Table of Contents
Chapter 21 appeared
in issue 141.
Chapter 22: Paris, France
Carla considered joining Toni in his compartment, but he had made no effort to find a quiet spot, and she had little more to say. So she amused herself for a while by pretending to crash at great speed into the fabric of every bridge they passed under. Then she got bored, and sat back in her comfortable Handler’s chair and read a good Doman novel ...
Toni got on with his novel too, but he had managed very little sleep the night before. After half an hour, despite the pull of the compelling story, he nodded off, only to wake again abruptly a few moments later. That pattern continued for the rest of the journey, and when they arrived at the Gare du Nord at 1604 precisely, he was more exhausted than when he had departed.
Then he remembered that he had made no hotel plans. He guessed they’d be staying here for at least a couple of days, as usual. So he kept his eye out for a reservation bureau in the concourse, and soon spotted a large sign: Accueil de Paris..
‘Ah,’ he reasoned aloud in French, nearly awake now and applying his finest logic to the situation. ‘If they’re welcoming me here, maybe they can find me a room ...’
‘Mais oui, monsieur ... that is precisely why we are here! And it is good that you make the effort to speak our language. Merci bien! You will a need a street plan, of course ... voici ... and how much can you afford per night?’
Toni got the gist of the reply, and continued the conversation in his limited French — he knew it made sense. He wanted to be reasonably central, and he tried to pitch his budget somewhere between parsimonious and extravagant. This put him well below the average rate for a Paris room.
‘Very well, sir, I have a nice little hotel in the Rue du Faubourg St Honoré ... a small room on the seventh floor ... there is no lift, I am so sorry ... but there are good views of the Paris rooftops ...’
‘Ah, that sounds good! Which rooftops?’
‘Just those of the neighbouring buildings, sir.’
‘OK, I’ll take it,’ said Toni, quickly running out of steam and repartee, as usual.
* * *
The still-unseasoned traveller towed his suitcase rather wearily through one of the many front entrances to the station, turned to the right (it looked more promising) and plodded off in search of a café. He was very glad to have landed up in Paris. He had always wanted to visit this mecca of the visual arts (he had been here once before with his parents, but he was only ten at the time and he really could not remember much about it), so he was determined to exploit the opportunity to the hilt. But right now he could not shake off his malaise ... yes, that was a good French word for it ... malaise ... he liked that ...
Straight ahead of him now, across a huge, busy junction, was an ideal-looking bar: Le Cheval Noir. Toni negotiated the early rush-hour traffic and sat down outside. He already had more than enough self-sympathy, and he didn’t fancy a cup of tea, so he stuck with tradition, ordered a small beer, sat back and opened his eyes properly.
Without realising it, he was experiencing a classic first view of typical Parisian streets. The Boulevard de Magenta, the Rue de Maubeuge, the Rue de Dunkerque and another small street all converged here at the Place de Roubaix, and he was looking back down into Place Napoléon III and the imposing façade of the famous station he had just dozily passed through.
He was still getting his bearings with his new street map, and enjoying his first Parisian beer, when Carla strolled up to the table.
‘Hello, Carla. Good trip?’
‘Entertaining, Toni, thank you.’
‘Right,’ he said, polishing off his drink. ‘I’ve booked a hotel. Let’s go and find it now ... I’d like to see some sights this evening!’
‘I shall follow you discreetly to your room, Toni, then I would prefer to leave you alone. I shall join you when you wake up. Please set your alarm for eight o’clock.’
‘Another early start, Carla?’
‘We have a job to do, Toni. I’m sure there will be time for some touring together once we have set things in motion. Oh, by the way — don’t forget our standing rendezvous arrangements, if we should lose each other ...’
She pursued Toni’s taxi to his modest hotel, felt only mildly sympathetic as he lugged his suitcase up the ever-steepening flights of stairs, and noted the location of his room.
* * *
As the sky darkened and the sun set behind his unremarkable rooftop view, Toni left the room and set out on his evening tour. He had decided to stay north of the river, but he was willing to put in some legwork. And he was not going to allow Carla’s strange behaviour, or his own thankfully diminishing malaise, to get in the way of his enjoyment of this wonderful city.
He started, because it was so close, with the beautiful church of the Madeleine. Then, determined not to rush things, with the whole night ahead of him, he strolled slowly up the boulevard on the right until he reached the neo-Baroque magnificence of the Opera House. He stood for a long time simply trying to absorb the immense amount of detail in its façade alone, and failed completely.
Then he set off to the north, up the Rue de Clichy, eventually reaching the square and turning into the broad boulevard which would take him eastwards back towards his goal for the evening, the incomparable Basilique du Sacré-Cœur.
