Authors: Alan Furst
Tags: #Thrillers, #Espionage, #Historical, #Fiction
This nation has already paid for its sins, past and future.
HUNGARIAN NATIONAL ANTHEM
IN THE GARDEN OF THE BARONESS FREI
N THE TENTH OF
ARCH 1938, THE NIGHT TRAIN FROM
pulled into the Gare du Nord a little after four in the morning. There were storms in the Ruhr Valley and down through Picardy and the sides of the wagon-lits glistened with rain. In the station at Vienna, a brick had been thrown at the window of a first-class compartment, leaving a frosted star in the glass. And later that day there’d been difficulties at the frontiers for some of the passengers, so in the end the train was late getting into Paris.
Nicholas Morath, traveling on a Hungarian diplomatic passport, hurried down the platform and headed for the taxi rank outside the station. The first driver in line watched him for a moment, then briskly folded his
and sat up straight behind the wheel. Morath tossed his bag on the floor in the back and climbed in after it. “L’avenue Bourdonnais,” he said. “Number eight.”
the driver thought.
He started his cab and sped along the quai toward the Seventh Arrondissement. Morath cranked the window down and let the sharp city air blow in his face.
8, avenue de la Bourdonnais. A cold,
fortress of biscuit-colored stone block, flanked by the legations of small countries. Clearly, the people who lived there were people who could live anywhere, which was why they lived there. Morath opened the gate with a big key, walked across the courtyard, used a second key for the building entry. “
Séléne,” he said. The black Belgian shepherd belonged to the concierge and guarded the door at night. A shadow in the darkness, she came to his hand for a pat, then sighed as she stretched back out on the tile.
goddess of the moon.
Cara’s apartment was the top floor. He let himself in. His footsteps echoed on the parquet in the long hallway. The bedroom door was open, by the glow of a streetlamp he could see a bottle of champagne and two glasses on the dressing table, a candle on the rosewood chest had burned down to a puddle of golden wax.
“What time is it?”
“Your wire said midnight.” She sat up, kicked free of the quilts. She had fallen asleep in her lovemaking costume, what she called her
silky and black and very short, a dainty filigree of lace on top. She leaned forward and pulled it over her head, there was a red line across her breast where she’d slept on the seam.
She shook her hair back and smiled at him. “Well?” When he didn’t respond she said, “We are going to have champagne, aren’t we?”
But he didn’t say it. She was twenty-six, he was forty-four. He retrieved the champagne from the dressing table, held the cork, and twisted the bottle slowly until the air hissed out. He filled a glass, gave it to her, poured one for himself.
“To you and me, Nicky,” she said.
It was awful, thin and sweet, as he knew it would be, the
in the rue Saint-Dominique cheated her horribly. He set his glass on the carpet, went to the closet, began to undress.
“Was it very bad?”
Morath shrugged. He’d traveled to a family estate in Slovakia where his uncle’s coachman lay dying. After two days, he died. “Austria was a nightmare,” he said.
“Yes, it’s on the radio.”
He hung his suit on a hanger, bundled up his shirt and underwear and put it in the hamper. “Nazis in the streets of Vienna,” he said. “Truckloads of them, screaming and waving flags, beating up Jews.”
“Worse.” He took a fresh towel off a shelf in the closet.
“They were always so nice.”
He headed for the bathroom.
“Come sit with me a minute, then you can bathe.”
He sat on the edge of the bed. Cara turned on her side, pulled her knees up to her chin, took a deep breath and let it out very slowly, pleased to have him home at last, waiting patiently for what she was showing him to take effect.
Caridad Valentina Maria Westendorf (the grandmother) de Parra (the mother) y Dionello.
All five feet, two inches of her.
From one of the wealthiest families in Buenos Aires. On the wall above the bed, a charcoal nude of her, drawn by Pablo Picasso in 1934 at an atelier in the Montmartre, in a shimmering frame, eight inches of gold leaf.
Outside, the streetlamp had gone out. Through a sheer curtain, he could see the ecstatic gray light of a rainy Parisian morning.
Morath lay back in the cooling water of the bathtub, smoking a Chesterfield and tapping it, from time to time, into a mother-of-pearl soap dish.
Cara my love.
