by Michael E. Lloyd
Book II: Reparations
Chapter 6: Are You Being Served?
part 2 of 3
Narone discovered that what he’d imagined as Sergio Rozzino’s chic Milan apartment was actually a tiny attic in a run-down block in one of the grubbiest quarters of the city. And though he knew all about the poverty of writers over the ages, he found it hard to accept that a well-known author was still obliged to live in such cramped and uninviting conditions. But he decided it would be best not to mention that.
Rozzino was polite enough in his welcome, and his French was very good, but he looked as if he had been hard at work and was not too happy with the disturbance. Their conversation would clearly be lasting the length of just one small cup of coffee.
So Narone decided to begin with Emilie, and keep his introduction brief and quite vague. A young friend of his, he explained, had apparently needed to get out of Nice in a hurry, many years before, but had left no word for him on where she had gone, or why. And since then he had tried everything he could think of to uncover her tracks.
‘And I really respect your work, signore. So do you have any bright ideas on how such a character in one of your stories might have acted in that situation?’
Rozzino sipped his coffee, drew on his cigarette, and stared out of the window for thirty seconds. Then he turned back to Narone.
‘Was she living with her family?’
‘Would she have gone home to them?’
‘Bene. So, money makes the world go around. Did she have any?’
‘Well, she was earning good pay, part-time. But she was spending most of it every week on clothes, and bangles, and her apartment ... and me.’
‘Did she have a skilled job she could go straight into, some place else?’
‘No. Her work was specialised. Artistic. She’d have to search around hard for opportunities.’
‘So she would have needed to pay for travel and accommodation and food and everything else for the foreseeable future, and she may have had very little cash in her purse to start with, right?’
‘Did she have anything of value?’
‘Oh! No, I don’t think so. She abandoned most of her possessions when she left home. And anyway, they were only teenager’s stuff. So ... wait a minute — there was her grandmother’s old cameo ring. But she told me it was unique and that she would never dream of parting with it. She wore it all the time.’
‘So you would recognise it again?’
‘Well, it’s a long shot, Monsieur Narone, but there’s your plot idea. I think you should pay a visit to every pawnbroker in Nice. And now I regret I must get back to my own work.’
Narone realised, as he descended the narrow staircase down to the fourth floor, that he had not asked the imaginative novelist for any ideas on how to smoke out either Luc or Xérus. But there had been no time for that. And anyway, Emilie was probably far more important.
* * *
Having dragged out his absence abroad for a full week, Narone arrived back at Nice-Ville station quite late on Wednesday the nineteenth. But he made a special effort to get up at a reasonable hour the following morning, and joined Pureza in the bookshop not long after she had opened up for the day.
And when there was a momentary lull in trade, he told her of his brief interview with Sergio Rozzino, asked her what she thought of the author’s off-the-wall idea that Emilie might have sold or pawned some item of value, and mentioned his own recollection of her treasured antique ring.
‘I think it’s an absolutely brilliant idea, Arthur. You have nothing to lose by following it up as he suggested. And after all, you don’t have anything else to do with your time.’
‘OK, then. I’ll probably give it a try after I’ve spoken to the Inspector on Monday.’
But he did then spend the next two hours deeply pondering each of the three conclusions Pureza had just drawn, trying to figure out how sincere, or conversely how ironic, her message had been in each case.
* * *
On the twenty-fourth, Narone called to tell Simon Hardy he had gleaned nothing new or of any value about the robbery’s mastermind from his recent meeting with Giuseppe Hauvert. So he would now get back to his very loose pursuit of Luc, and phone again in a further three weeks. Unless, of course, Simon had any other bright ideas ...
He had none. Which of course made two of them.
Narone knew there were many pawnbrokers in Nice, and plenty of gold and money exchanges too. But if he really was going to try out Rozzino’s idea, he had better do it methodically rather than relying on memory or the telephone book.
