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PARIS. 18 SEPTEMBER, 1941.
Casson woke in a room in a cheap hotel and smoked his last cigarette. The window by the bed was open and the shade, yellow and faded, bumped gently against the sill in the morning breeze. When it moved he could see fierce blue sky, a bar of sunlight on the lead sheeting of the roof across the courtyard. Something in the air, he thought, a ghost of something, and the sky was lit a certain way. So then, autumn.
A knock at the door; a woman came in and sat on the edge of the bed. She had a room down the hall and came to see him sometimes. He offered her the cigarette, she inhaled and gave it back. "Thank you," she said. She stood up, pulled her slip over her head and hung it on a nail in the wall, then climbed in next to him. "Tell me," she said, "what is it you see out there?"
"Sky. Nothing much."
She pulled the blanket up so it covered their shoulders. "You live in a dream," she said.
"You think it's wrong?"
He felt her shrug. "I don't know--why bother?"
She settled next to him, so the tips of her breasts brushed the skin of his back, ran a finger down the line of hair from his chest to his stomach, and slid her hand between his legs. He stubbed the cigarette out carefully in a saucer he kept on the windowsill, then closed his eyes. For a time he stayed like that, adrift.
"Well," he said, "maybe you're right."
He turned to face her, she rested a knee on his hip, opening her legs. After a moment she said, "Your hands are always warm."
"Warm hands, cold heart."
She laughed, then kissed him. "Not you," she said. He could smell wine on her breath.
His mind wandered. It was very quiet, all he could hear was her breathing, long and slow, and the yellow shade, bumping against the sill in the morning air.
Place Clichy. He sat at an outside table at a café and sipped the roast barley infusion the waiter brought him. Coffee, he thought, remembering it. Very expensive now, he didn't have the money. He stared out at the square, Clichy a little lost in the daylight, the cheap hotels and dance halls gray and crooked in the morning sun, but Casson didn't mind. He liked it--in the same way he liked deserted movie sets and winter beaches.
On the chair next to him somebody had left a damp copy of yesterday's Le Soir. He spread it out on the table.
... the low hills of Lokhvitsa, brooding at nightfall, the steep banks of the river Dnieper, the grumble of distant cannonade. Suddenly, white Very lights fired from flare pistols, sputtering as they float to earth. A signal! Guderian's Third Panzer has linked up with Kleist's Sixteenth Panzer! The Kiev pocket has snapped shut like a trap: 300,000 Russian casualties, 600,000 taken prisoner, five Soviet armies obliterated. Now, Kiev must fall within hours. Victorious Wehrmacht columns burst into song as they prepare to march into the defeated city.
Casson shook his head--who writes this shit? His eyes wandered to the top of the column. Oh, from their foreign correspondent, Georges Broux. Well, that explained it. Once upon a time, when he'd been Jean Casson, producer of gangster films, with an office near the Champs-Elysées, Georges Broux had sent him a screenplay. Morning Must Come, something like that. Maybe it was Dawn that had to come, or A New Day, but that was the general idea. La Belle France brought to her knees by decadence and socialism. "Dear Georges, thanks for letting us have a look; unfortunately ..." And did, Casson wondered, the Wehrmacht actually burst into song? Maybe it did.
He searched in his pocket until he found the cigarette stub and lit it, sipped his barley coffee, turned to the movie page. Playing at the Impériale, over on the Champs-Elysées, was Premier Rendezvous--first date--with Danielle Darrieux and Louis Jourdan. If you'd seen that, the Gaumont had "a frothy romantic comedy." Or, if you were really hard to please, you could go out to Neuilly for "a little jewel, bubbling over with mirth! A sly French wink!" Casson read through the listings for the smaller theatres, sometimes they ran revivals and his old films showed up. No Way Out or The Devil's Bridge. Maybe, even, Night Run.
He heard the engine--tuned to a perfect hum--and forced himself to look up casually. A black traction-avant Citroën, a Gestapo car, had pulled to the curb in front of the café. Casson's heart hammered against his ribs. He bent over the newspaper, concealing his face, and turned the page. A goalie leaped toward the edge of his net as the ball sailed past his hands, a jumble of print, this team 2, that team 1. He had an identity card, Marin, Jean Louis, and a ration book. Nothing more. It wasn't a quality fake, he'd bought it from a taxi driver, one phone call and that was the end of him. Casson was wanted by the Gestapo; taken in for questioning at the rue des Saussaies office three months earlier, he had crawled out an unbarred window and escaped over the roof. Dumb luck, Casson thought, the kind that doesn't come a second time.
The driver got out of the Citroën and held the back door open. A tall man in a dark suit, a raincoat worn over his shoulders, came out of the little hotel next to the café. He was young and fair, very white, very drawn. There wasn't much, really there wasn't anything, that you couldn't buy on the place Clichy. Perhaps the German officer had bought something he hadn't liked--or maybe it was just the next morning he didn't like it. He paused at the door, put one hand on the roof, leaned forward. Was he going to be sick? No, he climbed into the car, the driver slammed the door.
Look down. That was barely in time. Casson stared at people--who were they? It was just something he could not stop himself from doing. And the man who'd held the door for his superior had caught him at it. Nantes 0, Lille 0. Caen 3, Rouen 2. Please. The Citroën idled, then the front door closed, the driver put the car in gear and drove off, turning onto the boulevard Batignolles.
His room at the Hotel Victoria. Six floors up, under the roof. Ten by ten, narrow iron bed, a chair, a washstand. Ancient wallpaper, the color of oatmeal, and bare wooden boards. Faint smell of sulfur, burned to get rid of the bugs, faint smell of black tobacco. And all the rest of it. Casson took an overcoat down from a hook in the wall. Not so bad. He rubbed his thumb idly across a small stain above the pocket. He'd bought it back in August, when he still had a little money, from a peddler's cart in the place République. For winter, he'd thought, but he wasn't the one who was going to wear it this winter.
