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The old man in the Dodgers cap walked down one of the center aisles of the Saturday outdoor market on Boulevard Richard Lenoir. It was early enough in the morning to avoid the crowd that would be there in the next hour. As always when in Paris, he visited the huge market to reexperience the sights, sounds, and smells of the city he’d first enjoyed so many years ago. It took him, for the moments he was there, out of the modern Paris that was losing so much of its character. Too much clogging motor traffic, too many fast-food chains, supermarkets, and girls in gym shoes and baggy, stained khakis—and, of course,
there was the array of beggars. Outside the market, he saw the very essence of what he thought of as French coming under attack.
Here, the old Paris was still present: the merchants in their separate stalls under the canvas, the vegetable-stand staffers shouting their specials, the fishmongers extolling fresh cod and bream, the pastry and bread stands wafting their scent over the neighboring rows, competing with the bouquets of the olive stands, which boasted dozens of differently colored, sized, and seasoned olives. These, in turn, complemented and contrasted with the smell of the chickens turning on spits and sausages being stewed, fried,
or roasted in the stands farther down the aisle.
The booths went on for blocks, and Pascal, as he was known in Paris, made sure to traverse the whole market,
picking up tidbits from here and there to keep him in edibles for the next several days. The scene was like an old movie that had been colorized, so vividly chromatic that it made him feel as if he were inhabiting a rainbow dream made of food.
When the main body of the Saturday shoppers arrived to crowd the aisles, Pascal sighed, disappointed that his comfort time was over but ready to leave, his purchases stored in the two-wheeled shopping cart he’d bought a few days earlier. Once you get on in years, the prospect of carrying bundles in your arms, even just for the few blocks he had to walk to his apartment, becomes onerous; so he’d brought the cart, even though it was not regarded as the masculine thing to do.
Pascal crossed over to the other side of the boulevard,
glancing up at the golden winged figure at the top of the monument on the former site of the Bastille, then walked the short distance around the traffic circle to
Saint-Antoine, making his way from the monument toward the tourist-friendly Saint-Paul area where he had his apartment. He walked a few blocks, and then, like so many Parisians do, perceiving that it was safe to ignore the traffic light, he cut across Saint-Antoine. The old man never saw the truck that hit him. Almost the exact center of the front bumper struck Pascal, the blow scattering his cart and groceries and sending Pascal himself flying through the air, slamming through the plate glass of a bus stop, its shards raining all over the street.
Pascal was killed on impact, so many of his bones broken that he looked like a jelly-filled scarecrow when he was put into a body bag and lifted onto the coroner’s gurney. The truck driver had driven on as if he hadn’t just killed a pedestrian, abandoning the truck several blocks from the collision. The truck proved to be stolen,
so the police could not find anyone to hold responsible,
which always angers police officers. And Pascal had three separate sets of ID on his person, which made things even more troubling for them. After all, how can you notify the decedent’s next of kin, or even inform his landlord, if you don’t know who he was or where he lived? The problem was passed on to the detective bureau.
The detective assigned to the case sent queries out to both Europol and Interpol, transmitting photographs of the dead man, shots of several tattoos found on his body,
prints taken from him in the morgue, and all the names on his IDs. Let them do their job for a change, the detective reasoned. While he waited for identification on the victim, he moved forward to his next pending case. They were all piling up, and he only had so much time to spare on any one of them.
Pascal, or what was left of him in writing, stayed on the detective’s caseload for the next six months without anything being done about him. If he had still been alive,
he would have approved and encouraged the lack of action. Pascal had been a man who prized anonymity; and besides, as he’d always reasoned, being dead was a plus.
Nobody ever bothered you when you were gone. “Gone”
was a wonderful euphemism. You were just somewhere else. So, he was not there.