So as soon as his call to Hardy was over, he primed his wallet with the rest of the latest wad of big hot banknotes hidden in his drawer, left Pureza to manage the shop on her own once again, and purchased a brand new city map at the nearest corner store. Then he took a cab down to the Promenade and along the Quai des Etats-Unis to the Castle Hill elevator entrance. From there, at the top of Rue des Ponchettes, it was going to take him a long time to cover every street on foot, even though he planned only to browse in the windows to start with. But he would make a little list of any places that seemed worth a return visit for a further look inside and a conversation with their owners.
He found nothing on display in any of the pawn shops of the Old City, where that old woman’s grandson had reportedly spotted Emilie going into Rue de la Croix. But one or two of them would merit later investigation. Then after a quick lunch he moved over to the area around Place Garibaldi and north of the port, where he and Emilie had both previously lived. He wrote the addresses of several more candidates in his notebook, as he criss-crossed the more modern grid of streets, but he saw no sign of the ring in any of their windows. Not that he held out any hope of finding it anyway.
At five o’clock that afternoon he reached the end of Rue Scaliero, decided to call it a day, and drew a line on his map.
The following morning, under cloudy skies, he picked up where he had left off and covered all the streets further to the north, right up to Boulevard Pierre Sola and Nice-Riquier station. Then he wandered back down to Pont Barla, had another quick lunch not far from the bookshop, and started on the streets of the New Town, heading south on the embankment and then steadily working his way up from Avenue Félix Faure, keeping to the east of Avenue de la Victoire.
And one hour later, just two blocks along from the Police HQ on Rue Gioffredo, he found the unmistakable ring of Emilie Courbier’s grandmother glaring angrily at him from the window display of Versanne et Fils: Dépôt-Vente.
He stood glued to the pavement for a full three minutes, composing himself, and then breezed confidently through the door and approached the well-dressed man standing behind the counter, who clearly was already in the mood for business.
‘Bon après-midi, monsieur. Qu’est-ce que vous-désirez?’
‘Good afternoon. Well, I was wondering if you could possibly help me. I’m certain I recognise one of the items in your window, and I’d really like to know who left it with you, please.’
‘Kindly show me the piece you are interested in, sir,’ said the shopkeeper, escorting Narone to the back of the display and drawing open its curtains. They peered together into the glistening cornucopia, and Narone pointed it out.
‘Aha! Yes, a very fine cameo ring, in immaculate condition. Early nineteenth century, in eighteen-carat gold and agate. The elegant lady wears a pearl necklace and earrings, with the delightful shades of her dark and light brown curls set against the white background of her bonnet and face.’
‘Oh, it had been sitting there for years when a rich American hippy purchased it from us last summer. She said it would be “cool” to have something old-fashioned while everyone else was only interested in modern things. But she brought it back a week later, when she realised she was running out of money for the rest of her grand tour of Europe, and Daddy had refused to wire her any more. I made a nice little profit on that transaction. It’s a very valuable piece, monsieur.’
‘OK — so I’m really lucky it came back and it’s still here. But who sold it to you in the first place?’
‘Oh, I’m afraid I can’t remember much about that. It was my mother who purchased it, while I was away. So I shall have to ask her. One moment, please ...’
He plucked the ring from its perch, closed the curtains, returned to the door behind the counter and called down the passage: ‘Valérie, please watch the shop for a moment while I go and get mémé.’
A girl of twelve or thirteen appeared and hovered, smiling shyly, in the doorway while her father hurried up the stairs. Narone returned her smile, and then felt obliged to say something as well. And he was surprised at how strangely comfortable he was with that idea.
‘Hello there, mademoiselle. And how are you?’
‘I am very well, monsieur.’
‘Valérie Versanne is a lovely-sounding name ...’
‘Thank you. And what is yours?’
Ah, thought Narone, very fast. He had not planned on holding so intimate and extended a conversation. And now he had dug himself a hole and jumped straight into it. He had better not reveal his real name, especially since he was hopefully about to part with a lot of stolen banknotes. But apart from that, he was still feeling very comfortable with the situation. And anyway he could already hear the others coming downstairs.
‘My name is Roland.’
‘And I think that is a very manly-sounding name.’
‘Ha-ha-ha! Thank you, Valérie.’
