Authors: Alan Furst
Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #Espionage, #Historical
He was afraid of Kerner, a huge man with a tread that made the old floor creak. Kerner was his jailer—a courteous one it was true but a jailer nonetheless. A retired army officer. On the tables in the parlor there were photographs of Kerner in uniform—with brother officers, solemn faces staring into the camera—taken in Damascus, in Tunis, in Dakar. A colonial soldier, apparently, with campaign ribbons and medals on a framed black velvet cloth hung on the wall, and a tiny Croix de Guerre in the lapel of his blue suit. One of the pictures was inscribed:
The Brotherhood of the IX Commando.
Casson could see some sort of insignia on the uniforms, but he had no idea what it meant.
The suit was worn only on Sundays, when the Kerners took turns going to Mass—they would not leave him alone in the apartment. Even so, life had improved. From time to time he insisted on going out. He couldn’t go by himself, Kerner had to come along, but at least he could spend a few hours away from the stuffy apartment and its ticking clocks. The detective had supplied him with better identity papers, the real thing, made by the préfecture. Perhaps made “during lunch,” when the supervisors were not in the office, but the effect was the same. He remained Jean Louis Marin. He’d also been given some money and ration coupons, enough for cigarettes and a few small necessities.
One afternoon, special dispensation, he went to the movies, to the little Régence out by Auteuil. The second feature was his own
It was heaven to Casson to lose himself in the fragrant darkness of a movie theatre, even with Kerner sitting beside him. Three minutes in, Citrine, as
a clerk in her parents’ drapery shop. She is sitting in a crowded train compartment with
the small-time hood who, eighty minutes later, will die for love of her. Dany: in her new suit bought in Auxerre’s best shop, hopeful, shy, burning.
They find each other immediately, as the train to Paris is leaving the platform. On Valmas’s face, the smile of a predator
you, I can have you.
After a moment, Dany looks away.
They pass a small station north of the town. The camera cuts to the passenger next to Dany: a middle-aged lady with a gimlet eye, a mouth tight with disapproval, and a hat laden with artificial fruit.
Casson thought. Who had disapproved of every imaginable thing in twenty films. How good she was, a stage actress with years of character roles. She’d been horrified when the director, old Marchand, had produced the ghastly hat. “Oh no, you can’t be serious!” But he was—serious, and right. She had the pickle face and the vinegar stare, but the hat made it all work. Of course real life didn’t play that way. Chouette, a cigar-smoking habitué of garter-belt parties at the Monocle Club, was famous for exquisitely filthy songs, music-hall routines that caused tears of laughter to ruin mascara.
Toward the end of the movie, a scene in a hotel room—a hide-out. For Dany and Valmas it’s the last time and they know it. Citrine sits on the edge of the bed, her lovely breasts in a soft sweater. “No one else,” she says, shaking her head, slow and resolute. “Not ever again.” Casson bit his lip. She’d been eighteen when
was shot. Later she became an actress, but not that day, not that day.
As good as it was to be in a movie theatre it was just as bad to come out, into the brutal daylight. “Did you like it?” Casson asked.
“Well, that sort of thing . . .”
Casson nodded. He’d guessed that Kerner didn’t know who he was, just a fugitive that had to be hidden. “Would you like to walk? It’s not so far.”
“No,” Kerner said. “We must go home now.”
The rain had started again, it was a different city when it rained. They walked to the Métro. That day, Gestapo troops had begun to burn the synagogues of Paris; brown smoke drifted across the gray afternoon, sometimes visible above the rooftops.
PARIS. 20 OCTOBER.
Madame Kerner was knitting, her needles clicking as she worked. Casson stared out a window at the apartment across the way, whose curtains were always drawn. The boredom of being hidden gnawed at him, he was ready to escape. By now his life at the Hotel Victoria glowed in recollection—he’d been hungry but he’d been free.