He was getting hungry now, and was looking for a nice restaurant. But as he wandered down towards Pigalle, he realised that he was once again in a rather special part of town. But this was not the friendly calm of the Amsterdam alleyways. No, it was just a lot of run-down, seedy-looking frontages with unattractive men and women lounging outside and chasing down the street after him (‘Viens, viens, monsieur, c’est pas cher!’) if he gave them even the tiniest of sideways glances ...
He reached the Anvers metro station entrance, and suddenly got his best view yet of the wonderful, floodlit Sacré-Cœur, still a long way up the steepest part of the hill of Montmartre.
‘That can wait till after dinner,’ his stomach and his legs insisted, all at once.
He walked a little further along Boulevard de Rochechouart, and soon found a pleasant enough café-restaurant. But he did not linger long over his meal, keen to get going again and take on the climb up to the basilica.
Several times on the way up he turned round to admire the panorama, and each time it blossomed more fully before him. ‘Yes,’ he said to himself, ‘I do enjoy touring on my own. I can go wherever I want to, at exactly my own pace ...’
He reached the top and spent many minutes gazing back again at the huge city spread out beneath him. Then he wandered around the exterior of the Sacré-Cœur, captivated by its brilliance against the backdrop of the northern night sky.
He had done his research with the map while waiting for his dinner. He knew he was not far from the artists’ quarter of Montmartre, and it took only a few minutes’ stroll, along the railings and past the church of St-Pierre, to reach the famous Place du Tertre. There were not many artists left wooing the tourists at this time of the cooling evening, but, he persuaded himself, the spirit of place he was seeking was definitely there.
Then he set off on another short pilgrimage, without expecting much success: he wanted to find the site of the Moulin de la Galette, the subject of one of his very favourite paintings. He eventually spotted the old windmill, high up inside some private grounds; he found an alley that might have given access, but did not; and he skirted back, down and around the property, finally discovering an entrance gate which was locked and gave no indication of whether or when the shrine might be open to the public. He was rather sad that Renoir’s special place seemed so “unacknowledged” ... but then he thought again, and decided it was probably for the best. ‘Anyway,’ he reasoned, ‘hopefully I’ll be seeing the real thing in the gallery tomorrow ...’
He was too tired to pick up on the metaphysical contradictions of that idea. His legs had really had enough now. So he descended quickly and easily back onto Rochechouart, ignored the siren calls of Blanche and Pigalle, and took a taxi straight back to his hotel.
* * *
He was rudely woken by his wristwatch alarm, and found Carla sitting on the tiny chair at the end of his bed.
‘Ready for the briefing, Toni?’
‘You’re a hard taskmistress! I’d rather have a cup of coffee first ...’
‘It’s seven flights down and seven back up again, plus a walk to the corner.’
‘Ready for the briefing, Carla.’
‘Good. Now, I wish to make direct contact with our next subject myself. The information we have collected suggests this will be the most effective approach.’
‘You mean you don’t need my help?’
‘That is not what I said, Toni. Listen — we are going to try and phone our politician at his office desk. Of course, if that fails, we shall need to plan the pursuit of more indirect routes. So when you are dressed and ready for action, you will please dial the number I shall dictate, but say nothing, and allow me to set the trap ...’
Toni prepared himself for a day which he hoped would be mainly devoted to more sightseeing. At some point, he realised as he looked in the mirror, he really would have to visit a barber and ask for advice on managing his new beard, which he’d now had for almost a week. Of course, before that, he’d need a good breakfast ...
But that would all have to wait a little longer. At nine o’clock, he picked up his mobile phone and, following Carla’s dictation, dialled the direct extension, so thoughtfully provided by Josef Samek, of Junior Minister Delegate Nallier. He then held the phone up vaguely in front of Carla’s face, and quite close to his own ear. When the call was answered, he found he could just make out what was being said at the other end ...
‘Hello,’ said Carla, brightly. ‘Is this Monsieur Nallier?’
‘Mais bien sûr! Qui est-ce qui appelle?’
‘Good morning, Minister. Please excuse my speaking English ... I regret I have no French. I am a good friend of the lady you have recently been staying with in Cortina ... I do not think I should mention her name ...’
Jean-Christophe Nallier swallowed hard. ‘Yes ...?’
‘It is clear to me, monsieur, that we can both gain much from a proposal I wish to make. It could ensure much benefit for you and the French government, in the matter of imminent decisions, of which you are well aware, on investment in certain expanding industries in the Czech Republic. As well as ensuring my silence on certain other matters ...’
‘Those decisions should all have been finalised last Friday ...’ growled the Minister, cautiously.
‘Ah — but there has been some last-minute thinking. There is still a good possibility of success for yourselves, if you care to pursue it with me ...’
‘Go on ...’
‘I do not wish to say any more on the telephone, monsieur. But time is of the essence. I wish to meet with you privately as soon as possible today, here in Paris. Particularly, may I add, since our mutual friend assures me that you are a gentleman of great discretion and charm, and extremely good company ...’
