by Michael E. Lloyd
Within eight days he had exhausted all the possibilities. Luc had probably just jumped on the first westbound train without anyone spotting him, and gone heaven knows where. So that was that.
And now it was the twenty-third of November, and he would need to get back in touch with Xérus very soon. So he called Pureza that afternoon, for the first time in over four weeks.
‘It’s me again.’
‘Oh Arthur, I’ve been so concerned!’
‘Everything’s fine. Please don’t worry. And how are you?’
‘I’m all right. Just missing you a lot. Where are you now?’
‘Don’t ask. Hey, are my awful old books still safe and sound?’
‘Of course they are, you idiot! But I’ve moved the boxes down to the cupboard under the stairs. They were cluttering up my living room!’
‘OK, thanks. Now, there will be some carnations arriving by special delivery early tomorrow morning.’
‘Oh, how sweet of you!’
‘And I have a special favour to ask. It’s all to do with the stuff I’m working on ... you know ... but I promise it won’t cause you any problems ...’
‘I need you to arrange the flowers in the front window of the bookshop, straight away, and leave them there until further notice, OK?’
‘So they’re not a present for me after all!’
‘But of course they are!’
‘Will you please do this for me, Pureza?’
‘It doesn’t sound as if I have much choice.’
‘Thank you. And I’ll be in touch again soon. Ciao!’
* * *
Narone took a bus ride past the shop at lunchtime the following day, and was relieved to see the vase of bright pink carnations clearly on display. So that evening he would go to receive the next call from Xérus. And he would let the man assume he was staying at the bookshop again, now that he was back in Nice. Because if Xérus should ever ask him why he had stopped coming and going there, then that would confirm that he was actively monitoring him in the city. Not very likely. But if it did happen, he would just play it by ear.
‘So you’re finally back, Narone!’
‘I told you I could get very busy, X, and I was right. I managed to steal enough cash to keep me going for several months, and I’ve been sniffing around in lots of towns and cities over to the west, trying to find sympathizers to the cause of our own little Robin Hood.’
‘And what have you discovered?’
‘Nothing, yet. So now I’m going to try that line here.’
‘There’s no evidence that L is living in Nice, is there?’
‘No. But what else can I do? Unless you’re willing to give me some other clues about him at last ...’
‘No. Still too risky. You just keep at it. And signal me when you’re ready to talk again. Same method, same timings, same call box, but yellow flowers, OK? Any time in January, but definitely by the end of the month. And Pureza Seles had better not forget to renew her fire insurance. Got it?’
‘Got it. And ... Merry Christmas, X.’
‘Just work on making it a Happy New Year for us all, Narone.’
So he would now switch his personal morning researches to the subject of Xérus. But what did he really know about the man?
Well, he was clearly a bit deaf in both ears! Narone had twice needed to repeat his words when a loud vehicle was going past, and surely Xérus would use his good ear for telephoning, if he were only deaf on one side? And his accent was strange ... it had the twang of the Midi, but as far as Narone was concerned, Xérus spoke a lot like those educated northerners he’d often heard on Pureza’s radio. So maybe the guy came south a long time ago, and never looked back. A lot of Parisians would love to do that!
And if he was Luc’s sponsor, and had funded the whole thing and supplied generous advance payments for everyone, he must have been very well off at that time, and possibly still was. Which meant he probably now lived in a very nice house, almost certainly here in the city or close by. And he didn’t sound really old, so he was probably still at work. Maybe in the banking world. Maybe in that bank ...
The next day, during the busy midday hour, a not-so-young hippy sporting a pair of very dark John Lennon sunglasses and a string of colourful beads waited patiently in the longest queue of the Banque Artisanale du Midi. But when it was almost his turn to be served, he ducked out of the line and stood off to one side, facing away from the counters and fumbling around in his pockets and his shoulder bag for something he had obviously mislaid. Then he just shrugged and joined the end of another long queue.
When his turn finally came around again, he explained to the young cashier that he had been hoping to open an account with the twenty francs he’d received as a birthday present from his mother, but had unfortunately left his identity card back at the squat. She confirmed his suspicion that no bank account could be opened without some form of identification, and he shrugged his shoulders again, thanked her politely, wandered back outside, and made his way to a small café on Rue Pastorelli for lunch and a good little think.