He hunted through the pockets, made sure the Goddess of Luck hadn't left a fifty-franc note in there for him. No, nothing. He rolled the coat up tight, held it to the right side of his body. It was his one possession and La Patronne knew it. He owed three weeks' rent, if the owner caught him taking it out of the hotel, she'd stop him, would make a great scene, would probably call the police. Like a mythic beast she stood behind the hotel desk, keeping guard on the door. Draped always in black, wearing broken carpet slippers for her sore feet. Flabby face, eyes like wet stones. She could smell money in the next block. She truly could, Casson thought.
He closed his door silently, went downstairs one cautious step at a time. On the landing of the second floor he became aware of conversation in the lobby, something not right in the tone of it. Halfway down the final flight he stopped. He could see black shoes, blue trousers, the bottom of a cape. Merde. Police. Not an exotic moment in the life of the Hotel Victoria, but Casson could have done without it. He stood still, held his breath, listened intently. About forty years old. Was last seen. If by chance he should.
He went cold. Tried to swallow. The police voice stopped. A long moment. Casson could hear people talking in the street outside the door. Then, finally, the patronne. Mmm, no, she didn't think so. It wasn't anybody she'd seen. Of course she would notify the préfecture if. Jesus, they were looking at a photograph. He counted to three, then clomped down the stairs in a hurry, making all the noise he could. The policeman turned to glance at him as he went by, the patronne looked up from the photograph. "Bonjour, madame," he muttered--busy, tense, angry at the world. She started to say something to him, he could feel her mind working, but he was through the door in three strides and that was that.
He went around the corner, slowed down, got his composure back. Then headed south, toward the 3rd Arrondissement. A bright day, the little ghost of a chill still hung in the morning air. Early autumn this year, he thought. Which meant: early winter. Well, good. Maybe he'd get a few francs more for the overcoat.
He took backstreets, crossing into the 10th Arrondissement. Turgot, Condorcet, d' Abbeville. Then the rue des Petits-Hotels--yes, there were some. On rue Paradis, too many Germans, milling around the Baccarat salesroom. Then, a choice: to cross the boulevard you could take either the rue de la Fidelité or the passage du Désir--street of fidelity or alley of desire. Which? He took the alley, but noted that it ran downhill. Next, he hurried across the broad boulevard Magenta. Too wide, too open. That fucking Haussmann, he thought, rebuilding Paris a hundred years earlier, designing open boulevards to facilitate field-of-fire, cannon shot, against the revolutionary mobs of days to come. A visionary, in his way. He had destroyed the medieval rat's nest of Paris streets, anybody, even a lumbering German, could find his way around. Real Parisians, even those, like Casson, who'd spent their lives in the Passy district of the snob 16th, knew the value of a good maze, rank with crumbling drains and metal pissotières on the corners.
Head down on the narrow streets. Baggy flannel pants, suit jacket with the collar up, three days' growth of beard, workman's peaked cap tilted to one side, shadowing the face. Someone who belonged in the quarter if you didn't look too hard, if you missed the melancholy intelligence in the eyes. He was dark; dark hair, coloring like a suntan that never really went away. A small scar on the cheekbone. Lean body, forty or so. Something about Casson had always made him seem a little beat up by life, even in the old days, on the terrasses of the good cafés--knowing eyes, a half-smile that said it didn't matter what you knew. He liked women, women liked him.
Two flics pedaled by on their bicycles, one of the wheels squeaked each time it went around. Casson watched them. Sooner or later, he thought. He would be taken. Sad, but there wasn't much he could do about it, life just went that way. He knew too many people in Paris, at least a few of them on the wrong side. Or maybe it would be some German version of Simenon's Maigret: self-effacing, unprepossessing, looking forward a little too eagerly to lunch. Taking his pipe from clenched teeth and pointing it at his assistant. "Mark my words, Heinrich, he will return to his old haunts, to the city he knows. Of this you may be certain." And, in fact, when all was said and done, that was the way it turned out. He'd gone home--the romans policiers had it just right. Why? He didn't know. Everywhere else felt wrong, was all he knew. Maybe to live the fugitive life you had to start young, for him it was too late. Still, he didn't want to make it easy for them. Sooner or later, went that week's motto on the Casson family crest, but not today.
3rd Arrondissement--the old Jewish quarter. Cobbled lanes and alleys, silence, deep shadow, Hebrew slogans chalked on the walls. Rue du Marché des Blancs-Manteaux, the smell of onions frying in chicken fat made Casson weak in the knees. He'd been living on bread and margarine, and miniature packets of Bouillon Zip when he could afford the fifty centimes.
Between two leaning tenements, the municipal pawnshop. Massive stone portals; Liberté, Egalité, and Fraternité carved solemnly into the granite cap above the doors. Inside, a municipal room: flaking gray paint, the fume of disinfectant rising from the wood floor. A few people scattered about, looking like dark bundles forgotten on the high-backed benches. At the front of the room, a counter topped with frosted-glass panels. Casson could see the shadows of clerks, walking back and forth. He took a brass token from a gardien at the door and found an empty bench in the back of the room. An official appeared at the wire grille that covered the cashier's window. He cleared his throat and called out, "Number eighty-one."
A woman stood up.
"Will you take thirty francs?"
"Monsieur! Thirty francs--?"
This was as much argument as he cared to listen to. He waved a dismissive hand and pushed a crystal serving dish out onto the counter.
"Well," the woman said. A change of heart, she would take whatever they offered.
"Too late, madame." The voice polite but firm. Really, he would not be subjected to the whims of these people. "So then, eighty-two? Eighty-two." A bearded man carrying a copper saucepot shuffled toward the counter.
Casson began to worry about the overcoat--unrolled it, tried, surreptitiously, to fluff it up a little so it didn't look so much like a bundle of dirty rags. Remember, he told himself, it's important to make a good impression, confidence is everything. A fine coat! Cosy for winter. God he was hungry. He had to have fifty francs from this coat. He stared up at the lights, yellow globes with shimmering halos, it hurt to look at them. He closed his eyes for a moment, the back of the wooden bench in front of him banged him in the forehead.
A hand gripped his elbow. "Unless you want to see the cops, you better wake up."
Casson shook his head. Apparently he'd fainted. "I'm all right," he said.
"No sleeping allowed."
A hard voice, Casson turned to see who it was. A man perhaps in middle age, not so easy to say because one side of his face had been burned, skin dead white in some places, shiny pink in others. In an attempt to hide the damage he'd let his hair grow long and it hung lank just above a knob of remaining ear. "Ca va?" he said.