The Kerners’ telephone was on the wall in the kitchen. It rang, for the first time since Casson had been in the apartment. Madame Kerner looked up from her knitting. Kerner went to answer it. From the parlor, Casson could hear the conversation.
“Who is it?”
“Very well. What time?”
And, finally: “At fifteen-thirty, you say. In Courbevoie.”
An hour later, Casson left. Madame helped him fold “his things”—two books from a secondhand stall, some socks and underwear—into brown paper, which she tied for him with string. “Adieu, monsieur,” she said. And wished him good health.
Kerner led the way to the meeting. They took several Métros, waited on line at a Gestapo
eventually reached Courbevoie, just across the Seine from Neuilly but a separate municipality. They walked to the Hotel de Ville, the town hall, a complicated maze of bureaux with long lines outside offices that handled taxes, licenses, ration coupons, marriage certificates, stamps, and
for nearly everything—all the bureaucratic witchcraft of French existence. At the entry to the building, Kerner told him where he was to go, and then they said good-bye.
“Thank you for letting me stay with you,” Casson said.
“You’re welcome.” Very formally, they shook hands. Casson entered the building and climbed a staircase to the second floor. The halls were crowded, people everywhere; some wandering lost, some grimly determined, some glancing from the address on an official letter up at the titles on office doors.
Is this it?
Finally, Casson found the Department of Birth Registry, shuffled through the line, gave his name as Marin, and was directed to a small office at the end of the hall. He opened the door, and there at the desk, in a dark suit, was a man he had known as Captain Degrave.
In May of 1940, when Casson was reactivated as a corporal in the
of the Forty-fifth Division, Degrave had commanded the unit. They’d taken newsreel footage of the French defense of the fort at Sedan, then headed for the relative quiet of the Maginot line, only to find the roads made virtually impassable by refugees from the fighting in the north. On a fine May morning, in a field near Bouvellement, a Stuka dive-bomber had destroyed both their vehicles and their equipment, and Degrave had disbanded the unit, sending Casson south to Maçon to wait out the end of the war at an isolated army barracks.
Wherever he’d been since that day, and whatever he’d done, Degrave was as Casson remembered him: a heavy, dark face, thinning hair, perhaps a little old for the rank of captain, with something sorrowful and stubborn in his character. Degrave had always been distant, a man not given to idle conversation. Still, they had served together under fire, in a blockhouse defending the French side of the river Meuse, and they were glad to see each other.
“So,” Degrave said as they shook hands, “we survived.”
“We did,” Casson said. “Somehow. What about Meneval?” Meneval had been the unit cameraman. Every day he’d called his wife from phones in village cafés.
“He returned safely to Paris.” Degrave smiled. “And to married life.”
“And then, you left the army?”
“I’m with the Office of Public Works, now, in Vichy. We’re responsible for the maintenance of roads, bridges, that kind of thing.”
“Yes, but we have projects in the German-administered region as well.”
Such as hiding film producers in Neuilly apartments,
Degrave put a packet of Gitanes on the table. “Please,” he said, “help yourself.” Casson took one and lit it, so did Degrave. From the offices around them they could hear a steady murmur of conversation.
Degrave shook out the match. “In fact, I remain what I always was, a captain in the army, and an intelligence officer.”
Casson thought that over, recalling what the unit had done. “Was the work we did—an intelligence mission of some kind?”
“Yes and no. It wasn’t clandestine, but in time of war there is a great need for documentation. It was a job I, well, the truth is they stuck me with it. You know France, you know bureaucracy, you know politics, so you will understand how I got sent off to make newsreels of forts on the Meuse. In the end it didn’t matter, we lost the war. But life goes on, and some of us continue to serve.”
“With de Gaulle?”
was emphatic. “The public works office is a cover organization. We have reassembled the former
Service des Renseignements,
the intelligence service—the operational arm of the
Degrave waited for a response, Casson nodded.