Narone had managed a very solid piece of observation during those precious minutes spent inside the building. The security guard was in his early twenties — obviously not the reckless hero who had been seriously wounded seven years before and was still laid up in hospital at the time of the trial. Most of the clerks were also quite young, and two of them were girls. He had spotted a woman seated at her desk in the large office labelled “Deputy Manager” and immediately recognised her as the senior cashier who had testified at the trial. Christine somebody, he recalled. Modern times — lucky lady. And then, after Narone had joined the second queue, a tall well-dressed man in his fifties had come quickly through the corner door and gone straight into an even bigger office. And his face was equally memorable from those days in court. Charles-Pierre Orceau, the poor guy who had briefly related how he’d been shot in the shoulder by the stocky little man with the high-pitched voice and the silly moustache. Well, at least that awful experience hadn’t got in the way of his eventual promotion either.
There was just one other guy at work in there, hurrying red-faced back and forth behind the counters. Early forties, probably, and little more than a messenger boy. He looked as if he earned a very low wage and would not hurt a fly. Even more relevant, his voice sounded nothing at all like that of Xérus.
And that was it. Dead-end street at the bank, and no other usable leads, right now.
But it was Friday afternoon, for heaven’s sake, and this beer was tasting very good. Maybe he should stop thinking about Xérus and Luc for a little while, and plan a nice relaxing weekend with some of his great new student friends ...
Because while he’d been directly seeking his oppressors in his own particular fashion, Narone had also continued to give the appearance, for the benefit of the Nice-based mastermind who might conceivably be observing him back here, that he was busily slaving away at his particular cause. But he had decided even before his return to Nice that he would not be sticking with the cover story he’d originally sold to Xérus — the one in which he was a journalist investigating the gentle murmurs of worker and student unrest that were beginning to make themselves heard in various parts of the country.
No, he’d thought very carefully about that idea during his long, empty days in Toulon, and had recognised that there were probably not many real, oppressed workers to talk to in this pretty little rich-man’s town ... apart from himself, of course! And how many of them were likely to know anything about the organisers of a bank robbery seven years ago?
And as for the students at the newly reconstituted University of Nice ... well, they might not take too kindly to being “investigated” if they really were politically active behind the scenes. But they should be much more amenable to the approaches of a budding young writer who was busy researching the rebellious, carefree social lives of typical Sixties Students for his next action-packed novel!
And his revised strategy had proved very successful — socially. He had met a lot of very interesting young people in the afternoons and evenings of the past ten days, and this evening he would be spoilt for choice on which of several all-night parties to attend.
Those parties — and he ended up enjoying every aspect of each one — continued through the weekend and, in rather more informal ways, into the following week. And since he presently had no more leads to follow in his mornings, that did not seem to matter very much at all.
So it was more by luck than judgement that he remembered on the evening of the thirtieth of November that he really should be in position for Luc’s next phone call at noon the following day.
* * *
‘Is that you, Arthur?’
‘You sound awful. Got a hangover or something?’
‘Nah. I think it’s the ’flu. Feeling really weak. Took me hours to drag myself back here from Marseilles this morning. The things we do for love ...’
‘Stop fooling around!’
‘I’m not, Luc! Gimme a break for once.’
‘OK. So what have you got for me?’
‘Nothing yet. But I still have a lot more places to check out. I’m going straight back to Marseilles this afternoon, and I’ll get on with the job when I’ve recovered my strength. Are you willing to give me some help with it now?’
‘No. You’re still on your own. And make sure you’re back in Nice on the first of January. I’ll phone you at noon. Call box at the bottom of Rue des Ponchettes.’
‘Whatever you say, Luc. Can I please go back to bed now?’
‘Yeah. And get better fast!’
Narone congratulated himself on another fine performance as he wandered lazily back up to the student quarter, looking forward to rolling another joint with his pals and taking it nice and easy again for the rest of the day. If, of course, he could actually remember where he’d slept the previous night ...
* * *
He woke late the next morning and spent fifteen minutes persuading himself that he was compos mentis again. Then he spent another fifteen minutes deciding he should definitely review his situation. A little later he began to do just that.
It was highly likely that Emilie had left the city at once, rather than moving to Rue de la Croix, wasn’t it? And even if the old woman’s grandson had been right about that, there was little chance that Luc or Xérus actually had discovered Emilie there, right?
So they couldn’t really know where she was now, could they? So neither of them posed any threat at all to her, did they?
So when he felt like looking for her again, one of these days, he would just follow his own trusty nose, wouldn’t he? And that meant he didn’t have to do any more searching around for Luc and Xérus themselves, to put them out of action, right? He just needed to keep out of their way as much as he could, and maybe put the hidden money up for auction to the highest bidder when they both decided time was running out.
So that was all settled. He would still have to take their phone calls and do whatever stuff they wanted him to, because he certainly didn’t want them to get heavy with him ... or Pureza. But she could probably look after herself, couldn’t she? And January was a whole month away, and he had seven years of catching up to do. It was time for some real end-of-term partying!
