Swindler & Son

-So how does it start?
It starts with the sound of my own name spoken aloud.
Call me Nicholas, I’m fine. Nick or Nicky, even better.
But ‘Nicholas Marsh’ enunciated, first and last, all the way through—when I hear it that way, I know I’ve done something I’m about to pay for.
Hearing it in French, every syllable twisted and slurred and leaking from the earpiece of a Parisian counter-terrorism officer in a Kevlar vest, his back to me and his binoculars trained on my kitchen window—that’s rock-bottom.
That’s how it starts, in the snowy garden of the Hopital Saint-Louis in the Tenth Arrondissement, just past sundown on Christmas day, at what I fervently hoped was the end of one of the worst days of my life.
Well, actually, no…
Actually, it started about fifteen minutes earlier, on the other side of the canal, where I was mugged by some twenty-five year old junkie in a purple-tinted mohawk and a leather jacket. And several nice tats on his neck that distracted my attention when I should have been focusing on his oncoming fist. He took my wallet and phone and left me aching and dizzy, which is why I wandered groggy several blocks out of my way and approached home through the garden.
I love that garden but none of the official exits land anywhere near my apartment. A few years ago, I found a back door, through the Musee des Moulages on the hospital grounds, that let me out near a construction gate right across the street from my building.
I’m just opening that back door when I hear my name and see GIGN, French Special Forces, two officers, huddled like Martians in flak suits, gas masks and sniper rifles, peeking through the construction gate at the wide corner, the entrance to my building and, eight floors above, at the dead coleus drooping from my night table.
Frozen in place, I scan the rooftops to find a squad of dark gray uniforms—and, in case I harbor any last doubts, hear my name one more time from the headset hanging from the blonde officer’s right ear. I back instinctively into the doorway, sweating and making twenty-five different plans at the same time.
The bus! They won’t be checking the bus on the Boulevard de la Villette, that’s an answer. Having any sort of answer calms the quiver in my legs, brings them back into something like working order.
This is a mistake—it’s got to be. If I’d done something to deserve counter-terrorism, I’d remember it, wouldn’t I? More importantly, why in hell didn’t somebody tip me off? Who do I know at GIGN?
Out through the door and the museum, retracing my steps, back out the far end of the compound, past the Chapelle to the Rue de la Grange aux Belles. Up toward the roundabout at a regular clip, walking briskly like a Parisian.
Am I thinking of escape? Hell no, I’m just getting pissed. Why hasn’t somebody warned me? Why haven’t they given me a chance to buy my way out of this?
Oh sure, GIGN makes it look serious but that just raises the price. I know somebody in every department of government and what they cost. Serious things have been undone before.
By the time the bus makes three stops, I know who to talk to—Beltoise, the second man at the Surete. He was at our Christmas party just last night.
I own him! At least, I should. If I had a middle-class clientele, if I dealt pot or owned a brothel, I could expect a phone call 24 hours in advance of a raid. It’s common courtesy!
He’ll be at D’Azur, of course, charging his dinner to us as usual.
When I arrive, he’s tucked into a dim corner. He rises before I can reach him.
“Why is GIGN all around my apartment? You don’t warn me?”
His eyes bulge like marbles. “Where’s your phone?”
“Phone? Stolen. I got mugged.”
He looks relieved. “That’s why they’re not here yet,” he mutters and pulls me into the private room in back.
“Nicky, our past history—and the fact that I like you—is why I’ll give you a minute’s grace before I call you in.” He’s serious! His face goes cold—not like he doesn’t know me, like he’s never seen me before. “Normal corruption is one thing—but this?”
Normal corruption? Normal corruption is my specialty! He’s reducing ten thousand years of civilized give-and-take to a catchphrase. Not to mention, it’s fed him quite nicely, thank you, over the years.
I look at his face, at the disappointment and condescension there, and realize what a farce it all is. You treat them like princes but the first time you actually need them to put out…they might as well be in insurance.
Faced with this ingratitude, something inside me just gives up.
“Okay,” I tell him. “I surrender.”
“What?”
“I’ll confess, right now. It’s the jet ramps, isn’t it?”
