by Michael E. Lloyd
Book II: Reparations
Chapter 6: Are You Being Served?
part 3 of 3
The front area of the shop itself was even smaller than he had imagined, but through the little gap in a pair of rich velvet curtains he could see a larger work-cum-storage section at the rear. The owner — who looked a lot younger than, illogically, he had expected an antiquarian to be — was busy back there with a customer, so Narone amused himself for several minutes by browsing, but never touching, the many beautiful old volumes on display in every nook and cranny of the tiny room.
But in the middle of that exploration he suddenly realised he was being watched. Two small eyes were silently observing him from one side of the gap in the curtains. Buoyed up by his merry little discourse with young Valérie only thirty minutes earlier, Narone decided to have a bit of harmless fun. He walked slowly all the way around the shop again, passed nonchalantly by the gap in the curtains, took two more short steps, then turned suddenly and loudly whispered ‘Boo!’ But there was no young child waiting there to be surprised after all. Two seconds later, however, he received a solid little kick in the backside, and an unrestrained “Boo to you too, blind man!” He turned to find a nine-year-old boy laughing his socks off right behind him.
‘Bravo!’ was all Narone could say. And he meant it. This must have been the first time he had been second-guessed by a pursuer in ... well, in a very long time.
‘It was nothing,’ was the immodest reply. ‘It works every time. And papa won’t be long now.’ The boy lowered his voice to a whisper. ‘I can always tell when he’s about to lose another sale. But you look like a much better mark.’
Narone had not often felt truly out of his depth either, but this little kid was now running rings around him on every front. He was thankfully saved from any further humiliation by the histrionic, curtain-parting entrance of Don Quentin Dargon and the immediate and well-predicted departure of the unsatisfied customer. And now at last the bookseller was free to talk about Narone’s ‘... long-lost old friend who may perhaps have come here, monsieur, to sell you a family bible back in 1959 ...’
Oh yes, he remembered that flustered young lady very well. And he had been happy to buy the bible from her on the spot. She had rejected his initial offer, of course, and had held out for a final price that was still a little on the low side but certainly not at all unfair to her.
Narone smiled to himself. Emilie always had been a quick learner.
‘And I’m guessing you sold it on soon afterwards, Monsieur Dargon?’
‘Mais non! Such delicate creatures need time and space to breathe and grow! I know the true worth of every item I purchase — give or take a little bit — so I must always be patient and wait for the right buyer to come along. That’s why I need such a large stock and am always so poor! In fact, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to afford the luxury of dying. There will forever be so much still to be sold!’
Narone roared with laughter. He already really liked this eccentric character — and his impish son.
‘I understand! Now, I don’t suppose my friend told you where she was off to next, by any chance?’
‘Oh, no. Good thing too, I’d say. She was a very pretty little lovebird. I might have shut up shop and chased straight after her!’
Narone guffawed again, but also cast an unmistakable little raise of the eyebrow in the direction of the young boy who was clearly taking in every word of their conversation.
‘Oh, don’t worry about Henri, old chap! His mother ran off with an insurance salesman when he was three years old. He knows I’m still hunting for the right woman! Trouble is, there’s no time for that in this job!’
Narone chuckled once more, and decided to give up. He had obviously shifted accidentally into a very different universe and it was clearly time to leave, even though a part of him was actually having a hugely enjoyable time.
‘Well, I hope you finally made a good profit on my friend’s bible, anyway!’
‘Not yet. But it has only been seven or eight years.’
‘What? You mean you still haven’t sold it?’
‘I told you — I wait for the right buyer and the right price.’
‘Oh! Then may I please have a good look at it?’
‘But of course!’
Five minutes later, Emilie’s beautiful old family bible had found its buyer at a high but mutually agreeable price, and Narone was on his way to the door with an almost empty wallet. But he suddenly stopped short and pulled out his handkerchief. ‘Look, there’s big moth up on that bookcase, Monsieur Dargon! Last thing you want in here!’ He reached up to swat it, then turned on his heels and gave the little scamp creeping up behind him a gentle but satisfying flick on the arm.
‘And bravo to you!’ the boy exclaimed, with a big grin on his face. ‘So, will you be back to fight another day, mon ami?’
‘Maybe, Henri,’ said Narone. ‘Maybe.’
* * *
He shared the news of his triumphs with Pureza as soon as he returned to her bookshop. She did not conceal her delight.
‘Oh, but they’re both so beautiful, Arthur! Poor Emilie must have been really desperate to give them up for some quick cash!’
‘Yes. Well at least it proves she did stay in Nice for a few days, and from what the pawnbroker told me I’m certain she was the girl who was spotted going into Rue de la Croix. But I’m not sure how much further it gets me ...’