"Done this before?"
"Well, if you don't mind advice, you'll get more out of them if you wait until the afternoon. After they've had their lunch and their little glass of wine. That's the only time to do business with the government."
Lazenac put out a hand and Casson shook it. It was like gripping a rough-finish board.
"Let's go somewhere else," Lazenac said. "This place ..."
Deeper into the Marais. Paper-white men in black coats, women who kept their eyes lowered. To a tiny café in what had been a store. Lazenac ordered a flask of Malaga, cheap red wine, and black bread. "It's good strength," he told Casson.
Whatever that meant it was true. The sour wine jolted him back to life. Chased down with a chunk of the mealy bread it made him feel warm.
"Don't mind the neighborhood, do you?"
"Funny thing, since I had my face blown up I like the Jews."
"Just the war. Chemin des Dames at Verdun--the second time we tried it, November of '16. My corporal got hit, I turned to see if I could do anything and one of those fucking Nebelwerfers--mine-throwers--got me. But, turning like that saved my eyes, so I suppose I should be grateful." He paused for a sip of wine. "Were you in that?"
"With a film unit," Casson said. "Air reconnaissance."
From Lazenac, a certain kind of smile--the fix is in. "Sweet job," he said.
Casson shrugged. "It wasn't my idea. I just signed up, they told me where to go."
"Way of the world, if you don't mind my saying that."
"No, I don't mind."
Lazenac stared out the window. "I'm not so bad off. With the girls, it's okay as long as you don't ask them to touch it. And I have to keep the conversation on my good side. But then, my grampa did that for twenty years." They both laughed.
Lazenac poured some more wine in Casson's glass. "Go ahead, it's the only way to deal with those assholes on Blancs-Manteaux."
Casson raised his glass. "Thank you," he said.
Lazenac shrugged it off. "Don't bother. I'm rich today, tomorrow it's your turn." He looked around the little room. A very old man in a yarmulke turned the page of his newspaper, squinting to see the print at the top of the column. "The worst of it is," Lazenac said. He paused, shook his head. "Well, what happened to me really didn't matter, if you see what I mean."
"Because, in June of '40, they got what they came for the first time."
"Maybe it isn't forever," Casson said.
"No. It can't be. Of course, we both know people who'd like to ignore the whole thing--just try to get along with them. But you know the saying, le plus on leur baise le cul, le plus ils nous chient sur la tête." The more you kiss their ass, the more they shit on your head.
"Some people used to say that even before the war," Casson said.
Lazenac nodded. "Yes," he said. "Now and then they did." He poured himself some more wine. "Where are you from, Marin?"
"I can hear that, but one of the bons quartiers, right?"
"So what are you doing down here?"
Casson shrugged and smiled. Of course he had friends and some of them--one or two of them anyhow--would have helped. But if he went anywhere near his old life he was finished, and so were they.
"I'm doing a job tonight," Lazenac said. "We're going to take something from the Germans and sell it. There are three or four of us, but we can always use one more. I'm not sure about the money but it'll be more than you're earning now. How about it?"
"We'll meet at the porte de la Chapelle freight yards, the rue Albon bridge, about eight. Have a shave, and give your jacket a brush."
Casson nodded. Was Lazenac just being kind?
"Some of the people we talk to, maybe you can do a better job than we can. Want to try it?"
Casson said he did.
"Number one hundred and thirty-eight."
By now the room was warm, a fly buzzing against the grimy window. Casson walked up to the counter, eyes down. The clerk behind the grilled window had a small face, pink scalp, the eyes of a terrier. He looked at Casson a moment longer than he needed to. Well well.
Casson slid the coat across the polished counter. No rueful smiles, no jokes. The urge was powerful but he fought it off. He trudged back to the wooden bench, let his mind wander, tried not to watch the clock on the wall.
"One hundred and thirty-eight?"
"Monsieur, will you take a hundred and eighty francs?"
"Yes," he said, headed for the counter before they came to their senses. What in the name of heaven--maybe the thing actually had value. His wife, Marie-Claire--they'd been separated for years--used to suspect the little paintings they bought at the flea markets were lost masterpieces. You don't know, Jean-Claude, poor Cézanne may have paid his laundress with this, see how the pear reflects the light. But a coat? Was it llama, chamois, something exotic?
The clerk pulled a pin from the corner of a packet of ten-franc notes and, using a practiced thumb and forefinger, snapped eighteen of them into a pile. As he slid the money and the pawn ticket across the counter his eyes met Casson's: a sad day for us, monsieur, when a gentleman of our class is forced to pawn his overcoat.
Outside, Lazenac was leaning against a wall, smoking a cigarette.
"Let's go have, a little something," Casson said.
Another liter of Malaga, then he headed back to Clichy. He would eat. A bistro around the corner from his hotel had fried potatoes and the smell drove him crazy every time he went past. With the dinner you got a piece of stewed chicken, called coquelet, a polite way of saying the rooster got old and died.
Shit, he thought, I'm rich. He could pay a week on his hotel, sixty francs, and thirty for a meal. And then there was Lazenac's "job" out at the porte de la Chapelle. If he didn't get thrown in jail, he'd have even more. From there, he went on to become one of the wealthiest men in Europe, and today, his portrait hangs in every lycée in France, this beloved entrepreneur who--
Oh the Malaga.
He hadn't felt this good for a long time. In July, on the run from the Germans, he'd been about to leave the country when love--and love was hardly enough of a word for it--had driven him back to France. Pure madness, a folie de jeunesse at the age of forty-two, and he'd gotten just what he deserved. Because, when he went looking for her, she was gone. Why? He didn't know. She hadn't been arrested, and she hadn't fled in the middle of the night. She had packed her bags and paid her bill and left the hotel. Fin, like the end of a movie.
June 1941, off the Normandy coast, just at the moment of escape, as the fishing boat turned toward England, he had jumped into the sea and swum for the shore, British special operatives waving their Stens and calling him names. Walking all night, he'd made his way to a cottage he owned at the edge of Deauville, rented to an oil-company lawyer and his wife. But they were gone and the Germans had fixed lead seals to the doors, with tags stating that the house, in a strategic area, had been declared off-limits to civilians.
