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Paris City of Night
Paris, June 18, 1950
Watery silhouettes formed. First came a wharf and the sides of a gray ship. A wooden gangway strung with ropes appeared next. Two funnels welled up. A man leaned on the railing of the first-class deck, a newspaper rolled and held in his gloved right hand. He wore round eyeglasses, a raincoat and a panama hat.
The second-hand of the darkroom clock swept past 6:00am. Georges Henri removed the print from the solution and passed it from pan to pan.
The darkroom door led to a lavatory. Georges crossed the tiles and clipped the print to a line stretched over the claw-foot bathtub. Leaning on its edge, he closed his eyes. Summer was about to begin. But he felt cold. He shivered as he thought of the passenger with round glasses, and the things the passenger had done. His name was no longer Adolf Eichmann. Only he, MDL in Paris, Globke in Berlin, and Monsignor Petranovic in Genoa had seen the name in the new passport. Only they and Eichmann's escort knew the final destination of Signor Klemens. He was due to disembark in Buenos Aires in twenty-seven days.
Beyond the bathroom window, dawn forged the outlines of a city. The Eiffel Tower gave it away. Paris did not in any way resemble the port city in the print, a city whose church towers and hulking townhouses, and the jagged hills of the Italian Riviera, were coming into focus as the print dried.
The photograph had been taken from the deck of a freighter, Georges noted, preparing his report for MDL. It was anchored approximately one hundred yards away from the ship carrying Eichmann-Klemens. That would explain the elevated standpoint. Viewed with a magnifying loupe, the print and its negative would reveal other details. The approximate time yesterday when operative Grant took the picture could be calculated, for instance, and the ambient temperature. It was unusually cool for June in both Genoa and Paris. Eichmann's raincoat was beige, standard-issue, provided by CIC via the Red Cross. Three letters were visible in the name of the rolled newspaper. C-o-r. Corriere della Sera or Corriere Mercantile?
Rolled inside was another newspaper, a German newspaper. The photograph was black-and-white. The three colors of the ship's flag were readable nonetheless. All that was required was familiarity with the gray scale.
Paris, December 26, 2007
Stop—stop it, stop!
The carriage jerked to a halt, the driver's words thickening from baritone to bass. Madeleine screamed herself awake in an unfamiliar bed. The coachman's face hovered over her. He wore white gloves.
Go away, Madeleine pleaded. Her voice startled her. It was the voice of an old woman, cracked and frail. She looked at her outstretched hands. But it was too dark. She couldn't see their age marks and knotted veins. She ran her fingers over pleats and pouches and whispered. This is the nightmare. I am the nightmare.
Madeleine fumbled for the light switch. It wasn't where it should be. Her hearing aid scuttled across the nightstand ahead of blunt fingers. Go away, she shouted again. The hallway floor creaked, the parquet wrestling in its grooves. Straining, Madeleine raised herself out of bed. She found her slippers and shuffled to the French windows, half expecting to see moonlight silhouetting the schooner shrouds and her grandfather's coachman. But the curtains were shut. She wondered why and pulled them open. Light bled in. There was no carriage, no coachman and no white sailing ship. A streetlight glowed beyond the shrubs bordering the garden. Hers was the last freestanding house left in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. Old money. The world her grandparents had known. Her world. When she was gone they would build another of those. She stared at the marble-clad apartment building next door. I was born here. Ninety-three years ago. And I'll die here. Soon.
In the hallway Madeleine de Lafayette's grandparents frowned down at her from a gilt-framed photograph. Phaeton or landau, she asked herself. The daguerreotype on the shelf showed a phaeton with a schooner moored behind it. She lifted the daguerreotype and grappled with another memory, something about plates and numbers and a codebook. A voice whispered in her head, drawing her eyes toward the schooner's rigging. Sailors climbed up the ratlines into the shrouds on a winter day in 1915.
Madeleine didn't turn on the floorlamp. She knew the topography blindfolded. Christmas lights glowed on the small plastic tree. She wished it were a live fir tree. Perhaps they thought she wouldn't know the difference.
The Persian carpet in the living room had worn through. She felt it with her slippers. Threadbare. How had the Empire table separated itself from the Louis Philippe sofa? Somehow it had crossed the room, shedding its ship models and Degas bronze ballerina. She puzzled. Everything seemed to get up and move. Pictures. Sculptures. Books. Even furniture. Elves, she whispered to herself. Or rats.
"You're becoming absent-minded, Madame." That was Mademoiselle Trichet's explanation. The nurse. "It's normal at your age. Take your medication. It's in your mind. There are no rats in the house, and no freighters or sailing ships in the garden."
Phaeton or landau, Madeleine asked herself again as she shuffled forward, hearing the gravel under the carriage's metal-rimmed wheels. It was pulling up to the wharf now where La Liberté awaited. A clock struck three. Beeswax. Dust. Who ever thought I would live to be so old?
