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All he had was her address. Rue des Pistoles, in the old neighborhood. It was years since he'd last been in Marseilles. But he didn't have a choice. Not now.
It was June 2nd, and it was raining. Despite the rain, the taxi driver refused to turn into the back alleys. He dropped him in front of Montée-des-Accoules. More than a hundred steps to climb and a maze of streets between there and Rue des Pistoles. The ground was littered with garbage sacks spilling their contents. There was a pungent smell on the streets, a mixture of piss, dampness and mildew. The only big change was that even this neighborhood was being redeveloped. Some houses had been demolished, others had had their fronts repainted ocher and pink, with Italian-style green and blue shutters.
Even on Rue des Pistoles, maybe one of the narrowest streets of all, only one side, the side with even-numbered houses, was still standing. The other side had been razed to the ground, as had the houses on Rue Rodillat, and in their place was a parking lot. That was the first thing he saw when he turned the corner from Rue du Refuge. The developers seemed to have taken a breather here. The houses were blackened and dilapidated, eatenaway by sewer vegetation.
He was too early, he knew. But he didn't want to go to a bistro and sit drinking one coffee after another, looking at his watch, waiting for a reasonable hour to wake Lole. What he wanted was to have his coffee sitting comfortably in a real apartment. He hadn't done that for months. As soon as she opened the door, he headed straight for the only armchair in the room, as if it was something he'd often done. He stroked the armrest with his hand, sat down slowly, and closed his eyes. It was only afterwards that he finally looked at her. Twenty years after.
She was standing. Bolt upright, as always. Her hands deep in the pockets of a straw-colored bathrobe. The color made her skin look browner than usual and emphasized the blackness of her hair, which she was wearing short now. Her hips may have grown thicker, he wasn't sure. She'd become a woman, but she hadn't changed. Lole, the Gypsy. She'd always been beautiful.
"I could use a coffee."
She nodded. Without a word. Without a smile. He'd dragged her from her sleep. Maybe from a dream in which she and Manu were hotfooting it down to Seville, not a care in the world, their pockets bulging with cash. She probably had that dream every night. But Manu was dead. He'd been dead three months.
He sprawled in the armchair, stretching his legs. Then he lit a cigarette. The best in a long time, no question.
"I was expecting you." Lole handed him a cup. "But not this early."
"I took a night train. A train full of legionnaires. Fewer checks. Safer."
She was staring off into the air. Wherever Manu was.
"Aren't you going to sit down?"
"I drink my coffee standing up."
"You still don't have a phone."
She smiled. For a moment, the sleep seemed to vanish from her face. She'd dismissed the dream. She looked at him with melancholy eyes. He was tired, and anxious. His old fears. He liked the fact that Lole didn't say much, didn't feel the need to explain. It was a way of getting their lives back in order. Once and for all.
There was a smell of mint in the room. He looked around. It was a big room, with unadorned white walls. No shelves, no knick-knacks or books. Furniture reduced to the bare essentials. A table, chairs, and a sideboard that didn't match, and a single bed over by the window. A door led to another room, the bedroom. From where he was, he could see part of the bed. Rumpled blue sheets. He'd forgotten the night smells. The smell of bodies. Lole's smell. When they made love, her armpits smelled of basil. His eyes were starting to close. He looked again at the bed near the window.
"You could sleep there."
"I'd like to sleep now."
Later, he saw her walking across the room. He didn't know how long he'd slept. To see the time on his watch, he'd have had to move, and he didn't want to move. He preferred to watch Lole coming and going through half-closed eyes.
She'd come out of the bathroom wrapped in a terry towel. She wasn't very big. But she had everything she needed, and in the right places too. And she had gorgeous legs. Then he'd fallen asleep again. His fears had vanished.
It had gotten dark. Lole was wearing a sleeveless black dress. Simple, but it really suited her, hugged her body nicely. He looked at her legs again. This time she felt his eyes on her.
"I'm leaving you the keys. There's coffee heating. I made some more."
She was saying only the most obvious things, avoiding everything else. He sat up, and took out a cigarette, his eyes still on her.
"I'll be back late. Don't wait up for me."
"Are you still a bar girl?"
"Hostess. At the Vamping. I don't want to see you hanging around there."
He remembered the Vamping, overlooking the Catalan beach. Amazing decor, like something out of a Scorsese movie. The singer and the band behind stands full of spangles. Tangos, boleros, cha-chas, mambos, that kind of thing.
"I wasn't planning to."
She shrugged. "I've never been sure what you were planning." Her smile made clear she wasn't expecting a reply. "Are you going to see Fabio?"
He'd thought she'd ask him that. He'd asked himself the same thing. But he'd dismissed the idea. Fabio was a cop. That had drawn a bit of a line under their youth, their friendship. He'd have liked to see Fabio again, though.