Too bad, but maybe it didn't matter. He'd had a thousand francs, faked papers, and love in his heart. Had crossed the line into the Zone Non-Occupée, the ZNO, then south to Lyons, then up the hill to "their" hotel. Then, a clerk: "I'm sorry, monsieur...." She had gone. No mistake in identity possible, she was well known; the film actress called Citrine, not a star exactly but certainly not somebody who could simply fade away. She was just--gone. Did she know he had escaped the Germans? Did she panic when he disappeared? Had she simply fallen in love with somebody else? He didn't think so, but what he did know was that with her--a life of highs, lows, tears, chaos--anything was possible.
He survived it--maybe he survived it. Wandered north for a time, to Bourges, to Orléans, to Nantes. Where he'd been a stranger. Always a bad thing in France, and now a dangerous thing--just waking up in these places felt wrong.
So he came home to Paris to die.
He was tired, sat on a bench in a little park. A woman strolled over, gave him a look. He shrugged--sorry, I'd like to, but I can't afford it. She was heavy and matronly, like the headmistress in a school. Fine theatre to be had there, he thought. "Maybe next time," he said. She looked sad, went off down the street. The sun was low, orange flame in a puddle of dirty water on the cobblestones. What was it, Friday? Maybe. September--he was sure of that, anyhow. He should have asked how much, maybe they could have struck a deal.
8:10 P.M. Porte de la Chapelle freight yards. Casson stood on a pedestrian bridge above the tracks. Rails crisscrossed into the distance, a dull sheen in the last of the twilight. Below him, a train of empty boxcars was being made up by a switching engine. A long whistle echoed off the hillside, a cloud of brown smoke drifted over the tarred beams of the bridge. From where he stood he could see Lazenac and his friends, gray shadows in workers' clothing, heads down, hands in pockets.
At the end of the bridge Lazenac introduced him to Raton--small and wiry, with sharp eyes and a clever smile--and Victor. He was simply Jean. They walked east, along the edge of the yards. Not taking it easy, exactly, but not in any hurry; going to work, there'd still be plenty left when they got there. Across the street, a row of warehouses, rusty iron gates chained shut. As they passed an alley, Lazenac made a small motion with his hand, a truck's engine sputtered to life and backed away, deeper into the shadows. Another hundred meters and they reached the main entry to the railyards: a striped barrier bar lowered across the road, an Alsatian shepherd in the alert prone position. Wehrmacht military police lounged around a guard-hut. Nobody said anything, nobody's eyes met, but the feeling was like Friday night in a workers' bar--the fight had to happen, the only question was when.
Five minutes later, well out of sight of the guards, they stopped by a wall. Ten feet high, old plaster cracked and peeling. Two handmade ladders lay flat in the weeds. Raton and Victor set one of them against the wall and braced the bottom. Lazenac climbed to the top, took the second ladder as it was handed up, and lowered it carefully down the other side of the wall. He put one foot across, then shifted his weight gracefully and stood on the second ladder. "You're next," he called to Casson in a stage whisper. Casson worked his way up the awful thing--barely wide enough to get a foot on each rung. He was scared now, not so much of the Germans, but of being asked to do something he wouldn't be able to do.
As he neared the top, Lazenac said, "Watch your hands." A moment later he saw why: broken glass--wine bottles had been cemented into the cap of the wall. Casson took a deep breath, got one foot over, balanced, then swung across. He did it wrong--he knew it an instant before it happened--and began his backward tumble to the ground. Only he didn't fall, because Lazenac saw it coming, reached up and grabbed him by the belt and forced his weight back on the ladder. "Merci bien," Casson said, breathing hard.
"Je vous en prie."
On the other side of the wall, Casson knelt by some kind of storm sewer, the open end of a drainage culvert. Over time, the outflow had cut itself a channel, some three feet deep, into the hillside. When the others were down the ladder, Lazenac led them single file, crouched low, along the gulley. "Stay close to the ground," Raton whispered to him. "If the schleuh catch you in here they'll break your head."
At the foot of the hill, they waited. A busy night: in the distance, the sound of yard engines chugging up and down the tracks, and the steel clash of boxcars being coupled. Directly in front of them were flatbed cars stacked with peeled logs, probably cut in the forests of the Massif Central and now en route to Germany. After what seemed to Casson like a long time, the red glow of a track lantern moved toward them and Lazenac said, "At last, the cheminots." Railwaymen.
There were two of them. They shook hands all around, then the one with the lantern said, "It's about two hundred meters up ahead. Third track in."
"An SNCF car," the other said. "7112."
"All right," Lazenac said. "We're on our way."
"Keep an eye out for the yard security."
"Thanks for everything, we'll settle up on the weekend--same as before."
"See you then. Vive la France."
"Yeah," Lazenac said. They both laughed.
The lantern faded away down the track, Lazenac led them in the other direction. Casually, without stealth--every right to be here. The SNCF car stood high above its cast-iron wheels. A wire seal secured the door handle. From inside his jacket Lazenac produced an iron bar about two feet long. He worked it through the loop and put his weight on it until the wire snapped. Standing on the metal rungs beside the door, he pushed it open and ran the beam of a flashlight up and down the stacked cargo. Cotton sacks piled to the ceiling, stenciled with the name of the company and the label SUCRE DE CANNE. Sugar.
Lazenac swung inside and reappeared a moment later carrying a sack. Victor stood below him. Lazenac dropped the sack on Victor's shoulder and Victor then headed back toward the hillside. Casson was next. "Don't worry," Lazenac said. "You're stronger than you think."
Who was strong was Lazenac. He swept a sack into the air and lowered it onto Casson's shoulder. Casson felt his knees buckle and said "Merde" under his breath. Raton, leaning against the freight car, laughed, then patted him on the arm.
He moved off, swaying at every step, but he wasn't going to fail. Up ahead, Victor was plodding along at a steady pace. Casson went about ten steps, then, the sour voice of authority: "All right-- just where do you think you're going with that?"