‘Well, we’ll need to sleep on that, won’t we? And maybe there will be a clue or two in these notes at the front of the bible. Mind you, it’s going to take a while to decipher them ... some of this writing is very ornate, look, and a lot of the ink is badly faded.’
‘Would you please keep the ring and the bible safe for me here?’
‘Of course I will, amigo! Now, go and wash your hands for dinner.’
When dinner was over, Pureza moved back to the subject that had obviously been on her mind since the beginning of March.
‘Arthur — do you want to tell me anything more about Thérèse?’
‘No. I’m sorry, but I just can’t.’
‘All right. But have you ever ... oh, this is so difficult ... look, have you ever tried to somehow make amends for whatever it was you did?’
‘Are you still feeling guilty about all of that?’
‘Yes, I think so.’
‘And does she perhaps deserve some sort of apology, or whatever else might be appropriate — even after all this time?’
‘I don’t know. Yes, probably. But I’d really rather not talk about it.’
She sighed in exasperation. ‘Very well, Arthur. But for Thérèse’s sake, will you promise at least to think a little more about it?’
‘OK, Pureza. I will do that.’
* * *
Narone woke early the following morning in a mood of deep sadness, and it took him several dozy minutes to pin down the cause.
He could not go back and visit the lovely Versanne family, even if he did one day make some headway in his search for Emilie. Apart from the fact that he’d bought the ring with stolen money, he had lied to the trusting daughter about his name and he could never face having to admit that to her, even if it were ever safe for him to do so. And he would hit the same problems of conscience if he went back to Quentin Dargon and his son.
No, he must never see any of them again. But he had been inexplicably delighted by his brief encounters with both Valérie and Henri. He’d had no idea he was capable of enjoying the company of young children in that way, and for the first time in his life he vaguely imagined some day having charming little kids of his own.
And then his thoughts turned elsewhere, in the direction Pureza had recommended the previous evening, and his sadness turned to shame once again.
He dragged himself out of bed and got ready as quickly as he could. He finished his breakfast while his ever-tolerant landlady was still in the bathroom, and called a brief goodbye up the stairs. He did not know why he was doing it, but Pureza had clearly worked some sort of black magic that he was unable to resist, and he was going in search of Thérèse.
He left the bookshop, crossed the Esplanade, and walked slowly and uncertainly down the backbone of the Old City and into Rue Barillerie. He reached the door of No. 1 and forced himself to look yet again at its tiny bronze knocker, beautifully moulded into an elegant little wrist and hand. And then, since he had nothing else to work with but spirit of place, he decided this would be as good a place as any to begin, and perhaps the bravest way to do it too. He glanced across the square towards the dilapidated old Senate building — his cold adopted home for all those years — and then, grimacing and shuddering, he reached up, lifted the slim fingers of the knocker as delicately as he could, and tapped them gently against the ancient wooden door.
It was eventually opened by an elderly lady whom he vaguely remembered seeing around here in the old days. She looked him up and down with suspicion, which seemed quickly to turn to dismay. But he had left this corner of the city when he was sixteen. Surely she did not recognise him now?
‘Good morning, madame. I am an old acquaintance of the Vonier family, but I cannot recall which building they lived in. Can you help me?’
‘An old acquaintance? Pah! Come to pay your dues, more like.’
‘Please just tell me where to find them, madame.’
‘I don’t know where they are. They all moved away many years ago.’
‘Oh. Well, perhaps you will remind me of their old address anyway, and then I can ask the people who are living there now.’
‘You promise to behave?’
‘Of course, madame.’
She looked him up and down again for several seconds more.
‘Over there on Rue du Saint-Suaire. Third door, first floor, number eight.’
She closed the door without further ceremony.
The family at number eight knew nothing about their apartment’s previous occupants. But they encouraged Narone to try the room directly opposite. The man in there, they told him, had been living in the building for years.
Narone knocked, the door was opened, and he posed his question yet again.
‘Ah, yes,’ said the doddery old boy, after scratching his head and working hard to recall what he could. ‘Yes, it all happened quite suddenly, didn’t it? Around 1960, I think it was. Madame Vonier had been sickening for many years, and then Thérèse became ill too. So neither of them could look after each other, or the little girl. And Jean-David was married by then, of course, and no longer living there, and anyhow he was away at sea most of the time ...’
‘There was a young girl with them too?’
‘Yes. Anyway, poor Thérèse went to stay with her sister-in-law Muriel — I think that was her name — and Madame ended up in the paupers’ hospital. Very sad.’
‘And after that?’
‘Do you have Muriel’s address?’
‘No. But we’ve probably only had two different postmen in the past ten years. One of them might remember where they forwarded J-D’s mail.’
‘When did he move out of this building?’
‘Pah! Let’s see ... It must have been in ’56, or maybe ’57 ...’
‘OK. Et merci bien, monsieur.’
‘Et bonne chance à vous!’