The overstuffed armchair threw open its green upholstered wings. Madeleine sank into them, smelling the musty damask her mother had loved. She thought of her mother and humorless, mustachioed father. Grandfather hadn't approved of him. Grandfather hadn't approved of her, Madeleine, an only grandchild. Not a grandson and heir for a shipping dynasty. Later, years later, he'd scoffed at her again. Joining the Free French with General de Gaulle wasn't something a de Lafayette lady would do. Working for the Americans was worse.
But they were dead, she consoled herself. They and their world. None of it was any more real than a daguerreotype of a ship's shrouds and lines.
Angling the plate she caught the light off the Christmas tree. Madeleine scrutinized the daguerreotype. She remembered colors but saw only the plate's duochrome black-and-white. They'd scuttled La Liberté after 80 years of service. I wasn't yet ten. The road to the wharf was rough. That coachman was rash to drive so fast. The carriage was a phaeton, she muttered to herself. It was a phaeton. The ship had been square rigged. Why did the daguerreotype show an open landau coach and schooner rigging?
Madeleine peered as if into a looking glass, seeing her life reflected in the plate. She thought of Jay, her protégé. Jay Grant. She'd seen him in his crib. He'd bought the daguerreotype for her. La Liberté: Study of Schooner Shrouds, by Quincy Alphonse Louis Thomas. Made in 1843. She couldn't help wondering why she had outlived Jay's parents, Marie-Anne and William. And her own son. No one is left, she whispered. No one but Jacqueline. Jacqueline visited once a week. But she was a decade younger so didn't count. Georges. Yes. Georges was still alive. But Georges was always so busy. And he'd scolded her, she couldn't remember why. The plates? Was that why Georges had asked her all those questions? Something about books and photographs, plates and numbers from the old days. With William. Something about rats and rigging and cargo ships.
Madeleine ran her fingers along the daguerreotype's metal edge. I never felt old until now. The medication wasn't working. Georges had sent in the rat-catchers. But the pills hadn't helped and the rats were still in the basement, looking for something. She would have to tell Georges again. Tell the nurse.
Light seeped through the French windows. The Christmas tree twinkled. Madeleine closed her eyes. Heat throbbed behind her temples. Horses reared up. The carriage flew over ruts and russet gravel, the ship's shrouds billowing above. She felt the coachman's hands on her shoulders again. A face welled up from the daguerreotype.
"Where is it Madeleine?" a voice wheedled. "Help us find it." Madeleine forced open her eyes. But the nightmare didn't stop. The silhouette shook her. Its gloved hands wrenched the daguerreotype from her fingers.
Stop it, she pleaded. Stop. Then a warm, scarlet curtain fell and all was dark and silent.
Paris, December 28, 2007
A tailwind had blown the Airbus 300C across the Atlantic. It felt to Jay like the wind was still behind him. He slipped his black oxfords on for the third time, repacked his briefcase and merged in the arrivals hall with other rumpled passengers from London and Milan. Why he had to submit to a shoe-check on the ground at Charles de Gaulle he couldn't figure out. But there was no point arguing. It only got you in trouble. Through the hall's outsized skylights his eyes tracked the Mirage fighter. Was it the same one that had escorted his flight? An orange alert had been announced the day before Christmas. According to the voice on the PA system it was still in effect. Orange wasn't red. And red wasn't black. But something had to be wrong.
"What's up?" Jay asked, watching his neighbor from business class crane her neck following the fighter's trajectory.
"Definitely something." Debra had a light southern accent. She'd said she was from Kentucky, an account executive now working in Paris. She held up the palm of her free hand. "Don't ask me what's going on. At least we got through Christmas without a bang."
"Bangs are for New Year's Eve, aren't they?"
Debra looked Jay in the eye. "I guess New Year's would be a good time for something unpleasant." She pointed to the sign overhead and the line of arriving passengers. "I'm non-EU," she sighed. She pronounced the European Union's acronym as if it were a disease. "See you again in Paris maybe?"
Jay took Debra's cappuccino-colored hand. He pecked her cheeks, smelling jasmine and toothpaste. "Absolutely," he said, unsure of what he was feeling. "I'll call you." He veered left to join a short line under the 'EU Citizens Only' sign, making an effort to look ahead and keep his eyes off Debra.
Jay's French passport-of-convenience and the European Union's bureaucratic ambiguities eased his passage through security. He stepped up to the line. The customs guard waved him to the inspection zone and asked him to open his briefcase. Again.
"Vintage photographs," Jay said. He showed the no-commercial-value notice stamped in New York. "I'm returning them to the Gilford Foundation." Jay used his smoothest accent, the one he'd picked up from his French aunt.
"You're a dual national?"
"Please show me your American passport."
Jay complied. The guard scrutinized the passport photos, comparing them to Jay's angular features: above-average height, dark hair, blue-brown eyes. He moved his lips as he read, pausing to glance at Jay's mismatched irises. They made the guard frown involuntarily.