Casson turned to look. Some kind of railroad guard--an official armband, a whistle. He was tapping his palm with a long, wooden bâton blanc, a policeman's club. "Put it down, you," he said to Casson.
I'll never be able to pick it up again. Lazenac leaned out of the open doorway and rapped the man on the head with the iron bar. For a moment there was dead silence.
Indignant, the guard rubbed furiously at the spot where he'd been hit. "Are you crazy?" He grabbed the silver whistle around his neck and put it to his lips. Raton kicked him in the stomach and he folded in half. Lazenac jumped down off the boxcar and tore the whistle off his neck, then the two of them beat him senseless. When he lay full length on the cinders and didn't move, Casson adjusted the sack on his shoulder as best he could and headed for the wall.
Somehow, he got himself up the ladder. How he did it he would never know, but he reached the top, using both hands to haul himself up a rung at a time. When he stopped to rest, panting like an engine, he discovered that Victor was waiting for him at the top of the ladder on the other side. "Now, just lift it across--I'll help you--and try not to break the glass."
Casson looked puzzled.
"Why let them know how we did it? There's a war on, you never know when you might want to get into a railyard."
The truck was waiting for them a little way up the street. A small Citroën delivery van--camionette--with a shutter in the back instead of doors and the name of a bakery painted on the side. Victor rolled the shutter up and tossed his sack in. Casson did the same--secretly very proud of himself when the weight made the truck bounce on its springs. A minute later, Lazenac and Raton showed up. "You know where you're going?" Lazenac asked the driver.
"The rue Hennequin. In the seventeenth."
"Out by the Ternes Métro."
"What's it called?"
"Ma Petite Auberge."
The driver snickered--my little country inn. "Mon petit cul," he said. My little backside.
Lazenac laughed. "Well, when you have a restaurant, that's what you'll call it." He leaned into the cab of the truck and said, "Keep a cool head, Michot. There'll be Gestapo cars, Germans, a real circus."
"We'll be fine."
Casson and Lazenac rode the Métro out to the 17th. It was sad on the train. Before the war, that time of night, there would have been waiters going home in their black jackets and white aprons, lovers who couldn't wait to get into bed, and the strange old birds one always saw--Sanskrit professors, stamp collectors--going out to eat cassoulet or heading up to Montmartre to give the girls a bad time. Now, people stared at the floor, their spirit broken.
"For us," Lazenac said, "getting hold of the stuff is the easy part."
"I'll do what I can," Casson said. "What's the price?"
"Oh, maybe three hundred francs a kilo--but not for the quantity we've got. Tonight we'll try to sell a hundred kilos."
"So, two fifty?"
"Tiens!" Lazenac said with a grin--wouldn't that be nice.
The train stopped at Abbesses, idling for a time in the empty station. Casson smoothed his lapels, trying to make them lie flat. His face burned like fire, he'd shaved close, using a three-month-old razor blade. Cleaned his shoes with a rag, borrowed a tie from the old man down the hall, and that was about the best he could do. At least, he thought, looking down at his feet, his socks were still in decent shape. It was the socks that went first. A whore he knew said she only took customers whose socks were in good condition. One of Casson's fellow lodgers had shown him how he used a pen to color in the skin that showed white in the holes.
Lazenac dropped a heavy hand on his shoulder. "Don't worry too much," he said, as though reading Casson's thoughts. "It's all in your face--who you are."
"Once upon a time, maybe, but now ..."
Lazenac smiled, only one side of it really worked. "No," he said, "life's not like that."
10:30 in the evening in the rue Hennequin. Some restaurants lived secret lives, others spread out into their streets. This was the second kind; a green-and-gold façade, a line of handsome automobiles. A Horch, a Lancia Aprilia. In the back seat of an open sedan, a redhead with a dead fox around her neck was smoking like a movie star. On the street: German officers in shiny leather, boots and belts and straps; their girlfriends, wearing plenty of rouge and eye shadow and black stockings; and the strange tidal debris--the Count of Somewhere, Somebody the art dealer--that flowed into conquered cities.
"We go around the back," Lazenac said.
Down the alley the door to the kitchen was propped open with a chair. The air was thick with clouds of garlicky steam, frying fat, old grease, and lye soap. Lazenac spoke to one of the cooks and a waiter appeared a moment later. "Oh, it's you," he said to Lazenac. "You have something for us?"
"Sugar," Casson said. "As much as you like."
Their eyes met, the waiter stared at him.
"The patron around?" Casson said.
"I'm the one you see."
"Maybe we'll come back when he's around."
"Don't be smart."
"Thursday? How would that be?"
It took a minute for the waiter to run off and get the owner. A true beauf, Casson thought--from beau-frére, brother-in-law. Stocky and pink and mean. He framed himself in the doorway and put his hands on his hips. "So, what's the big problem?"
"No problem," Casson said. "What's the price for sugar tonight?"
"I don't know. What do you want?"
"Lebec is offering two fifty. And next week we'll have butter."
"How much sugar?"
"A hundred kilos."
"Hmm. That's, ah, twenty-five thousand francs."
"That's what Lebec said."
"Then go see Lebec."
"If you like."
"No, wait a minute, I'm only kidding. Save yourself the Métro ticket--I'll give you twenty-two five for the whole thing. That's fair, isn't it?"
"How about twenty-three. C'mon, be a good guy."
"You're taking advantage of my good nature, you know."
"I know. But, what the hell."
"All right. Where is it?"
"Out in front."
"Have them bring it around."
Le Diable Vert. Midnight.
Twelve hundred francs!
In times gone by he'd spent more than that on a suit, but life changed, didn't it, and by moonlight mathematics he was richer than he'd ever been. And, oddly enough, people--some people anyhow--seemed to sense it. Certainly the working girls knew--smiles, whistles, coats thrown open from every doorway on the rue Moncey--but it was their vocation to see into men's souls and on the way they would naturally stop to count what was in their pockets.
Le Diable Vert.
He'd always liked a good hellhole and it was surely that. A tiny bistro, set a half-story below the street, through the open door of which he could see feet hurrying through the rain. Diable Vert--a leering green devil with a pitchfork and a splendid tail on a sign that swung on its chains and creaked in the wind. Ten tables, brick floor cured in wine, a sign by the cash register had a photograph of a funeral and the legend LE CRÉDIT EST MORT. And, packed in, wall-to-wall, what seemed like the whole neighborhood--laughing, shouting, arguing, and knocking back half-liters in a dense fog of cigarette smoke.