"Later. Maybe. How is he?"
"The same. Like us. Like you, like Manu. Lost. None of us have known what to do with our lives. Cop or robber, it makes no difference ..."
"You liked him a lot, didn't you?"
"Yes, I liked him a lot."
He felt a pang in his heart. "Have you seen him again?"
"Not in the last three months." She picked up her bag and a white linen jacket. He still hadn't taken his eyes off her.
"Under your pillow," she said at last, and it was clear from her face that his surprise amused her. "The rest is in the sideboard drawer."
And with that, she left. He lifted the pillow. The 9mm was there. He'd sent it to Lole, in an express package, before he left Paris. The subways and railroad stations were swarming with cops. The French Republic had decided it wanted to be whiter than white. Zero immigration. The new French dream. There might be checks, and he didn't want any hassle. Not that kind. Having false papers was bad enough.
The gun. A present from Manu, for his twentieth birthday. Even then, Manu had been a bit crazy. He'd never parted with it, but he'd never used it either. You didn't kill someone like that. Even when you were threatened. That had happened to him a few times, in different places. There was always another solution. That was what he thought. And he was still alive. But today, he needed it. To kill a man.
It was just after eight. The rain had stopped, and the warm air hit him in the face as he left the building. He'd taken a long shower and put on a pair of black cotton pants, a black polo shirt, and a denim jacket. He'd put his mocassins back on, without socks. He turned into Rue du Panier.
This was his neighborhood. He was born here. Rue des Petits-Puits, two streets along from where Pierre Puget was born. His father had lived on Rue de la Charité when he first arrived in France, fleeing poverty and Mussolini. He was twenty, and had two of his brothers in tow. Nabos-Neapolitans. Three others had gone to Argentina. They did the jobs the French wouldn't touch. His father was hired as a longshoreman, paid by the centime. "Harbor dogs," they were called-it was meant as an insult. His mother worked packing dates, fourteen hours a day. In the evenings, the nabos and the people from the North, the babis, met up on the streets. They pulled chairs out in front of their doors, talked through the windows. Just like in Italy. Just like the good old days.
He hadn't recognized his house. That had been redeveloped, too. He'd walked on past. Manu was from Rue Baussenque. A dark, damp building, where his mother, already pregnant with him, moved in with two of her brothers. His father, José Manuel, had been shot by Franco's men. Immigrants, exiles, they all arrived full of hope. By the time Lole appeared on the scene, with her family, Manu and he were already grown up. Sixteen. At least, that's what they told the girls.
Living in the Panier wasn't something you boasted about. Ever since the nineteenth century it had been a neighborhood of sailors and whores. A blight on the city. One big brothel. For the Nazis, who'd dreamed of destroying it, it was a source of degeneration for the Western world. His father and mother had lived through the humiliation. Ordered to leave in the middle of the night. January 24th 1943. Twenty thousand people. Finding a wheelbarrow quickly, loading a few possessions. Mistreated by the French gendarmes and mocked by the German soldiers. Pushing the wheelbarrow along the Canebière at daybreak, watched by people on their way to work. At school, the other kids pointed the finger at them. Even working class kids, from Belle de Mai. But not for long. They simply broke their fingers! He and Manu knew their bodies and clothes smelled of mildew. The smell of the neighborhood. The first girl he'd ever kissed had that smell at the back of her throat. But they didn't give a damn. They loved life. They were good looking. And they knew how to fight.
He turned onto Rue du Refuge, to walk back down. Some distance away, six Arab kids, aged between fourteen and seventeen, stood talking, next to a gleaming new moped. They watched him coming, warily. A new face in the neighborhood spelled danger. A cop. An informer. Or the new owner of a renovated building, who'd go to the town hall and complain about the lack of security. The cops would come and check them out. Take them down to the station. Maybe rough them up. Hassle them. When he drew level with the kids, he gave the one who seemed to be the leader a short, sharp look, then walked on. Nobody moved. They'd understood each other.
He crossed Place de Lenche, which was deserted, then walked down toward the harbor. He stopped at the first phone booth. Batisti answered.
"I'm Manu's friend."
"Hi, pal. Come by tomorrow, have a drink. About one, at the Péano. It'll be great to meet. See you, kid."
He hung up. A man of few words, Batisti. No time to tell him he'd rather have gone anywhere but there. Anywhere but the Péano. It was the bar where the painters went. Ambrogiani had showed his first canvases there. Then others had come along, influenced by him. Poor imitations, some of them. But journalists went there, too. From right across the political spectrum. Le Provençal, La Marseillaise, Agence France Presse, Libération. Pastis knocked down the barriers between them. At night, they waited till the papers were put to sleep, then went into the back room to listen to jazz. Both Petruccianis had played there, father and son. With Aldo Romano. There'd been so many nights. Nights of trying to figure out what his life was all about. That night, Harry was at the piano.
