by Michael E. Lloyd
At noon on Monday the first of August, following another empty checkpoint chat with the Inspector, Narone was at the phone box on Rue Pierre Devoluy to receive Luc’s promised monthly call, reminding himself to give absolutely no hint of his ongoing dialogue with Simon Hardy.
‘Allô! Is that Comet?’
‘Hello, Arthur. So, shall I assume the police are tailing you and monitoring this call and trying to trace it as we speak?’
‘Of course not! No-one even knows you’ve made contact with me!’
‘That’s the right answer. But ... hey guys, in case you are listening in — do you like my funny voice? And even if you do trace any of my calls, it will be a waste of time. I’ll by moving all over the place to make them, OK?’
‘Listen, Luc, you really don’t need to go to all that trouble. I told you, nobody knows ...’
‘Hmmm. So, any news of your precious little showgirl?’
‘As if you really cared, eh? Right, assuming you’re no longer being watched, I think it’s time for you to pick up the cash.’
‘I’m afraid that’s not a very good idea. I’m pretty sure I am still being followed. Certainly not by you or your own lady friend, of course. But maybe by the flics, maybe by others ...’
So he didn’t disagree, thought Narone. That settled it, then. Wherever the two of them were now, they were almost certainly not watching him. So he would keep the initiative ...
‘So I really shouldn’t go and collect the money straight away. But I might try later in the month, if the heat’s died down by then. OK?’
Luc sighed and paused, obviously gathering his own thoughts.
‘All right. That’s probably best, in the circumstances, so I won’t argue for now. We’ll let it run until I call you on the first of September, usual time. But I wanna hear about some real progress then, OK? Here’s the location of your next phone box ...’
Good! Another whole month ahead, without very much pressure on him. He still had no further leads on Emilie to follow, but maybe later in the month he would feel happy to start checking out her old apartment block and going in to collect the cash hidden in Danielle’s sofa. And while he was there he might also pick up something more about Emilie’s disappearance.
So he now made a positive decision to hang loose — he really liked that trendy new American phrase — and get around (there was another one!) in the town and on the beach for most of the day, over the next few weeks. But he would spend his mornings in the bookshop for the foreseeable future, doing some of the catch-up reading that Pureza had sensibly suggested on their first day together. And he would report “no progress” to the Inspector every Monday for as long as he felt he could get away with it.
He started his current affairs research the following morning. And after a few attempts at light conversation, which all became one-sided very quickly, Pureza once again got the message about the writer in his private bubble, and let him be.
He might well have been hanging very loose during the days that followed, especially in the afternoons and most of the evenings, but he soon began to realise his life was settling into a bit of a pattern. He would probably have to do something about that.
* * *
At one o’clock every day Pureza would close up for lunch. Sometimes Narone could be persuaded to pop out with her for a beer and a baguette. But most days he preferred to finish what he was reading while she hurried down to the New Town shops, and then go out on his own just before she returned.
At lunchtime on the sixteenth of August, six weeks after his release from prison, he was immersed in Julianne’s History of Gaul when the telephone rang. He sighed deeply at the disturbance, contemplated ignoring it, and then realised it just might be Pureza calling him with a problem.
He walked over to her desk and picked up the receiver.
‘Welcome back to Nice. You do not know me, but I arranged our little robbery in 1959, and I’d now like you to finish the job for me.’
Narone swallowed hard and wondered how to play for time.
‘Ah. Well ... hey, why should I believe any of that?’
‘No special reason. But it’s true. You surely never thought your little “leader” planned and funded it all by himself?’
‘No, I guess not.’
‘Did he ever mention his sponsor?’
‘Maybe, maybe not.’
‘Very canny, Narone. Well, just in case he did, I’ll tell you the name I gave him. It was Xérus. Does that ring a bell?’
‘Maybe, maybe not.’
‘Fair enough. But do you really think I’d have risked inventing that name here and now, and telling you about it, if it wasn’t exactly the one I had used with him? Because if I am a fake, and he actually mentioned someone completely different, I would now have blown it completely and that would be the end of this phone call, wouldn’t it ...’
‘Yes, I suppose so ...’
‘Indeed. And I’d hate to have to put pressure on your old girlfriend, and your new one, to try to convince you further.’
‘You know where Emilie is??’
‘Maybe, maybe not, Narone. Two can play at that game. Best to believe I do, eh? Now may we proceed?’
‘So, all the evidence was that boss-man made off with most of the cash, right?’
‘That’s exactly what happened.’
‘Unless you have it, of course ...’
‘No, I don’t!! How many times do I have to tell people that?’
‘Calm down, Narone. I believe you. Trouble is, boss-man never got back to me, and he failed to deliver my share of the proceeds. But I’m a trusting sort of guy, and I’m sure there must have been a very good reason. Maybe he simply lost my number, or something perfectly understandable like that. So I’ve been very patient, and I’m confident he’s still holding it all safely for me. By the way, what did he call himself?’
‘I won’t say.’
‘Very well. Just give me something I can use with you.’
‘Hmmm. Let’s call him “L”, shall we?’
‘Remarkable. And you can call me “X”, Narone. So, I should deeply appreciate the pleasure of Monsieur L’s company once again, for a number of reasons, and I also want every single wad of notes that was left in that bag when you last saw him. Now, I don’t suppose he’s been in touch since you got out of jail ...?’
‘Right. So your job now is to prise him and the cash out of the woodwork, one way or another. Loud and clear?’
‘Yes. But it sounds impossible.’