Twelve hundred francs.
So the death of credit was no problem for Casson--not tonight. Tonight he was the local sultan. Lazenac had laid it all out, plainer than any of the merchant bankers Casson used to deal with in the movie business. The twenty-three thousand francs was to be split with the railwaymen, the remainder shared out by Lazenac and his crew. The man who drove the camionette received a share, and so did his van, that was traditional. Then there was a handsome slice carved out for a certain Monsieur X, nameless but clearly important.
"Marin, may I join you?"
It was a man named Bruc. Casson wasn't sure exactly what he did, but he worked nights and headed for the Métro wearing green rubber boots.
"Please," Casson said.
Bruc took the empty chair, Casson filled his glass and offered him a packet of Gauloises Bleues, a luxury in that part of town. Bruc drew a cigarette from the pack with care, holding it in his mouth with thumb and forefinger while Casson struck a match and lit it for him. "Thank you very much, Marin," he said formally.
The crowd surged around them. Two girls wearing the neighborhood dance-hall uniform--satin shirts, suspenders holding up wool trousers, and tweed workers' caps--gave Casson a glance over the shoulder.
"My night off," Bruc said. "I like to be where people are."
"What's your work?" Casson asked.
"I'm part of the crew on a pumper truck. Out in the old quarters on the edge of the city. We pump out the cesspools."
"I thought it all went in the sewers."
"No. Not out there it doesn't. Some nights we do apartment houses, some nights the office buildings. They take a lot longer."
"Oh yes, a lot longer."
Bruc took a sip of wine and a long drag on his Gauloise. A man had jumped up on a table and started to sing, people were clapping to keep time.
"Why does it take longer?" Casson said.
"Well, the cesspools are the same size, but the stuff in the office buildings is harder, really hell to pump out."
Casson stared. A peculiarity of office life?
The owner worked his way through the crowd, a full chopine in his hand. He poured the last of the old flask into the two glasses. "You'll take a little more?" he asked Casson.
"Yes," Casson said. "Certainly we will."
"Generous of you," Bruc said.
"Monsieur Bruc," Casson said. "How is it different?"
"The water, monsieur. In the apartment buildings they are forever cooking and cleaning and washing the laundry."
Casson wandered out the back door to a courtyard, unbuttoned his fly, and stood over an open drain. Drinking all day, he thought. Well, so what? Above him, a fine starry night; with the city under a blackout the sky had returned. Autumn heaven--les Poissons up there somewhere, his birth sign. Somebody had once tried to show it to him, but all he could see were drifts of stars.
It was late. Up in Passy, his former life went on. Marie-Claire and Bruno, the Arnauds and the Pichards, would be chattering over after-dinner drinks. Good talk, witty and dry--life was irony. No doubt they would be talking about the affreux--dreadful--Germans. Not so affreux, of course, that one refused to get rich off them. Maybe they talked about the war, maybe not. Like any other inconvenience, it would go away when it was ready. In the meantime, x was broke, y was sleeping with z. Then, a glance at a watch, kisses all around, and home they'd go. Home, where they hung their clothes on quilted hangers in closets with mirrored doors. Home, to bed.
Casson fumbled at his fly, getting the buttons done. Jean-Claude, you are drunk. Well, yes, I am, it's true. But I have a theory about that, if you'd like to hear it. I believe it may result from drinking a lot of wine. As observed by Doctor Vinkelmeister in his paper read before the Académie Nationale. Casson laughed out loud. Doctor Vinkelmeister.
Back in the Diable Vert it got louder and louder. Monsieur Bruc had wandered off somewhere. The man who had jumped on a table to sing a song was now crawling around on hands and knees and barking like a dog. People shouted at him, "Down, Fideaux! Roll over! Shake hands!"
Two men wearing sharp suits came to Casson's table. Brothers, he thought. They had the same face. Thick shoulders, heavy throats, chins dark only hours after shaving. Casson could smell the hair oil. Pimps. From the south, he thought, the Midi. Come up to Paris to make their fortunes. "Won't you offer us a drink?" This one was fatter than the other and wore an expensive black shirt.
Of course. With pleasure.
They were sniffing at him. And the drink wasn't optional. The fat one took the flask and filled both their glasses to the rim. "See?" he said to his brother. "I told you he was a good guy."
He was glad when they left. The dance-hall girls came back. The dark one with curly hair dropped into the empty chair and said, "What a crowd!"
"Et alors," her friend said, hands on hips, playfully indignant. "Kind of you to take the chair."
"Don't mention it. I could tell you wanted me to have it."
"Well." She looked around, then shrugged and settled herself delicately on Casson's lap. "With your permission, monsieur."
"More than welcome."
"There, you see?" she said to her friend. "Some people still know how to be polite." Then, formally, to Casson: "How are you called, monsieur?"
"Marin," He said. "Jean Marin."
As with all English names taken into French, it sounded exotic, the j soft, the accent rolling to the second syllable: Ju-lee. She caressed the name as she said it, clearly relishing the identity it suggested. Who are you really, he thought. Juliette, at best. More likely: Hortense. From some wretched little village somewhere. Ran off to Paris, leaving Albert the butcher's son heartbroken.
He could see why. She was one of those lethal girls, with the small face and the big ass, white skin, angelic pout. The hair pinned up under her cap was a strange shade of red, God only knew what had been done to it in various hotel sinks. She wriggled around to get comfortable, then settled in--a warm vee against his thigh--gave him a playful nip on the earlobe and made a brat face. Bit you!
The friend looked grim and shook her head in mock despair--oh that Julie. She rooted around in her purse, found a small mirror, and went to work repairing the kiss curl on her forehead, wetting her index finger on her tongue and poking at the hair until it was plastered against her skin. For no particular reason that Casson could see, this operation was accompanied by a fierce scowl.