The owner of the shop appeared in the doorway, ahead of her son. And she was dressed just as smartly.
‘Bonjour, monsieur. I can hear you and Valérie are already well acquainted! My name is Yvette Versanne, and Giles tells me you are interested in the provenance of our beautiful agate ring ...’
‘I am indeed, madame.’
She was already settling herself into the high chair behind the till.
‘Yes, it was late November 1959, the week of the bank robbery. This little gamine comes bustling into the shop after dark, just as we’re about to close up! She’s carrying a big book under her arm, and she plonks it down on the counter and asks me if I want to buy it.’
Narone could not stop himself interrupting.
‘Can you describe her more fully?’
‘Not really. Nineteen or twenty. Small and slim and quite pretty. But she had not learned how to cut or dye her own hair!’
‘Yes, that sounds like her! Please continue, madame.’
‘Well, I told her at once that unfortunately we did not deal in books, and she looked very frustrated. But then I said I could probably recommend someone who would be interested, and asked if I might take a closer look. It turned out to be a large, leather-bound family bible, well over a hundred years old, with several faded inscriptions and other notes on the inside cover pages. And in very good condition for its age, I’d say.
‘So I suggested she should show it to Quentin Dargon. He’s the antiquarian bookseller in Rue de la Préfecture. If you live in Nice you must know his beautiful little shop.’
‘Yes, I’ve walked past it a hundred times — including yesterday!’
‘Bien. So you may want to visit him yourself.’
‘I shall indeed. But what about the ring, madame?’
‘Well, she was clearly very disappointed about the bible, but also quite reluctant to leave. Then she seemed to make a big decision, and stamped her little foot — she was obviously very unhappy, too — and held out her hand to show me the ring on her finger. I’d already noticed it, of course, but now she was asking me if I would take that instead. Not on deposit, mind, but as an outright purchase.
‘There’s little room for sentiment in my trade, monsieur. But when I made her an opening offer, and she agreed to it at once, I could not bring myself to buy it from her at that price. I told her I felt her lovely ring was worth considerably more, and that she should exercise greater caution when selling or pawning her precious possessions. So she asked if I was willing to increase my offer, and I suggested something I felt was very fair. We concluded the deal there and then, and the minute she had the cash in her hand she gave me only the briefest of thank-yous and hurried away with her lovely bible tucked back under her arm. And that, monsieur, was that.’
‘You never saw her again?’
‘No. But I worried for her. Was she a friend of yours?’
‘Yes, she was. And now I’m trying to find her again.’
‘Then I wish you well. And do have a word with Quentin. You never know ...’
‘Indeed,’ said Narone, taking out his wallet and pointedly removing ten of his 5000 Old Franc notes. ‘So, how many of these do I need to buy the ring?’
Yvette and Giles exchanged glances and nodded to each other. They were clearly not at all uncomfortable about accepting and redistributing significant quantities of those particular bills, if the price was right.
‘I regret that it is worth a good deal more than you have there, monsieur,’ said Yvette. ‘I will accept 1250 New Francs.’
‘And since I trust that you are again proposing a fair price,’ smiled Narone, ‘I will agree to pay that without further debate.’
He handed over a total of twenty-five ill-gotten banknotes, and Emilie’s desperately forsaken treasure was suddenly his.
‘Thank you — all of you. And ... well, I must be going now.’
But Valérie was not willing to let him off so lightly.
‘Oh, I wanted to have a proper talk with Roland, mémé! Can’t we invite him to dinner tonight?’
Yvette laughed and apologised for her granddaughter’s precociousness. ‘I think not, ma petite. But if the gentleman would care to come back another day, when things are again quiet in the shop, I’m certain we should all enjoy hearing of any progress he has made in his search for his beloved young lady.’
‘And perhaps I will, madame. So, au revoir à tous!’
It was not yet four o’clock. The sun was shining brightly again, and there was plenty of time to stroll down to the Old City and see if he could learn anything from the obviously celebrated old bookseller.
Copyright © 2012 by Michael E. Lloyd