‘You flatter me, madame ... pardonnez-moi ... mademoiselle. Very well. But I cannot get away until late morning — and I can spare half an hour at the very most. Attendez ... I will meet you at eleven o’clock precisely, at the Concorde end of the Jardin des Tuileries — it is only a few minutes’ walk for me across the bridge. My personal detective will be with me, but he will keep his distance.’
Carla noticed Toni’s immediate physical reaction to this news.
‘If he does not, monsieur, you will regret it in many ways, I promise you ...’
‘I will ensure it. And, mon Dieu ... for the first time in my life, I have to ask this question ... how will I recognise you?’
‘I shall be wearing a light blue suit. I hope that you will be pleased with what you see. You should greet me as Carla; I will call you J-C. I hope that can set the tone for our petites affaires ...’
At Carla’s signal, Toni cut the call.
‘Hmm,’ said Toni. ‘That’s almost exactly the same plan we made with Raymond two days ago!’
Carla observed dryly that the arrangements in Brussels had worked extremely well, just for once, so even if Toni found them a little unimaginative, she was very comfortable with them, thank you.
Toni thought about this for a moment and was forced to agree. ‘But I don’t like the idea of getting that close to the police again ...’
‘Don’t worry. We shall minimise the risk to you, I promise. You can just set up the Strauss music for me, then keep your head down while I wait for Jean-Christophe and get to know him. In fact, I’ll be the one with the problem — standing out in the middle of a public park, with a detective watching! I shan’t be able to disappear this time ...’
Then Carla explained her latest game plan, and gave Toni his orders. He was hardly in the mood to give her the benefit of the doubt about the policeman, after suffering her own inexplicably icy mood over the past twenty-four hours. But she seemed to be very much back in the driving seat at the moment, and he did not feel he had the strength to stay and fight.
So he nodded, picked up his CD player, removed the Gershwin CD, and inserted the Strauss. Leaving Carla to follow him unseen, he took to the hotel stairs, with plenty of time to study his map while enjoying a leisurely breakfast on a typical Parisian street corner ...
He left the café before ten, and followed his carefully planned, indirect route to the rendezvous.
It led him along Avenue Matignon to the vast roundabout half-way down the Champs Élysées. The stunning vistas offered by that vantage point, both up past the Concorde Obelisk and though the Tuileries Garden to the Louvre, and down to the glorious Arc de Triomphe, were just as he remembered them from more than ten years before. That made him simply feel very happy.
Then he turned back towards the sun, as it rose over the Sun King’s city, put on his sharp new shades, and set course for the Obelisk.
* * *
Just after ten-thirty, he strolled nonchalantly and convincingly into the Tuileries like a student with too much time on his hands and little inclination to study anyway. He tossed his denim jacket onto the closest corner of the lawn and flopped down onto it, facing safely away from the entrance but able to observe it out of the corner of his eye. He pulled out his paperback, and switched on the radio of his CD player. He found a station playing some light orchestral music, turned the volume up high enough to aggravate any near-neighbours or passers-by, then lay back in the shade of the trees and pretended to read his novel.
It was a good performance, and it was a pity that nobody had watched it.
At five to eleven, Carla materialised from behind some large bushes and breezed towards the entrance, passing not far from Toni but ignoring him completely. Then she stopped and waited, in clear view of the paths coming off the square, and with the sound of the radio still within clear virtual earshot.
Three minutes later, two men purposefully approached the Tuileries from the direction of the river. Even the inexperienced Toni could recognise a French politician and his bodyguard when he saw them. He surreptitiously pressed the CD button on the player, and the strains of the opening bars of The Blue Danube took over and wafted loudly across the grass.
Jean-Christophe Nallier was surprised and then delighted to hear his favourite music playing at the same moment as he spotted the undeniably attractive female smiling undeniably in his direction.
His detective’s unspoken reaction to both the sound of the music and the sight of the woman was much simpler: ‘Oh no, not again.’
‘It’s OK,’ said the Junior Minister, and quickened his pace.
Maintaining a close eye on the now dozing student, whose tastes in music were suspiciously similar to the minister’s, and deciding that the woman looked harmless enough — no handbag, nothing obviously extraneous beneath her clothes, hopefully not secreting a tiny knife or handgun — the bodyguard stopped walking and backed off as far away from that too-often-heard music as he could sensibly remain, while Nallier continued his passage towards Carla, readying to kiss her pretty little hand ...
Carla withheld her hand, and her pose encouraged Jean-Christophe to stay, for the time being, outside her personal space. He was happy, however, to take that as a little challenge for the future.
But such plans were temporarily forgotten, as Carla converted her welcoming smile into one far more powerful. Nallier’s bodyguard was then surprised, and as usual reluctantly impressed, at what he calculated to be a new record for his protégé’s speed of transition from the polite greeting of an apparent stranger to the receipt of her impassioned embrace ...
To be continued ...