Julie hummed to herself, took Casson's glass and finished his wine. He pulled her against him and gave her a kiss. "Mm," she said, against his mouth. He could smell her lipstick, waxy and sweet. Big, heavy kisses, she moved her head from side to side, arms tight around his neck. He was fifteen again. She drew back and said "Tiens," hanging on to her cap so it wouldn't blow away in the big storm they were brewing up.
Casson laughed, then fished a handful of francs from his shirt pocket. "Another chopine, I think."
"Let me," she said, taking the money from his hand. He watched her as she moved through the crowd, richly curved in her thin wool trousers.
The din grew, and grew again--in the Diable Vert it was time to sing. A group in one corner began the Marseillaise, a crowd of men across the room tried the one about the Breton housewife, her underdrawers eaten by a bull. The man who was a dog stuck his head out from beneath a table and bit somebody on the ankle. A tray of glasses smashed, a woman shrieked with laughter, a man shouted at a friend that only he could see.
In the middle of it, Casson brooded. Where, where? He'd seen a tiny storeroom off the corridor that led to the courtyard, that was one possibility. Ju-lee, bent over a plank table, pants around her ankles. Primitive, but not such a bad idea. Or, maybe, actually on the table. No, that was to invite comedy. In his room? Easily the best solution, but La Patronne would be guarding the hotel door. So, was there another way? Yes. Pay. This was double occupancy, not the end of the world. Ah, he thought, the old Casson, the 16th Arrondissement Casson.
What if she asked for money? No, it wasn't like that. Or, at least, not quite like that. She returned with the wine, sat down again on his lap, and ruffled his hair. At some point she had put on more perfume. Casson refilled their glasses, Julie raised hers in a toast. "Mud in their eyes," she said in English.
Like a rocket on Bastille Day, the Friday-night mood. It climbed to the top of the sky, slowed, froze a long instant at the apogee, then burst, a thousand stars floating back to earth. For a time, the crowd in the Diable Vert felt good. Oh, maybe the last few years hadn't gone so well but it wasn't really their fault. Now everything was going to be different, they could see it, around the next bend in life. Justice at last, their rightful place, finally some money. Then the moment passed. They remembered who they were and they knew what was going to happen to them--the same things that happened to everybody they'd ever known. So, fuck this life they handed me. A little more wine, anyhow, you couldn't go too far wrong with that.
Casson felt it coming. Arguments, tears, fights, somebody sick in the middle of it. He pulled the girl against him, clung to her. A moment of surprise, then she put her arms around him and held him tight. Her back was damp beneath the satin shirt. "Maybe it's time for us to go," he said.
He felt her nod against his shoulder.
"Just across the square," he said. "The hotel where I stay."
Again she nodded.
Cold outside, but the air felt good after the bistro. She took his arm as they walked. Clichy was busy and raucous, the Paris night rolling along toward the dawn. A fat man with a wildly rouged woman came down the street. He tipped his hat to Casson--good evening, mon vieux. Here we are with our girls and what fine fellows we are. Casson gave him a nod and a smile. Then, panic. Did the man actually know him? Old somebody he'd once met at the somethings' house?
Julie squeezed his arm. "Look at the moon," she said. Half a white disc just north of the river. From a dance hall on the other side of the square, le swing jazz, a trumpet, a saxophone, a spill of yellow light from the open door, then darkness. Behind them, a man laughed.
Casson turned his head halfway, the two men from the bar, about ten feet behind them.
"Just ignore them," Julie said.
Half a block. They walked quickly despite themselves. Then a turn into the side street and the Hotel Victoria. The men came up close, the one in the black shirt put a hand on Casson's elbow. "I think we better have a talk," he said, voice low and charged.
Casson pulled away. "Leave us alone," he said.
It was the other one who hit him first, threw Julie out of his way and punched him in the side of the head. Julie screamed, Casson found himself on one knee. Was it even possible he'd been hit that hard? One side of his face had gone dead. Black-Shirt kicked him--meant to kick him in the head but hit his shoulder, spun him halfway around, and he fell on his back. Julie started to scream again but Black-Shirt said, "Shut up or we'll cut your face," and she was silent.
Casson tried to stand up, got to his knees but that was the best he could do. He felt hands going through his pockets; Black-Shirt was excited, breathing hard, Casson could smell sweat--something like sweat, but much worse--and hair oil. When the man was done he stood up, then kicked Casson in the ribs. Casson heard himself cry out. He fell forward, tried to roll up to protect himself, saw the two men walking away, back toward place Clichy.
Julie knelt by his side, touched his face, her hand was trembling. She took a tiny handkerchief from her purse and held it against his mouth. There were blood drops on the pavement.
"No police." He tried to say it but it came out a mumble.
"Your mouth is hurt," she said.
Somehow he got up. Very shaky, but on his feet. He had to get off the street. She took his arm, helped him walk. In the lobby of the hotel, a night clerk was behind the counter.
"I'm taking him to his room," Julie said.
The clerk hesitated a moment, then said, "The patronne comes in at eight--just be out before then."
They started up the stairs. Casson said, "My key."
"I have it," she said. "And your papers. They only wanted money."
He held the little handkerchief against his mouth so he didn't bleed on his shirt. She took his arm, helped him up each step.
It took a long time to climb to the sixth floor. She got most of his clothes off, he fell onto the bed, faded out. He woke later, she was sitting on the bed in the dark room. He reached out, rested a hand on her knee. "Are you all right?" he said.
"Yes," she said. But she had been crying.
"I'm sorry," he said.
"You couldn't help it." She paused a moment. "Somebody like you ..."
They were quiet for a time. "They should be shot," she said.
"You know them?"
"They are always in that place. You see them next week, they'll smile at you. Up here, nobody goes to the police, that only makes it worse."
He turned toward her. His side throbbed, his face was numb. She smoothed his hair back. "Go to sleep," she said. "I'll be here."
He didn't want to sleep but he couldn't stop it. For a few seconds he came back awake, felt how warm she was, sitting on the bed. Sometimes jagged and plummeting, sometimes about Citrine. Just before making love, when together they took her clothes off. She had once said that when a woman goes with a man, and for the first time he sees her with nothing on, that it is the best at that moment that it will ever be. Later he tried to turn in his sleep and a sharp pain under his arm woke him up. He reached out, felt nothing, opened his eyes. The first gray light of dawn was in the room and the girl was gone.