Small, perfect, wicked, slippery. “A long, long night,” she’d told him. Dozing, sometimes waking suddenly at the sound of a car. “Like blue movies, Nicky, my fantasies, good and bad, but it was you in every one of them. I thought, he isn’t coming, I will pleasure myself and fall dead asleep.” But she didn’t, said she didn’t.
fantasies? About him? He’d asked her but she only laughed. Slavemaster? Was that it? Or naughty old Uncle Gaston, leering away in his curious chair? Perhaps something from de Sade—
and now you will be taken to the abbot’s private chambers.
Or, conversely, what? The “good” fantasies were even harder to imagine. The Melancholy King?
Until tonight, I had no reason to live.
Errol Flynn? Cary Grant? The Hungarian Hussar?
He laughed at that, because he had been one, but it was no operetta. A lieutenant of cavalry in the Austro-Hungarian army, he’d fought Brusilov’s cossacks in the marshes of Polesia, in 1916 on the eastern front. Outside Lutsk, outside Kovel and Tarnopol. He could still smell the burning barns.
Morath rested his foot on the gold-colored spigot, staring down at the puckered pink-and-white skin that ran from ankle to knee. Shrapnel had done that—a random artillery round that blew a fountain of mud from the street of a nameless village. He had, before passing out, managed to shoot his horse. Then he woke in an aid station, looking up at two surgeons, an Austrian and a Pole, in blood-spattered leather aprons. “The legs come off,” said one. “I cannot agree,” said the other. They stood on either side of a plank table in a farmhouse kitchen, arguing while Morath watched the gray blanket turn brown.
The storm that had followed him across Europe had reached Paris, he could hear rain drumming on the roof. Cara came plodding into the bathroom, tested the water with her finger and frowned. “How can you stand it?” she said. She climbed in and sat facing him, rested her back against the porcelain, and turned the hot water on full blast. He handed her the Chesterfield and she took an elaborate puff—she didn’t actually smoke—blowing out a dramatic stream of smoke as though she were Marlene Dietrich. “I woke up,” she said. “Couldn’t go back to sleep.”
She shook her head.
They’d certainly played long and hard—it was what they did best—night love and morning love tumbled up together, and when he’d left the bedroom she’d been out cold, mouth open, breathing sonorous and hoarse. Not snoring, because, according to her, she never snored.
In the light of the white bathroom he could see that her eyes were shining, lips pressed tight—
portrait of a woman not crying.
What was it? Sometimes women just felt sad. Or maybe it was something he’d said, or done, or not done. The world was going to hell, maybe it was that. Christ he hoped it wasn’t that. He stroked the skin of Cara’s legs where they wrapped around his, there wasn’t anything to say and Morath knew better than to try and say it.
The rain slackened, that afternoon, Paris a little
in its afternoon drizzle but accustomed to weather in the spring season and looking forward to the adventures of the evening. Count Janos Polanyi—properly von Polanyi de Nemeszvar but beyond place cards at diplomatic dinners it hardly ever appeared that way—no longer waited for evening to have his adventures. He was well into his sixties now, and the
suited the rhythm of his desire. He was a large, heavy man with thick white hair, almost yellow in lamplight, who wore blue suits cut by London tailors and smelled like bay rum, used liberally several times a day, cigar smoke, and the burgundy he drank with lunch.
He sat in his office in the Hungarian legation, crumpled up a cable and tossed it in the wastebasket. Now, he thought, it was actually going to happen.
A leap into hell.
The real thing, death and fire. He glanced at his watch, left the desk, and settled in a leather chair, dwarfed by immense portraits hanging high on the walls: a pair of Arpad kings, Geza II and Bela IV, the heroic general Hunyadi hung beside his son Matthias Corvinus, with customary raven. All of them dripping furs and bound in polished iron, with long swords and drooping mustaches, attended by noble dogs of breeds long vanished. The portraits continued in the hall outside his office, and there would have been more yet if they’d had room on the walls. A long and bloody history, and no end of painters.
5:20. She was, as always, subtly late, enough to stir anticipation. With the drapes drawn the room was almost dark, lit only by a single small lamp and firelight. Did the fire need another log? No, it would do, and he didn’t want to wait while the porter climbed three flights of stairs.
