up in her little love nest?”
“No. Zoya is dead.”
This stopped the priest halfway through his first bite. Thinking about what she’d said, he slowly resumed chewing. “What kind of dead?” he said.
Elga rubbed her face with her hands. “Dead dead. Does it matter? She’s dead to me.”
The priest nodded. “Right. So she is alive.”
Elga shrugged. “Only until I find her.”
“What did she do now?”
“Bah, what didn’t she do? First she kills her fat lubovnik, puts his head right through a spike, then she leads the policemen straight to my house. Two of them. Two policemen. Trouble. Much trouble. I tell you this too, I think she did it on purpose.”
“Who knows? But she has betrayed me, and that comes with a cost.” She dramatically crossed her throat with her finger.
“No need for the theatrics, Elga, I know what you mean.” The priest shook his head. “But that does not sound like Zoya.”
The old woman threw up her hands “She has always been a messy one. And I am tired of cleaning up after her. She makes me act like some ugly maid scrubbing the floor, working on my hands and knees with my fat ass up in the air, ripe for a kick. It is stupid. I am too old for this.”
“You are the same age you have been for a century,” he said.
“No, I am much older, you just do not see. It happens too slowly.”
He chose to ignore this; he knew he did not understand the laws that governed Elga and her sisters. He had tried to once, but that was a long time ago. “Any idea where she is?”
“No. We left town fast, before Max could sniff her out.” Elga dug her finger into her nostril and then flicked the snot on the ground. “Listen, I’m going to need you to send some of your village idiots with that truck to my place to pack my work up. It’s safe there, should be no trouble, I put a curse on the door.”
“No trouble? Really, Elga? I hear the word ‘curse,’ and I tend to think there might be trouble.”
Elga was quiet. The priest scratched his head. “The farmer down the way has two boys who can help move your stuff. He has a better truck than mine. Whose car did you come in?”
“I don’t know.” She set the keys on the table. “You can have it if you want. I wouldn’t drive it, though.”
The priest looked at her suspiciously, then he went out the door. A minute later he came back inside. “It’s a police car, Elga. You want to tell me where the policemen are who came with that car?”
“You got me.” She shrugged.
The priest went over to the icebox and slid a bottle of vodka out of its small freezer compartment. He poured himself a shot and then splashed another shot into the empty soup bowl. The rat went at it. The priest sat back down. “Why don’t you tell me what you want, Elga?”
“Maybe put the car in the shed. Then get those farm boys to clear out my place. I can store things here for the time being. And I need your help getting a new girl.”
“A new girl? Why?”
“I told you, Zoya’s dead.”
The priest closed his eyes, letting the comment pass. “Where will we find this new girl?”
“That hospital in town. Get me a job there tomorrow.”
“What if they’re not hiring?”
Elga nodded. “One of their workers is sick, they’re going to need help to cover for her. I can be that help.”
“You’re confusing me, Elga. The worker is sick? How do you know this? Are you talking about an event that has happened or will happen?”
Elga looked at him like he was an idiot. He knew time and tense did not concern her, they would be chopped and thrown in the stew with all the rest.
Max the rat was done with the vodka. He tottered around drunk for a few steps before slipping off the edge of the table. The priest deftly caught him in the palm of his hand before the rat hit the floor and placed him back on the table. “Seriously, Elga, you can’t barge in here with so much nonsense. When will it stop?”
She dismissively shook off the priest’s question. “There is no stop.”
Vidot the flea arrived at his doorstep, near dead with exhaustion and hunger. He had briefly caught a ride on the back on a stray cat that had carried him less than a dozen blocks before it turned its tongue against him. He had barely escaped unharmed and had hopped the rest of the way, dodging deep oily puddles and fat automobile wheels. But now, finally, he was home. He crawled under the main entrance door to the building and through the large lobby before beginning the laborious job of jumping, one by one, up the three flights of stairs to his apartment. Finally reaching the top, he used the last of his remaining strength to crawl under his door and into his hallway. He was home. He knew no real remedy for his condition could be found here, he would work on that tomorrow. For now, he simply needed the solace of feeling safe from the nightmarish world of unexpected predators and oversized poodles that lay outside. For Vidot at this moment, no sight could be more reassuringly welcome than that of his beautiful wife. He longed to smell her hair, to fill his lungs with her perfume, find calm in her radiant presence.