An hour later, the knock on the door.
"Police, open up."
My revolver, he thought. Drawing it from beneath his pillow, firing through the door, pounding down the stairs. In the lobby, the patronne, eyes wide with horror. "No! Please! Have mercy!" Shots ring out in the Hotel Victoria.
"I'm coming," he called out, struggling to stand up. There was no revolver. When he got the door open he saw it was the same flic from the day before. So, he thought, it had been his photograph after all--he had been betrayed. By the patronne? Somebody else? He didn't know.
"Is your name Marin? Jean Louis?"
"You're wanted for questioning."
Not arrested, not handcuffed. He thought about making a run for it, but he was too banged up--the flic had to wait for him as he worked at getting dressed.
"Let's go, eh?"
"Have you been fighting, Marin?"
He touched the swollen side of his face and winced. "I was robbed. They beat me up."
"Report the crime?"
Probably that's a crime too, he thought. He managed to get into his jacket, looked around the room one last time. Not so bad. Now that he'd never see it again he started to like it.
In the lobby, the patronne glanced up from the register she kept on the counter, then looked down, finding an entry, holding her place with a steel finger. "Monsieur l'agent?" she said.
"Is this one coming back?"
The patronne's finger, stuck on Room 28, began to tap. Her eyes were shining with fury.
Small--a very small victory, he thought. But likely the only one of the day. Outside, a battered Renault police car. A detective sitting in the passenger seat was reading a dossier as Casson got in the back.
Casson nodded. Closed his eyes for a moment. He was, more than anything, tired, in every way you could be. Tired of his life, of clumsy deception, of the world he had to live in. Shoot me and get it over with.
The old engine whined, turned over, and finally caught, missing and backfiring on the low-grade gasoline the Germans gave the police. The flic said, "To the prefecture?"
The detective turned, rested his arm on the top of the seat, and looked him over. He was an old man, heavy, with a head of thick, white hair and deep lines carved in his face. He had a big nose with a dent near the bridge and very pale blue eyes, wore an ancient black suit beneath his overcoat, a loose wool muffler, and a weather-beaten hat with the brim snapped down in front.
"No. The rue Rondelet."
Casson looked out the window as the car drove off. In May of 1940, recalled to military service, assigned to a Section Cinématographique, he'd seen the streets of eastern Paris through the windshield of a truck. Different than the back of a taxi, he'd thought then. Now, the same streets, from the window of a police car.
Blood will tell. It was a deep Gallic conviction, especially among women over forty. Casson's father had been a rogue, and his mother had been employed full-time as the wife of a rogue: long-suffering, humiliated by unpaid butchers, terrified of the phone. But, often enough, his father's shield. Casson pére had more than once been spared by creditors who could not bear to hurt "his poor wife." Wealth had always been just around the corner; shares in Venezuelan lead mines, a scheme to import herring from Peru, a powder that kept lettuce from spoiling, tonics, treasure maps, mechanical pens. And, late in life, one honorable and very productive venture--a wool brokerage--which he'd been done out of by men he called "licensed thieves who work in paneled offices."
The rue Rondelet was a little street in a factory district with a small poste de police. Not the kind of place Parisian detectives usually worked. "Go back to the prefecture," the detective told his driver. "If anyone asks, tell them I'll be in later." The flic touched the visor of his cap with two fingers and drove off. Inside the station, a desk sergeant wearing a knitted green sweater under his uniform jacket greeted the detective like an old friend.
Upstairs, a small office used for interrogation--two chairs, a desk scarred with cigarette burns, tall windows opaque with dirt, a floor of narrow boards. The station backed up to a schoolyard, it was recess, and Casson could hear the kids, playing tag and yelling. The detective leaned on his elbows and read the dossier, now and then shaking his head.
"Casson, Casson," he said at last, with a sigh in his voice. Casson flinched despite himself. The detective seemed not to notice. He turned the pages slowly, sometimes puzzling over the cramped handwriting. Suddenly he looked up and said, "You're not going to insist on this Marin business, are you?"
"Grâce à Dieu--I already fought with my wife this morning."
"Will you turn me over to the Germans?"
"Worse than that, Casson, worse than that."
The detective read further. "Here's your concierge," he said. "Kindly old Madame Fitou, in 1933. Hmm. Secret doings, something buried in the cellar."
"That's what it says here. Imagine, a man like you, a cat murderer."
"It's madness, monsieur."
"So, you deny it! Seems there was quite a ring operating back then. In league with the neighborhood baker, I see. And the priest."
"She really said such things?"
"And more. You don't believe, I hope, that these women can actually live on what the tenants pay them?" He read on for a
time, turning pages of handwritten paragraphs. "1937. Some considerable entertaining. Angélique, Françoise, Madame de Levallier." He squared the stack of pages with his palms and closed the folder.
"What will happen to me?" Casson said.
The detective shook his head--God only knows. "When I started to look for you, it gave me an excuse to see a movie or two. I must tell you that your policemen are a disgrace. Venal, brutal, and, worst of all, stupid. And when they shoot they don't hit anything."
"It's just the movies."
The detective leaned forward in his chair and spoke quietly. "Tell me, Casson, why did you come back to France?"
The detective nodded. "Not patriotism?"
The detective smiled--somebody had told the truth! He glanced at his watch, went to a window, took the brass handles and shoved it up a few inches. "The morning concert. Come and listen, Casson. It's the latest thing from Vichy--a hymn to Pétain."
Casson went to the window. Down in the schoolyard, the children--eight- and nine-year-olds--were lined up in rows. Facing them, a music teacher, conducting with a stern finger: "And one, and two, and ..." They sang with high voices, an angels' choir.
All the children who love you
and hold your years dear
to your supreme call
have answered smartly, "Here!"
Marshal, here are we
before you, 0 savior of France.
We your little buddies swear
to follow where you advance.
For France is Pétain,
and Pétain is France.
They began the next song, the detective closed the window, then went to the door and started to open it, giving Casson a nod of the head that meant let's go. "Well, Casson," he said, "perhaps you're in luck. You may not have found patriotism, but it appears, God save us all, to have found you."