The discussion, if that was the word for it, had now lasted for close to two hours. The relatives of the decedent—his mother and father, an aunt, a grandmother,
and two sisters, all of them gypsies—were demanding action against the killers and were not listening to
Commander Jana Matinova. Their dusky skin, dark hair,
deep-set eyes, and volatile hand gestures were a whirl of frustration. They had come to criticize the police for their lack of action in the teenager’s death, and they were pouring out a continuous flow of angry despair. The boy had been hunting and had stumbled when climbing through a fence, shooting himself in the neck, which had abruptly ended his hunting and his life. The family members had convinced themselves that the teenager had not shot himself, but that his two companions had engaged in a conspiracy to kill him.
Jana had gone over the facts very carefully, had read the statements, the coroner’s reports, and the investigator’s findings. Everyone who had touched the investigation had come to the same conclusion: accidental death.
The youths had had one shotgun between them, using it for alternate shots at rabbits, squirrels, and any other rodent, bird, or large insect that came their way. They had been larking around and become careless, which is always a mistake when dealing with firearms. It was not a conspiracy but certainly a tragedy, which was why Jana continued to listen attentively to everything the family said. She interrupted only to correct misstatements of fact or gross exaggerations, hoping that the family would slow their anguished outbursts to the point where they would listen to her, even for a few seconds.
Jana eventually sensed them winding down, their sighs coming less frequently, their voices becoming lackluster and falling into a lower register, their eyes growing duller.
She took advantage of the moment, conveying to the family that she would consider everything they had told her, reexamine all the facts objectively, and make a judgment.
She singled out the father, the head of the clan, and told him that she would call within the next few days to let him know her conclusion. The family thanked her for listening, and Jana gave the mother, the grandmother, the aunt, and the two girls individual hugs. The father vigorously shook Jana’s hand, tarrying for a moment to whisper to “Madam Commander” that his son had been a good boy. Then they all filed out, trailing a small wake of tears behind them.
Jana sighed as she closed the door. It was always like that when people abruptly lost a loved one, particularly when it involved a violent ending. There was never enough satisfaction for victims in any investigation or prosecution.
There was no way that any police officer could bring the dead back to life or give the relatives of the deceased anything approaching what they really wanted: to see, to hold, to kiss their loved one one more time. In that way,
every case was unwinnable; the relatives always continued to mourn, and too many police officers became depressed at what they perceived as their ultimate failure: that they could not make anyone whole again.
Jana did what every cop tried to do for themselves in these situations: put the family, and the emotions that they had generated, behind her. She had just sat down at her desk, ready to leaf through the reports one last time, when
Seges, her warrant officer, knocked at the door and came inside. He was carrying a small parcel in his hands.
“For you, Commander.”
Jana took the parcel, noting that it had been opened.
“Did you enjoy reading the material, Seges?”
“We’ve been told to always check for bombs in parcels,
“You thought this might be a bomb?”
“Just doing my duty, Commander.”
“Was it interesting, Seges? Anything salacious inside?”
“A request from another agency, Commander. More work.”
Jana slipped the materials out of the mailer box. “More work? My goodness, we may have to earn our pay.” Seges was notorious for trying to avoid anything that suggested labor. “It’s required on occasion, even for warrant officers,
There was a series of reports inside the package, all written in French, a number of photographs, and a cover letter in Slovak. Jana read the letter, a query from their liaison in Europol trying to determine whether a man who was the subject of a French police investigation as a victim in a crime might be identified by the Slovak police.
Europol had concluded that he was a Slovak on the basis of one of the tattoos on his body. Jana examined the photographs as she talked to Seges.
“You checked the materials. Is he a Slovak?”
“The tattoo is in Slovak.”
“Not the thing he would do if he were not a Slovak,”
Jana agreed. She looked closely at the photographs of the tattoo. It was an image with two lines of text. The inked drawing was a black ensign with a large white circle in the middle, the circle containing a single vertical stripe crossed by two parallel stripes. The stripes were vaguely similar to the double cross on the Slovak flag. The two lines of text, one above and one below the ensign, read
Nas Boj and Na Straz.