The radio was on but the front room and the kitchen were both empty. In two hops he had leapt into the living room, where he paused to have a look around. He half expected to find Adèle sitting in her favorite red chair, reading one of the flowery romance novels he loved to tease her about. But the living room was empty too. It was then Vidot heard the sound of her voice.
It did not take much of a detective to realize what was going on. Hopping toward the bedroom, he was devilishly pleased. He had often wondered, on those occasions when he was stuck working at the station late into the night, if his wife ever longed for him and, fantasizing about his touch, brought herself to pleasure. He had always secretly wanted to see her in such a state. Yes, he thought mischievously, this was his golden opportunity. So, almost giddily, he hopped to the doorway to spy on his sweet Adèle.
She was there, but she was not alone. There was a man with her, wrapped up in her clawing arms, making love to her with a fierce and feverish devotion. Reeling from the sight, Vidot was not immobile for long, as the hurt and betrayal filled him with a wave of furious electric adrenaline. Without reflection or hesitation, a mighty leap sent him onto her naked lover’s back, where Vidot began attacking the stranger with all the fury he could muster.
It was not very much. The man did not stop in his exertions and an enthralled and ecstatic Adèle kept her lover entirely focused. They were both utterly engrossed in their passionate wet kissing, biting, nibbling, licking, grabbing, and thrusting; with every rough touch this interloper elicited deep guttural moans from his wife. Vidot had never heard Adèle like this; it was as if she were a completely different creature, a feral animal bathed in sweat, wholly possessed by feverish lust and hunger. Boiling with rage, Vidot scrambled up deep into the thickness of the stranger’s dark hair and, like a crazed Gaul in the heat of battle, vengefully sank his teeth deep into the man’s skull. Take that, you bastard! Vidot wanted to scream.
Almost immediately he felt he was losing his senses. The flooding, intoxicating rush of the man’s blood overwhelmed and disoriented him with its rich savory nourishment. Vidot’s mind went soft and woozy and he found it hard to focus, his consciousness wholly immersed in the warm, pulsing waves of pure sustenance. Forgetting himself and his terrible circumstances, he sucked greedily, instinctively focused on absorbing all the blood he could. As his belly swelled his senses reeled and his head felt dizzy. His legs weakened and he scurried to reset his footing, trying to stay upright. As the man and Adèle simultaneously reached the peak of their ecstatic convulsions below him, the oblivious Vidot keeled over and passed out cold.
He awoke in absolute darkness. Was this death? Had he been pitched into the cold blackness of purgatory? He almost hoped so. He got back on his legs and tried to shake his tiny head clear. So many odd and terrible events had unfolded so quickly that he felt he was prepared for the worst. He began to make his way and though he was unable to see a thing he quickly realized that he was still in the dense, dark forest of hair atop the man’s skull. He could make out a few muffled voices and then he heard a door slam. The surface he was riding on seemed to bob both forward and downward in a gradual sinking manner, indicating to Vidot that they were descending the stairs. It was then he realized he was being carried away from his home, away from his Adèle, away from every ideal he had ever possessed of love, harmony, and domestic happiness, trapped beneath the surface of another man’s hat.
Up in the Pigalle hotel, Zoya checked on her concoction. Finding it dry enough, she removed a long-stemmed clay pipe from the bureau and placed the small owl ball in the chamber. Tucking herself into the corner of a white cushioned chair, she struck a match and inhaled deeply. Then she lay there, waiting.
It did not take long. The ceiling above her soon dissolved from solid to liquid as the walls subtly ruffled like a theater curtain with actors busily moving behind it before the show. Spectrums of light flickered, casting visions that quickly pooled in around her. Soft glowing red and powder blue hallucinations rose from the floor, translucent figures finding their form, crossing past one another in a busy collage, some familiar, some unknown; street scenes and tiny sets of homes, offices, hallways materialized in different corners of the room, their motions choreographed by the rhythmic words of the whispering women wrapped and enshrouded in obscuring layers, ghosts from the ancient vanished covens who now crowded around Zoya. Each voice layered over another, narrating in cacophony the many-dimensional scenes playing all around.