Just as his eyes began to close, a delicate knock at the door, followed by the appearance of Mimi Moux—the chanteuse Mimi Moux as the gossip writers of the newspapers had it. Ageless, twittering like a canary, with vast eyes and carmine lipstick—a theatrical face—she bustled into his office, kissed him on both cheeks, and touched him, somehow, damned if he knew how she did it, in sixteen places at once. Talking and laughing without pause—you could enter the conversation or not, it didn’t matter—she hung her afternoon Chanel in a closet and fluttered around the room in expensive and pleasantly exhilarating underwear.
“Put on the Mendelssohn, my dear, would you?”
Arms crossed over her breasts—a mock play on modesty—she twitched her way over to an escritoire with a Victrola atop it and, still talking—“you can imagine, there we were, all dressed for the opera, it was simply
no? Of course it was, one couldn’t do such a thing in ignorance, or, at least, so we thought. Nonetheless”—put the First Violin Concerto on the turntable and set the needle down, returned to the leather chair, and curled herself up in Count Polanyi’s commodious lap.
Eventually, just at the moment—of their several underappreciated virtues, he mused, the French possessed the purest sense of timing in all Europe—she settled on her knees in front of his chair, unbuttoned his fly with one hand and, at last, stopped talking. Polanyi watched her, the concerto came to an end, the needle hissed back and forth in an empty groove. He had spent his life, he thought, giving pleasure to women, now he had reached a point where they would give pleasure to him.
Later, when Mimi Moux had gone, the legation cook knocked lightly on his door and carried in a steaming tray. “A little something, your excellency,” she said. A soup made from two chickens, with tiny dumplings and cream, and a bottle of 1924 Echézeaux. When he was done, he sat back in his chair and breathed a sigh of great contentment. Now, he noted, his fly was closed but his belt and pants button were undone.
Really just as good,
The Café Le Caprice lurked in the eternal shadows of the rue Beaujolais, more alley than street, hidden between the gardens of the Palais Royal and the Bibliothèque Nationale. His uncle, Morath had realized long ago, almost never invited him to the legation, preferring to meet in unlikely cafés or, sometimes, at the houses of friends. “Indulge me, Nicholas,” he would say, “it frees me from my life for an hour.” Morath liked the Le Caprice, cramped and grimy and warm. The walls had been painted yellow in the nineteenth century, then cured to a rich amber by a hundred years of cigarette smoke.
Just after three in the afternoon, the lunch crowd began to leave and the regulars drifted back in to take their tables.
The mad scholars,
Morath thought, who spent their lives in the Bibliothèque. They were triumphantly seedy. Ancient sweaters and shapeless jackets had replaced the spotted gowns and conical hats of the medieval alchemists, but they were the same people. Morath could never come here without recalling what the waiter, Hyacinthe, had once said about his clientele: “God forbid they should actually ever
it.” Morath was puzzled—“Find what?” Hyacinthe looked startled, almost offended. “Why,
monsieur,” he said.
Morath took a table vacated by a party of stockbrokers who’d walked over from the Bourse, lit a cigarette, ordered a
and settled in to wait for his uncle. Suddenly, the men at the neighboring table stopped arguing, went dead silent, and stared out at the street.
A very grand Opel Admiral had pulled up in front of Le Caprice, the driver held the back door open, and a tall man in black SS uniform emerged, followed by a man in a raincoat, followed by Uncle Janos. Who talked and gesticulated as the others listened avidly, expectant half-smiles on their faces. Count Polanyi pointed his finger and scowled theatrically as he delivered what was obviously a punch line. All three burst into laughter, just faintly audible inside the café, and the SS man clapped Polanyi on the back—
that was a good one!
They said good-bye, shook hands, and the civilian and the SS man returned to the Opel. Here’s something new, Morath thought, you rarely saw SS men in uniform in Paris. They were everywhere in Germany, of course, and very much in the newsreels; marching, saluting, throwing books into bonfires.
Morath’s uncle entered the café and took a moment to find him. Somebody at the next table made a remark, one of his friends snickered. Morath stood, embraced his uncle, and they greeted each other—as usual, they spoke French together in public. Count Polanyi took off his hat, gloves, scarf, and coat and piled them up on the empty chair. “Hmm, that went over well,” he said. “The two Roumanian businessmen?”