Authors: Alan Furst
Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #Espionage, #Historical
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
of the good cafés—knowing eyes, a half-smile that said it didn’t matter what you knew. He liked women, women liked him.
pedaled by on their bicycles, one of the wheels squeaked each time it went around. Casson watched them.
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
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;
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
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
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. “
” 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
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
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
“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.
Casson slid the coat across the polished counter.
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
a polite way of saying the rooster got old and died.
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
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.
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
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.