He looks confused.
“We have this client, a dictator…you know the old joke about, you’re not really a country unless you have your own stamps, your own airline and your own beer? Well, he’s got commemorative stamps, a brewery, a Mercedes stretch limo and a portrait of himself as Julius Caesar. But he gets embarrassed when his guests have to descend a staircase off the plane.
“There’s a staircase on Air Force One’ I tell him and he says, ‘They could have a ramp if they wanted one.’ So when Kumbatta collapsed, we flew a cargo plane in and liberated a couple of jetramps. The guy was so happy, he painted two Cessna’s and proclaimed them the national airline. I don’t think we hurt anybody.”
Beltoise settles into the nearest chair, not saying a word.
“That’s not it?”
Silence.
“Okay, Napoleon’s penis—that was a good deed, I swear.”
Excusez moi?”
“It’s your Minister of Defence’s fault! Not the present Minister, the old one. He had this…thing about Napoleon’s penis, that it should be back in France where it belongs.”
“It is in France! Napoleon’s body is at Les Invalides!”
“The body, sure, but his penis was removed during the autopsy and it’s floated around ever since from collector to collector. It’s now owned by a urologist, naturally, in Philadelphia.”
“Don’t be funny.”
“It’s true. The BBC measured it a few years ago and found it a bit small. Naturally, that outraged the Minister, who insisted the English don’t know how to measure. The urologist’s price was just outrageous so we found a…more generously-sized one around the same age, for a price the Minister could afford. It made him happy.”
“You found him another penis?”
“Another old penis! You think that was easy? How many three-hundred-year-old penises you think are floating around?”
Beltoise stares at me with—I can’t tell if it’s respect or concern. The odd thing is, to me, this is actually beginning to feel pretty righteous. Confession really is good for the soul. “Okay, not the answer. Give me a chance. The eighteen identical one-of-a-kind Moroccan emeralds—”
“No.”
“The Van Gogh with the wrong ear missing?”
Beltoise rolls his eyes. “We’ve never met,” he warns, “except for a few state dinners with hundreds of other people I’ve never met either—but my advice is, you find a quick way out of France now. And don’t bother replacing your phone—they’ll find you as soon as you do. You understand?”
This is terrifying—Beltoise is a glorified flatfoot with a fancy office. I’m begging to be arrested and he’s not biting. It’s unnatural.
“Throw me a bone here,” I say. “I don’t understand what’s happened.”
He grimaces. “You know damn well it’s the bomb.”
“The BOMB?”
Of course, I know all about the bomb. I’d arrived back in Paris the day before, just in time for the funerals. Twelve dead, 37 injured, a miracle it wasn’t more. A mountain of flowers in plastic sleeves heaped on the rubble, candles arrayed like soldiers in front of the dress shop left somehow intact on the corner.
And a march from the Place De la Republique to the Place de la Nacion, thousands, orderly and dogged, middle-class families and university students, Le President and his rivals, butchers, bakers, artists and computer technicians shuffling through neighborhood streets between broad public squares, solemn and chattering, sombre but fashionable—Paris, formal but somehow intimate. Great buildings and beautiful women dressed in black. Paris is a grand dame, maybe a bit past her prime, but she still knows how to put on a funeral.
‘It’s an escalation,’ they say, the voices that multiply in crowds. Just a few years ago, ‘they’ were content to shoot up a restaurant or concert hall. Now, somehow, they bring in a bomb the size of a safe to bring down half a block of five-story apartment buildings.
The size of the explosion makes people nervous. Nobody builds a bomb that size to bring down the Rue Breguet. We all sense a grander plan that went awry and the fact that no one claimed responsibility only seems to heighten the tension. You don’t even have the consolation of knowing who to be afraid of.
Beltoise, however, has made up his mind.
“It’s your shipping certificate!” he yells, no longer caring who hears. “Your company’s letterhead! Your signature on the bloody thing! You think I will cover for that, you’re insane!”
I stand frozen for an endless moment, until words I never thought I’d hear myself say come tumbling out of my mouth.
“I didn’t do that! I’m innocent!”
And then, I run.

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