These mottos, “Our Struggle” and “On Guard,” had no resonance for Jana. The tattoo was different from the tattoos on the other parts of the man’s body: it was quite faded and stretched out of shape. An older tattoo, Jana thought, one that had been put on his left bicep when he was very young, perhaps even when he was a small child.
She rotated the photo of the tattoo on the desk so that it faced Seges. “Recognize the symbol?”
“I’ve never seen it.”
She rotated the photo back. Something tugged at the back of her mind as she studied it. “‘On Guard.’ I’ve heard that before.”
“A fencing match?” Seges sniggered.
Jana looked up at him, sighing internally. The man would never change. “Thank you for delivering the package. I’ll take care of it now.”
Seges stayed where he was, his face expectant.
“Yes?” Jana began putting the papers back in their box.
“You want more?” She paused, remembering what he was anticipating. “Ah, yes. Did I ask Colonel Trokan if he had approved your request for a transfer? I not only asked him,
I practically begged him to approve it. He sneered at me,
and then berated me for my cover letter suggesting that the request be granted. The colonel seemed to feel that
I was trying to slough you off onto another supervisor. I
assured him that I was.” She shrugged. “I had to tell the truth. A commander does not lie to a colonel. Colonel
Trokan laughed and laughed and laughed, then told me no. ‘No!’ with an exclamation point. He said maybe at the end of the year. Then he laughed again. The colonel is a very cruel man.”
“Yes . . .”
Jana favored Seges with a dour look. “Are you taking it upon yourself to claim that the colonel is a very cruel man? I’m entitled to say that, because I’ve known him so long. You, however, are not.”
Seges looked like a rat caught in a trap of its own making.
“I . . . agree, Commander.”
“Good.” She put the package from Europol on top of the reports about the dead boy. “Have a good day, Seges.”
“Thank you, Commander.”
He did an about-face and left the room, leaving the door open.
“You’re supposed to close the door behind you, Seges,”
Jana muttered to herself.
She checked her watch. She had to go home, freshen up, and get dressed to go to a party being given by one of the new breed of businessmen that the country was hellbent on developing: high-profile figures who wanted to be international players and were determined that everybody should love and admire them for their ruthless corporate plundering. So far, at least, tonight’s businessman, the larger-than-life Oto Bogan, had miraculously avoided criminal prosecution and so was still on the “we can associate with him” list for police officers.
Colonel Trokan had been pressed into going to the party by the president of police. Bogan had been a generous supporter of the minister of the interior since the time when the minister had first become a member of parliament; and because the minister was currently out of the country, the president of police had pushed Trokan to go to Bogan’s party as the minister’s representative.
Trokan, having long experienced men like Bogan,
wanted someone to go with him so there would be a witness to everything Bogan said or did in his interactions with the colonel. It was not beyond a man like Bogan to later make ridiculous claims about having been given police promises by Trokan at the party. It would be Jana’s job to refute any and all claims of special favors, or whatever problematic inventions the serpentine mind of a
Bogan could come up with.
On the positive side, Colonel Trokan might be able to get in a few words with the financier about the need for police budget increments for the new community policing program, and it was possible that he could get Bogan to put in a good word with the minister about it. The man might even be persuaded, as unlikely as it seemed, to sponsor a part of the program himself. After all, he was a budding politician, and wouldn’t it look good to the electorate if he contributed to a law-enforcement program?
Jana got up and stepped to the coatrack, putting on her winter jacket, and then stopped herself. She went back to her desk and pulled the photographs sent by Europol out of their box, looked at one of the multiple-angle photographs of the tattoo with the Slovak writing, then tucked the photo into a pocket. Jana thought she knew where she could get an answer to the meaning of the tattoo. While she was at it,
she also decided to take the file on the youth who had shot himself. She’d promised the family to assess it. Maybe she could get out of the party early, go back home, and finish her reappraisal. The family needed closure, and it would be torture for them if she delayed her conclusions.