“As for de Gaulle, and the Gaullist resistance, of course we support their objectives. But they are based in London, they exist on British goodwill and British money. And they have close ties— maybe too close—with British intelligence, whereas our service acts solely in the interest of France. That may sound like a fine distinction, but it can make a difference, sometimes a crucial difference. Anyhow, the reason I’m telling you all this is that we want to offer you a job. Certainly difficult, probably dangerous. How would you feel about that?”
Casson shrugged. He had no idea how he felt. “Is it something I can do?”
“We wouldn’t ask if we didn’t think so.”
“What is it?”
“Liaison. Not the traditional form, but close enough.”
“Liaison,” Casson said.
“You would work for me.”
Casson hesitated. “I suspect you know I was involved with espionage. In the first year of the war. It was a disaster. One factory was burnt down, but British agents were arrested, and a friend of mine was killed.”
“Did the factory need to be burnt down?”
“It made war material for the Germans.”
“Then maybe it wasn’t a disaster, maybe getting the job done simply cost more than you felt it should.”
Casson had never thought of it that way. “Maybe,” he said.
“Tell me this, do you have a family? Are there people who depend on you?”
“No. I’m alone.”
“Well,” Degrave said. The word hung in the air, it meant
what do you have to lose?
“You can turn us down right away, or you can think it over. Personally, I’d appreciate your doing at least that.”
Degrave looked down. “The sad truth is,” he said quietly, “a country can’t survive unless people fight for it.”
“You’ll think it over, then. Take an hour. More, if you like.”
There was no point in waiting an hour. He took the job; he didn’t have it in his heart to refuse.
Casson walked for a long time, his worldly goods in the brown-paper package under his arm. Degrave had given him a few hundred francs and the name of a hotel, and told him he would be contacted.
He crossed the Seine on the pont de Levallois. Barges moved slowly on the steel-colored water, swastika flags flapping in the autumn breeze. Leaning on the parapet, a few old men fished for barbel with bamboo poles. There was a market street at the foot of the bridge; long lines started at the doors and wound around the corners. Some of the windows had
painted in white letters, two or three had been smashed, the shattered glass glittering on the floors of the empty shops. On the walls of the buildings, the Germans had posted proclamations: “All acts of violence and sabotage will be punished with the utmost severity. Acts of sabotage are held to include any damage to crops or military installations, as well as the defacing of posters belonging to the occupying powers.” An old poster, Casson saw, dated June of 1940, the heavy print faded in the sun and rain. Newer versions promised death for a long list of violations and, Casson noted with regret, they had not been “defaced”—no cartoons, no slogans.
There was a café across the street, he sat at the bar and ordered a glass of wine.
Je m’en fous,
he thought, fuck it. He didn’t want to fight. He wanted to hide, that was the truth. Find a woman, crawl up into some garret, and wait for the war to end.
He drank the wine, it burned his throat going down. “What is it?” he asked the man behind the bar.
“Sidi Larbi, fourteen percent. From Algeria. Care for another?”
Degrave had been a good officer, up on the Meuse. And when it was clear that the German tanks would cross the river, his friends on the general staff had pulled them out. He owed his life to Degrave.
He paid the bill and headed west, toward the 17th. It was almost dark. It had been gray all afternoon, the autumn
settled down on the stone city. Now, just at dusk, the sun came out, lighting fires in the clouds on the horizon as it set.
PARIS. 26 OCTOBER.
The Hotel Benoit. It was a place, as it happened, that he’d visited more than once, though he’d never actually slept there. The hotel was a monument to the midday love affair. The proprietors were discreet, and had an ancient well-seasoned arrangement with the police, so identity cards were never too carefully scrutinized and generations of “Duvals” and “Durands” had found comforting anonymity at the Benoit. “Society must have laws,” his lawyer friend Arnaud used to say, “and society must have convenient means to evade them.”
Casson’s room looked out over the street and a small park—the sound of dead leaves rattling in the wind put him to sleep at night. The secret life of the hotel sometimes reminded him too much of his past—couples with averted eyes, the scent of perfume in the air, and now and then, in the afternoon, a lover’s cry.