Now, what day was it? Ah, yes, Friday. Long time till Monday. Back to sleep ...
* * *
‘Late again, Arthur? And let me guess. Nothing to report, right?’
‘Nothing firm. But ... I assume you’ve been watching to see if large numbers of old 5000 balles notes began turning up in a particular corner of Nice during the past seven years?’
‘Of course we have. They’ve been coming steadily into the banks as the validity deadline gets closer. But there are still hundreds of thousands of them in circulation. And we’ve never seen any obvious hot-spots of activity.’
‘The other big cities, then? Marseilles, for example ...’
‘We’ve been watching there too. And Lyons and Toulouse.’
‘And the smaller towns? How about Cannes?’
‘Cannes, yes. But that place is almost impossible to monitor!’
‘Just a hunch ...’
‘Is that where you’ve been for the last few weeks?’
‘I’ve been everywhere, man. Well?’
‘I don’t know. I’ll look into it.’
‘Good. It’s nice to know I can call on the police for support when I really need them. But there’s no rush for the answer. I’m going back underground. I’ll call you in four weeks’ time.’
* * *
A few days later Narone had a pang of conscience and telephoned Pureza to tell her all was still well. And he at once received an invitation to spend the whole of the festive season with her.
That was definitely not what he would be doing, he explained, and for lots of very good reasons. But, OK, unless something really prevented it, and as long as he could work out how to arrive and depart without anybody spotting him and observing his new image, yes, he would come over to her place for a few hours on Christmas Day itself.
* * *
On Friday the sixteenth of December, he suddenly felt like a change from the indolence of drug-softened days and nights spent largely in the company of his over-intellectual pals, with the occasional diversion of a long game of strip poker when there were a few girls around for the evening. So he went back to his rooms in Ruelle Michel-Ange for the first time in many days, changed into the smartest clothes he had left in his wardrobe, checked the small ads for the city’s latest night-time scene, and went out to the up-market-looking Nice La Belle disco bar. And there, show-dancing behind the over-talkative DJ and his turntables, were the heavily advertised Natalie Parras and Colette Lenovine.
They told him later that evening that they had been the closest of friends since the age of twelve. They were both nineteen now and studying hard at the University of Nice, sharing a modest New Town apartment but still unable to cope on the minimal contributions their low-paid fathers could make to their living costs. So, like many but by no means all of their fellow students, they needed to resort to part-time jobs to keep their heads above water.
And since they had for many years been devoted dance partners at their little school up in the foothills of the French Alps, and had later won several small awards for their innovative Beatles-backed pas de deux — which in the view of some observers went a good way beyond the early Sixties’ norms of provincial public decency, particularly since the sixteen-year-olds had by then developed into a perfectly matched pair of slim, silky-haired and very well-proportioned young women — they had known long before starting out on their first university term exactly what sort of evening work they they would be seeking when they finally hit the bright lights of Nice.
They also told Narone, much later still, of their symbiotic, unspoken reactions to him the minute he’d walked into the place and sat down at an empty table near the dance floor.
‘We’ve always done everything together,’ purred Natalie, five minutes after the end of their set, as she handed him a long glass of beer while Colette carefully placed their own cocktails on his table and sat herself down next to him. ‘So, what’s your name, bright-eyes?’
‘Look,’ Narone protested, ‘you’re both really pretty, and I loved watching you dance, but ...’
‘We noticed,’ grinned Colette. ‘You’ve been glued to your seat!’
‘Yes! But I promise you I didn’t know this was ... well, that sort of place. I’m sure I won’t be able to afford your drinks. And I really don’t ...’
‘Hush,’ cooed Natalie. ‘It isn’t. And we’re paying, OK? My name’s Natalie, and this is Colette. And we’d both just love to see you dance. With both of us, and one after the other, if you see what I mean ...’
‘Oh! Well, that sounds great. Thank you! And you must let me buy you each a drink later, if the prices really are ... well, normal.’
‘Only if you tell us your name!’ Colette insisted.
‘It’s ... OK, it’s Roland.’
‘Come on then, Roly-poly! All together now!’
When the three of them left the club at one o’clock the following morning, the girls made no secret of their wish for “Roland” to came and stay with them, rent-free, over the coming vacation. Starting that night.
And after discovering how pleasantly long the nights could be when you were really having a good time, and soon afterwards phoning to cancel his earlier promise to spend Christmas Day with Pureza — ‘I’m really sorry, but I have to be out of town again for a few weeks ...’ — Narone was still in no hurry, as New Year’s Eve approached, to abandon his exhaustive research into the delightful and rarely cerebral company of his two lovely dancing queens.
To be continued ...
Copyright © 2012 by Michael E. Lloyd