First, she went down to the holding cell area to look for
Smid. Smid was a retired police officer who was allowed to work for part-time wages as a cellblock guard. The man’s pension was miserable, so he was glad to have the job. He was old, perhaps too old for this kind of work,
but even the prisoners liked him. The man was thickset and given to rolling his eyes whenever he ran into a problem, but he was also easygoing and—surprisingly for a jailer—cheerful and polite to the inmates. He was also the unofficial institutional historian for the police department.
He remembered, in minute detail, everything that had happened—good, bad, and indifferent—within and to the agency over the last fifty years.
Jana found Smid in the anteroom to the cells, where he’d just sat down to eat a late meal with a prisoner.
The two men looked up, and Smid stood as Jana came in. He nudged the prisoner. “Get up. Show respect to a senior officer.”
The prisoner jumped to his feet.
“Sit, both of you.” Jana pushed down slightly on Smid’s shoulder as both a gesture of affection and an added impetus for the man to sit. Both men sat.
“This is Yuri, Commander. He’s one of the prisoners.”
Smid gestured at the man. “Very good with a mop. So I
got him an extra meal today,” he said, by way of explanation for his eating with the prisoner. “Besides, we’ve known each other for years.”
Jana eyed the prisoner. “Too much to drink too often?”
Yuri nodded, spooning in a mouthful of food.
Smid smiled at the man’s obvious enjoyment of his meal. “He doesn’t say much, but he’s a long-time acquaintance,
and I’m so old that I’m running out of them.”
Jana gave a slight assenting nod to Smid’s breaking of the rules. “Sorry to interrupt your meal, Smid, but I want you to look at a photo and then tell me what you can about it.”
“Sure, Commander.” He wiped his hands on a napkin,
pushed his nearly finished meal to one side, and gingerly took the photograph she handed him by its corners, laying it in front of himself.
“A tattoo that I think may have started out in Slovakia but that wound up on a dead man in France,” Jana explained.
“One of our exports that went bad?”
Jana smiled at the joke. “Possibly.”
Smid studied the photo of the tattoo for a few moments and then nodded, looking up. “I recognize it.” Smid’s tone carried a sense of pride. “I always come through.”
“The Hlinka Guard. Second World War, under Tiso.
Their salute was the same as the Nazis’, only the Hlinkas said Na Straz instead of Heil. The Nas Boj faction of the
Guard was the worst of the worst. Ugly men. They operated under the SS and murdered anyone they could, given half an excuse. The Nas Boj led the roundups of the partisans and Jews and gypsies, all the while stealing everything they could get their hands on for themselves. Criminals;
all of them murderers and thieves. Estates, jewels, money,
gold . . . and women.”
He looked more closely at the photograph. “I didn’t know any were still around. Most of them were killed by the Russians.
Some of them on the Eastern Front. More at the time of the occupation. Others fled with the Nazis when they retreated. They didn’t survive either. Well, a couple of them here and there.” He looked up at Jana. “He also could have been one of their children. A number of the creatures were so proud of their nastiness that they had their own babies tattooed.
As the old saying goes, ‘Like father, like son.’”
He handed the photo of the tattoo back to Jana. “Did you get this man’s name?”
“They didn’t know it.”
“When I said they were thieves, I wasn’t joking. The few that did survive were known to continue practicing their criminal professions after the war. I had some of them in here. Check the records in the old files. We logged them.”
“You and your son want to earn a few euros?”
Smid knew the old records like no one else. He’d even trained his son, now the proprietor of an old and rare stamp shop. Lawyers, prosecutors, private counsel, or the department itself would occasionally pay the duo to go through the voluminous non-computerized portion of the police records to find the odd bit of information that was needed in a case.
“My son can use it more than I can, but what the hell?
It’s fun working together with him, so why not?”
“I’ll approve it.”
“Three days’ work,” Smid suggested.
“I know the two of you. No extra day; no extra money.
All you get is one day.”
“A day and a half,” Jana countered.
She dropped the photograph in front of him.
“Thank you, Smid.”
Jana turned to go.
“If anything’s there, I’ll find it,” he called after her.
“I know you will.”
She walked out.