"All you need to figure out is what you want," Lole said.
"Yeah. And what I want right now is a change of scenery."
Manu had come back with the umpteenth round. After midnight, they stopped counting. Three scotches, doubles. He'd sat down and raised his glass, smiling beneath his moustache.
"Shut up, you," Lole had said.
He stared at the two of you as if you were strange animals, then turned his back on you and concentrated on the music. Lole was looking at you. You'd emptied your glass. Slowly. Deliberately. Your mind was made up. You were leaving. You stood up and went out, unsteady on your feet. You were leaving. You left. Without saying a word to Manu, the only friend you still had. Without saying a word to Lole, who'd just turned twenty. Who you loved. Who you both loved. Cairo, Djibouti, Aden, Harar. The itinerary of an eternal adolescent. That was before you lost your innocence. From Argentina to Mexico. Ending up in Asia, to get rid of your remaining illusions. And an international arrest warrant on your ass, for trafficking in works of art.
You were back in Marseilles because of Manu. To take out the son of a bitch who'd killed him. He'd been coming out of Chez Félix, a bistrot on Rue Caisserie where he liked to have lunch. Lole was waiting for him in Madrid, at her mother's place. He was about to come into a tidy bit of cash. For a break-in that had gone without a hitch, at a big Marseilles lawyer's, Eric Brunel, on Boulevard Longchamp. They'd decided to go to Seville. To forget Marseilles and the hard times.
You weren't after the guy who'd whacked Manu. A hitman, for sure. Cold and anonymous. Someone from Lyons, or Milan. Someone you wouldn't find. The guy you were after was the scumbag who'd ordered the hit. Who'd wanted Manu killed. You didn't want to know why. You didn't need any reasons. Not a single one. Anyone attacked Manu, it was like they'd attacked you.
The sun woke him. Nine o'clock. He lay there on his back, and smoked his first cigarette. He hadn't slept so deeply in months. He always dreamed that he was sleeping somewhere other than where he was. A brothel in Harar. A Tijuana jail. On the Rome-Paris express. Anywhere. But always somewhere else. During the night, he'd dreamed he was sleeping at Lole's place. And that's where he really was. It was as if he'd come home. He smiled. He'd barely heard her come back and close the door of her bedroom. She was sleeping in her blue sheets, rebuilding her broken dream. There was still a piece missing. Manu. Unless it was him. But he'd long ago rejected that idea. That would have been to put himself in too good a light. Twenty years was a hell of a long time to mourn.
He stood up, made coffee, and took a shower. The water was hot. He felt much better. He closed his eyes, and imagined Lole coming to join him. Just like before. Clinging to his body. Her pussy against his dick. Her hands gliding over his back, his buttocks. He started to get a hard-on. He turned on the cold water, and screamed.
Lole put on a record. Pura salsa. One of Azuquita's first recordings. Her tastes hadn't changed. He attempted a few dance steps, which made her smile. She moved forward to kiss him. As she did so, he caught a glimpse of her breasts. Like pears waiting to be picked. He didn't look away quickly enough. Their eyes met. She froze, pulled the belt of her bathrobe tighter, and went into the kitchen. He felt wretched. An eternity passed. She came back with two cups of coffee.
"A guy asked after you last night. Wanted to know if you were around. A friend of yours. Malabe. Frankie Malabe."
He didn't know any Malabe. A cop? More likely an informer. He didn't like them approaching Lole. But at the same time it reassured him. The Customs cops knew he was back in France, but not where. Not yet. They were angling for leads. He still needed a bit of time. Two days maybe. Everything depended on what Batisti had to sell.
"Why are you here?"
He picked up his jacket. Don't answer, he told himself. Don't get involved in a question and answer session. He wouldn't be able to lie to her, and he wouldn't be able to tell her what he was going to do. Not now. But he had to do it. Just as, one day, he'd had to leave. He'd never been able to answer her questions. There were no answers, only questions. That was the only thing he'd learned in life. It wasn't much, but it was more certain than believing in God.
"Forget I asked." Behind him, she opened the door. "Not asking questions has never gotten me anywhere."
The two-storey parking garage on Cours d'Estienne d'Orves had finally been demolished, and what had once been the prison canal was now a lovely square. The houses had been restored, the fronts repainted, the ground paved. An Italian style square. The bars and restaurants all had terraces, with white tables and parasols. People wanted to be seen, just like in Italy. The only thing missing was elegance. The Péano also had its terrace, which was already full. Young people mostly. Very clean-cut. The interior had been refurbished. The decor was hip but cold. The paintings had been replaced by crappy reproductions. But he almost preferred it this way. It helped him keep the memories at arm's length.
Excerpted from TOTAL CHAOS by Jean-Claude Izzo Copyright © 1995 by Éditions Gallimard. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted August 22, 2013
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