At a newsstand Jay bought a copy of last night's Le Monde. By 9am he'd caught the RER commuter train heading into town. Clean, fast and quiet, the train reeked of disinfectants. They hinted at unclean secrets. A paramilitary SWAT team worked its way between the passengers. Rain painted the train's windows, masking the housing projects and spaghetti-bowl freeways beyond. Jay almost regretted not sharing a cab with Debra, the talkative, troublingly attractive woman from Kentucky. He guessed she was thirty, his junior by too many years. They'd just spent seven hours together, roaming the world's wonders, and talking about Paris. Jay hadn't wanted to seem overly eager to prolong their chance encounter. Debra. No memories attached, at least not spelled that way. Debra Wright. She'd said she was 'rapturous' about her newfound life in Paris. Jay shivered as he recalled her enthusiasm. Sleeping around had lost its appeal to him. But for the first time in a long time he felt conflicted. He was going to marry Amy. He loved Amy. They were engaged. Why had he met Debra? Why now?
At the Villepinte station Jay rearranged himself on the vinyl seat, making room for a thickset rider. He wore a knee-length sheepskin coat. The man's face looked the color of dead fish. It had been ravaged by acne in a now-distant adolescence. He stank of cheap aftershave.
In contrast to the orderly surroundings at Villepinte, the station platforms were scrawled with graffiti, much of it obscene. Jay puzzled at the fresh aerosol lettering of a phrase he hadn't seen before. Abraham is Sacred it screamed. The words were spelled in French and English and—he assumed they were the same words—in Arabic. He noticed the acne-scarred man reading the graffiti, his lips moving silently, like the customs guard's lips.
Rows of commuters leaned against the walls, waiting. Métro, boulot, dodo ran the Parisian blue-collar refrain. It translated to Subway, slog, sleep ... Subway, slog, sleep.... The words repeated themselves in Jay's head, accompanied by snapshots of Amy and Debra. Day and night. Familiar and unknown. Comfortable and exciting. As the train pulled out again it occurred to him that he'd been commuting most of his life. First he'd shunted between his divorced parents in New York and Paris. Later he'd been a photographer, constantly on the move. Now he was a vintage photography consultant. Traveling had become joyless in the post-9/11 world. But he was an addict. He had wanderlust, and on a deep level it troubled him. He didn't often scrutinize himself. That was too painful. Still, he couldn't help noticing the dissimilarities between his native and adopted cities, and the way they affected his character and mindset. To'ing and fro'ing between Paris and New York and noting the variations was a way of keeping them in separate sub-files.
The first hours after arrival were the best for the kind of revelations he enjoyed sharing with Amy. She'd been marooned in Paris since the early 1980s. He paused. It was hard to credit. They'd actually met in a French lycée. They'd been high school sweethearts. And their relationship had gone sweet and sour ever since. Inside his designer suits Jay still felt like the curious, vulnerable teenager she'd loved. But middle age was staring them down, and now he had responsibilities, major responsibilities.
The train rocked. Jay studied the acne-scarred man pressed next to him on the seat, wondering which newspaper he read. Carefully opening his copy of Le Monde Jay glanced at the headlines. The fear of more riots and Islamic extremists was tangible. Turning the pages as the commuter train accelerated, his eye fell on the Culture section. He read a single-paragraph item twice, his grip on the newspaper tightening.
During an end-of-year auction to benefit a charitable foundation, a last-minute offering had startled bidders. It was something serious collectors would expect to find at Christies or Sotheby's. The item was a rare, 1843 French stereoscopic daguerreotype titled La Liberté Grée en Goélette by Quincy Alphonse Louis Thomas. The plate had garnered the exceptionally high price of 160,000 euros. That was over $300,000. Seller and buyer were anonymous.
La Liberté: Study of Schooner Shrouds Jay repeated to himself, sucking at the train compartment's stale air. He folded the newspaper. Why would Madeleine de Lafayette sell her favorite daguerreotype? She had millions in the bank. To give a gift to that pet charity of hers? More than once she'd told Jay she felt guilty for living past ninety. The charity needed her legacy, she'd said. But she couldn't bring herself to part with her photography collection or sell her house.
Jay was tempted to phone her. He flipped open his satellite cell and then remembered he'd not only failed to send Madeleine a Christmas card. He'd also forgotten to telephone on her birthday. He hadn't seen her and her housekeeper in months. They might've misinterpreted his absence. But he would straighten that out. He'd surprise them with a present for New Year's instead of Christmas, and another for Madeleine's birthday. Maybe he'd persuade them to come to the Gilford Foundation's offices on the Champs-Elysées. Every December 31st thousands of people poured onto the world's widest avenue and at the stroke of midnight hugged each other amid flying champagne corks. Even a cynic couldn't help enjoying the fireworks and floodlit Arc de Triomphe.
Excerpted from Paris City of Night by DAVID DOWNIE. Copyright © 2008 David Downie. Excerpted by permission of Pegasus Books LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted December 20, 2013
Jay Grant son of a CIA agent is a journalist turned photography historian / expert uncovers some strange happenings, his journalistic instincts take over, and starts to investigate, drawing himself and girlfriend Amy further and further into danger. Set in Paris this spook thriller has the feel of actually being set in Paris a hundred years earlier. The description and detail of early photography creates this effect, even although the mobile phone and other present day devices are ever present. This is a book you have to work at, as the action does not really grip you until well into the second half. Overall it is an okay book but, could have been much better with less photography lesson and more action.
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