Narone’s earlier resolve was already diminishing, but he made the effort to keep on with his mission and found the postman an hour later in Rue Saint-Gaétan. No, said the young guy, he had not been doing this particular round in 1956! But there were records, of course. For a small private consideration, he would check them later this afternoon back at the Post Office.
They met up again the following morning, and Narone came away, in considerable private discomfort, with the address he had been seeking.
Jean-David Vonier. Hmmm. He was not looking forward to encountering him again. And there was no real rush to find any of them, was there? But perhaps, if he was lucky, the sailor might still be away at sea ...
He would sleep on this too, over the coming weekend. And maybe for a lot longer.
* * *
It was May Day morning. Time to take Luc’s next call and try and goad him still harder.
‘I hope you’ve got somewhere at last, Arthur ...’
‘Yes, I have! I identified the renovation company that’s been buying up the Fiat spares ...’
‘The one in Imperia?’
‘No. That turned out to be bad information, so I had to spend a lot longer in Italy than I’d intended. But I did eventually discover the outfit we’re actually after. It’s a completely different business.’
‘Where are they?’
‘Further to the east, in ... oh, hang on, Luc — you’ve always said you never wanted to know where the cash was hidden.’
‘I don’t care what I said nearly a year ago! Tell me where they’re based!’
‘Look, I really don’t think I should. You’d probably regret asking me as soon as I did. You know you don’t want to be tempted to go after it yourself, or to run the risk of singing about to anyone if you’re ever ... well, pressurised, right?’
‘Are you trying to tell me what I want?’
‘Yes, because I’m trying to protect you.’
‘Look, do you actually know exactly where the money is, right now?’
‘Oh, no. I only said I’d definitely identified the operation that’s been buying up spare parts. But there’s every chance they did acquire those particular boxes and now have them stored somewhere in their big building. I did quite a bit of careful asking and snooping around last week, but I haven’t managed to confirm it for you yet. And now I’ve had to come all the way back here just to receive this call!’
‘So what are you proposing to do next?’
‘I’m going straight back to Italy to find your money, of course! Isn’t that exactly what you want me to do?’
‘Yeah. OK, I’ll call you again on the first of June, at the following phone box ...’
* * *
Narone had absolutely no plans to return to Italy, of course, to waste his time pretending to hunt for the cash that was still cunningly stored in those boxes of old books under Pureza’s stairs. And he had effectively given up trying to track down either Luc or Xérus directly himself, for now at least, while he was pursuing his latest little leads on Emilie and finally beginning his reluctant search for the other girl from his past.
So with nothing much else he could usefully be doing on most of those fronts, he went back to working almost full-time in the bookshop, and the days of May drifted by without incident while he considered whether or not to continue looking for poor Thérèse.
And his expenses had been remarkably high since he had reclaimed the first of the four stolen wads stored in the anonymous rucksack that he had been carefully moving around the region’s many left-luggage offices. Every note in that wad was now gone. So he soon took time out to retrieve his weary traveller’s belongings from their latest temporary resting place, extracted another wad of one hundred 5000 Old Franc bills, and re-deposited the rucksack, now reduced to safeguarding just two remaining wads, at the left-luggage office of Nice Bus Station.
* * *
On the fifteenth of May, Narone called Inspector Hardy from his room at Pureza’s.
‘Still nothing new for you, I’m afraid.’
‘I’m getting very impatient now, Arthur!’
‘I’m not at all surprised. Have you considered therapy? I have, repeatedly, but I simply can’t afford it ...’
‘Just tell me what you’re doing, man!’
‘All I can. Which amounts to nothing very much. But right now I’m following the Micawber school of thought ...’
‘Pray enlighten me.’
‘Something is sure to turn up. So, I’ll call you on the fifth of June, unless that “something” happens before then. Ciao!’
Narone went downstairs to begin another unremarkable week’s work in the bookshop.
* * *
He had promised to signal Xérus one day in May, to initiate their next checkpoint call. And since he obviously had very little to report, he decided to get it out of the way sooner rather than later.
So the following Friday he took a long morning coffee break and returned with a new bunch of flowers for his boss. ‘Lovely red roses, this time, chica!’ She shook her uncomprehending head. So he arranged them in a vase himself, and placed them prominently in the front window.
He went to the pre-agreed telephone box at nine that evening.
‘Have you found the man who was spending big old money in Sanremo?’
‘No. False alarm, I’m afraid. But then they always are, aren’t they? I need something more from you about Paul Ruford, for heaven’s sake! Something much better than the stuff you sent me off to Marseilles with ...’
‘Too bad. Anything else would be far too risky.’
‘I’ve told you before. Both of us. All of you. So just keep on it, Narone. I’ll call again on the last day of June. Here’s the location ...’
To be continued ...
Copyright © 2012 by Michael E. Lloyd