‘You must make it possible. I want the money as quickly as you can get it to me, and by the end of March at the very latest. That gives you more than seven months to find it, and will allow me at least twelve months to dispose of it before it ceases to be legal tender. But try not to make it take that long, OK?’
‘What happens if I don’t play ball?’
‘I’ll be watching you, and I’ll know. And you and your girlfriends will soon start regretting it, on a daily basis.’
‘So how exactly do I go about this impossible task? Perhaps you’d like to start by telling me everything you knew about L at the time ...’
‘No, I won’t do that, Narone. Or not yet, at least. If the police see you making a sudden beeline for his old haunts or whatever, they might guess I’ve been in touch with you. And I do not want them to know that, OK?’
‘No, I think you should make it look as if you’re hunting for L for your own good reasons. The Nice underworld knows who you are, and how you ended up with nothing to show for your efforts and over six years in jail. So don’t be shy. Maybe start to put it about in the bars around the port that you’re trying to find the man to demand a bigger share of the cash he must still be hoarding.’
‘I’m not very comfortable with that idea, X. And I really don’t know anything about the Nice underworld!’
‘Well, the more people who get to hear what you’re trying to do, the less likely you are to get pressured by those who may still be thinking you ran off with the money yourself.’
‘Oh, that’s extremely thoughtful of you.’
‘Don’t get cheeky with me, Narone. Now, I’m not going to dictate how you go about it. And I’m not going to get in your way either — I can’t risk that. But in two weeks’ time I want to hear exactly what you’ve decided to do.’
‘So are you going to pay me in full, up-front, for this exclusive service?’
‘Shut it, OK? You seem to be all right for cash, so you’ll have plenty of spare time to start asking around. Just get on with it. I’ll call you again at noon on the thirty-first of August, at the following phone box ...’
Narone did not wait for Pureza to return, but locked up the bookshop and made for the nearest bar to take stock of his new situation over a largely liquid lunch.
So now there was somebody else potentially threatening Emilie! And he would have to trust that this Xérus character was the robbery’s mastermind. This was all getting rather too hot.
He really must snap out his demob languor at once, and get back to his search for Emilie — while making Luc believe he was still focused on collecting the cash, and at the same time making Xérus and the Inspector believe he was hunting for Luc!
But of course he also needed to get his own hands on Luc, and now on this Xérus guy as well — to put them both out of action one way or another, with or without the help of the police. They really could still be in a position to harm Emilie, as each of them had intimated. Not to mention poor Pureza. And either of them could hold a clue to each other’s whereabouts — or Emilie’s.
Six more days till his next scheduled call to Hardy. Should he mention this approach from Xérus then, despite being warned not to? Or leave it for a while? Perhaps he should phone the Inspector at once? Or maybe never tell him about it?
Hmmm. Reporting it to the police would take some of the weight off his shoulders, but it would prove that the insider — if that was what Xérus was — really did exist and was still around. And that might greatly change the complexion of the mission Hardy had given him. Did he really need that? He was managing to keep the Inspector well at bay, for now. Why invite more work and more hassle? Always remember Pandora.
Of course, the police still knew nothing about his ongoing contact with Luc either — or so he had to assume. Should he now reveal anything about that?
No. He would play this his way. He would probably collect the stolen money as soon as he could, then maybe use it to bargain with Luc for information on Emilie. And if that led to the man overplaying his hand and surfacing in some way, Narone could spill the beans to Xérus, and maybe he’d get careless too. And then Hardy’s Cavalry could come charging in from all corners and clear up the whole stupid mess.
Or something like that.
But chasing after those pathetic criminals was not uppermost in his mind right now. If there was a chance of uncovering Emilie’s tracks the easy way, and picking up the hidden cash in passing, why take the hard way first? Yes, he had put the next little job off for too long already.
He left the bar and strolled down to the beach to build his plan. And he was determined to kick it off the very next day.
* * *
Confident that neither Luc, nor his lady friend, nor Inspector Hardy, nor even Xérus or any other lowlife was likely to be following him, but still taking absolutely no chances, Narone left the bookshop straight after breakfast and devoted more than two hours to a complex circumnavigation of the New Town, his eyes in the back of his head as usual. Finally, after ducking and weaving his way through the narrowest streets of the Old City, he emerged into the southern environs of Place Garibaldi in the absolute certainty that he was still unaccompanied.
Now he could at last change gear. He sauntered chirpily around the square, then along Rue Bonaparte and down Rue Bavastro until he reached Emilie’s old apartment block. He had not been there for almost seven years, and it had clearly benefited from a bit of a facelift. But the front door was still wide open, and it was soon obvious that the facelift was purely cosmetic.
He climbed the grimy stairs and walked to the end of the corridor. His plan was crystal clear. He would knock politely at Emilie’s door, and simply tell the new occupants that he had been out of town for a few years and was not aware that she had moved away. And maybe he would be lucky enough to pick up another hint of where she might have gone.
But nobody answered. Fair enough. Now he would knock at Danielle’s door. If there was no reply, he would try the handle and see if it was unlocked, as it always used to be. But that was not very likely — she too had probably moved away long, long before. And if somebody did answer ... well, if it turned out to be Danielle, they could chat about the old days, and he could ask after Emilie, and so on. And if it was someone else, he would just play it by ear, as usual. Either way, he should easily be able to check that the old pink sofa was still there on the opposite wall.
But again there was no reply. He could not risk going in here and now, even if the door was unlocked — there might well be somebody inside who would make a very loud fuss about that. But he could very gently try the handle, just to see ...
Locked! So Danielle too had almost certainly moved away. And now he must mount a proper observation of his own.
Copyright © 2012 by Michael E. Lloyd