Zoya kept control, maintaining her concentration; she was well practiced in this art. More than a century ago, when Elga first gently dropped the owl ball into the pipe for her, she had been taken on an anxiety-ridden journey into darkness that disclosed a wild and chaotic universe, purposeful in its intention but unfathomable in its cause, its myriad of forces so overwhelmingly powerful Zoya barely survived witnessing it all. But she lived, and learned, and now she could choose the thread she wished to explore amid the tumult, focusing on the ghosts’ discordant tones until she isolated each tableau she wanted to follow. There in the corner, by the love seat, a miniature Oliver volleyed in an early-morning game of tennis, while over by the base of the sink she saw her rabbit Will making his way through the crowd to work, looking a little worried, but more steady in his step than he knew.
She looked around, trying to locate Elga. There was a street carnival and a small bedroom where two lovers lay entwined, a fog passed across their bodies, blown from the tops of rows of boiling beakers that sat in a busy laboratory; then trees grew up between the industrious scientists until they all disappeared into a dense forest. A parliament of owls flew out from the high branches, spreading their broad wings to clear the room of every vision, causing it all to vanish like vapor in the air. She looked around the empty apartment, frustrated; there was more to discover, she sensed it, some crucial element was lurking below.
She lit the pipe and inhaled again, this time more deeply and with subsequent greater effect. Flickering to life in the kitchen space, a rat’s giant head stared out at her. On the rodent’s forehead a man stood like a mountain climber on a peak, or a captain on the bridge of his ship. Not recognizing him, she watched as he leapt above her, becoming a giant now, far larger than the former dimensions of the room. He soared up into the night sky above, then looped and spun like a diver in the air, falling straight into the open mouth of an alto saxophone. Suddenly all the noises of the ghosts ceased and silence filled the room. From deep inside the brass horn a small noise emerged. Zoya could not tell what it was. She leaned in, listening closely, until finally she discerned the voice of a child, a little girl, who seemed to be crying, from fear or solitude. Then more voices joined in, another chorus like the ancient covens but this one somehow more familiar. They grew louder, chanting gibberish and calling out to Zoya. Her eyes went wide with recognition—yes, she did know these voices, she knew these old crones. The chorus steadily increased in volume until they seemed to be screaming. A trembling quiver took hold, sending her body backward onto the floor and shaking her breasts, arms, and thighs in an epileptic frenzy. The voices’ pitch rose steadily inside her head, building in tempo until its harsh and screeching amplitude made her skin flush, her eyes roll back, and her jaw grind hard. Then, finally, in a flash, a great crack of light broke through, shattering the blackness like glass.
It was over. She blinked a bit and stayed there on her side without moving, thinking over what she had seen, what she had heard. She spoke to the empty room: “Mazza, Lyda, Basha, you old cows, back for what?” Then she was silent, as if they might answer. Her senses awake and alert now, she could feel the three, pulling at her the way tides draw in boats. What was their intention? What were they up to? She ran through the visions again in her head. There had been no sign of Elga, which was odd. Why would the old woman be hiding? Finally, she wiped the sweat off her brow and rose to light the kettle. She needed a cup of tea. Her mind drifted back to Will, not because of anything she had seen, but simply because that was where her mind wanted to dance. For amid all the gnarled knots of mystical weaving, he was the uncomplicated one, simply a strong and healthy rabbit, bolting about the field without any sure knowledge, only a bit of naïve wisdom and wholesome innocence guiding his way. It relaxed her to think about him. If only it could last.
Copyright © 2013 by Toby Barlow
Posted January 24, 2014
This wasn't the dark, mysterious novel I thought it might be when I read the title. But, the blurbs clued me in to that before I purchased.
I found Babayaga to be a light, humorous read about Russian witches who live for a Very Long Time. It is set in Paris in the 50's and the word "expat" is used to describe the two fellows from the American Midwest - one slightly disillusioned and the other goes with the flow with a cocktail in his hand.
One of the best aspects is the flea's eye view of the narrative... an irrepressibly jovial policeman is turned into a flea and he rides around on animals and people, full of optimism that is mildly threatened with despair over his situation.
I enjoyed every minute that I was reading this book. I very much recommend it.
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Posted May 20, 2014
One of the best reads that I've had in a long while. Combining intrigue (CIA style) and witchery, the story follows the extraordinary adventures of an ad man, ancient Russian witches and a French detective that ponders the meaning of his existence when he is transformed into a flea. The author does a superb job in bringing Paris of the 50's to life
Posted January 11, 2014