It all went wrong when I met the Frenchman. His crumpled linen suit reeked of cheap. He stumbled forward to shake my hand with all the dignity of a drunken clown. As he lolloped towards me at the gate, I could make out ugly clumps of greasy hair sprouting from under his Panama, battered and perched atop a blotchy, puffy face. In his other hand he struggled with a bulging canvas bag. Something inside was alive. Alive and furious. This did not look like a change of clothes.
‘As you requested,’ he spluttered, a thick French accent cloying up his mouth. He smirked with too much confidence for my liking, then he offered me the livid sack.
‘What’s this supposed to be?’ I asked.
‘Why, Monsieur Dean. The monkey you asked for.’
I told him I didn’t want a monkey. He shrugged in that nauseating way only the French can. He told me he had received specific instruction by telephone, only last night, to meet me at the airport and deliver a monkey. I replied that since I was the one who made the call, I would know if I’d asked for a monkey. Clown shrugged once more and tumbled closer, so I got a really good look at his face. Dark eyes melting down towards a fat, booze-ruined nose. His cheeks were the colour of a butcher’s apron. He reeked of stale Gauloises and burned coffee beans. I’m no doctor, but I could tell quite clearly that he was not a well man.
‘Monsieur,’ Clown continued, ‘I have not been completely honest with you.’
‘Oh?’ Here we go.
‘It is not a monkey. It is a lemur.’
‘It is like a monkey.’
I clenched my fists.
‘It is small.’
Now I took a step closer. I tried to ignore his foul breath stench, but it turned my stomach. This was neither the time nor place for a scene, but it was happening anyway. Time to be the Roast Beef.
‘Now you listen to me,’ I growled. ‘Yes, I asked the Department to send someone to meet me off the plane, but I specifically requested that person bring me a lightweight, single-breasted, double-vent tobacco canvas Crombie, two pairs of white cotton socks, two pairs of white silk Italian boxers, one powder blue shirt, another white, both Pierre Cardin, tan Grenson loafers…’
I leaned in closer.
‘…shaving soap, razor, badger brush, deodorant, toothbrush, Eau Savage, comb, and tonic. Vitalis.’
Grabbing him by the collar, I lowered my voice. ‘French passport, 1,000 Francs, cash, and a Beretta M1935. Not – and I cannot stress this enough – not. A fucking monkey.’
Forgive the language. I was tired. It had been a long flight over. The twelve large bourbons had left their mark and I can never sleep seated.
‘But Monsieur Dean,’ mumbled Clown, ‘I have brought your Beretta!’
‘Where is it then?’
Clown’s grubby eyes glistened.
‘He is pointing it at your chest.’
As assassination attempts go, it was admirable. Deploying an animal is high risk but has many advantages, not least the element of surprise. This technique would floor a lesser man. Fortunately, I am trained in all forms of violence. I knew exactly what to do. I punched Clown in the face. He went down like a marionette. He dropped the bag, unleashing the creature, which, I was impressed to see, was indeed holding my gun. Snatching the weapon from its tiny claws, I punched it in the face as well. Just to be sure. I hurled the dazed goblin into a gaggle of fat Germans emerging from the gate behind me. Take a tip. If you’re going to punch anything in public, always cause a distraction. Without missing a beat, I pocketed the gun and marched towards the nearest taxi rank. Behind me I could still hear the shrill howls of my would-be assassin as it ran amok amongst Bavarian blubber. I smiled and kept on walking, out through the exit and into the bright morning sun.
My smile soon faded. Despite the futile attempt on my life, Clown had called me by my actual name. They knew I was here. And I needed those effects. And a pack of Rothmans. I’d left Washington in such a rush, I had nothing except the shirt on my back. This was a last-minute assignment. They usually are. When the dispatch came, I had been lying low at the Shoreham after the whole Wadlow debacle and I won’t lie, I was rather put out.
I had planned an evening fishing in the Marquee Bar. I love the Marquee. Always plenty of delectable morsels in that tank. Shameless, opportunistic socialites circling dull but rich political bait. American women are so wonderfully direct, especially in political circles. They also love a well-tailored Englishman among all that Ivy League gabardine. If you know what to wear and how to wear it, you can reel in a stunner. I have a technique that never fails.
I secure a table in the corner, near the piano, and sink a couple of large Glengoynes. It’s a good scotch. Real all-rounder. Gives you a solid base but it won’t rip your face off, so you don’t lose focus. From this vantage point, I acquire the target. I then send a waiter with a tall glass of milk. Ice cold but no ice. After a fashion, I saunter over and inform her that I am a very wealthy English dairy farmer, in town for a milk and butter convention. It’s outlandish, but it comes so much out of left field in such a proper setting, they never doubt it. I lean in close and tell her that I need her expert opinion on my latest batch. The quarry is so refreshed by being offered an alcohol-free beverage, and also so incredibly flattered to be asked her opinion on anything, she is putty in my hands.
I don’t recommend this strategy to anyone. Takes planning. What if the venue doesn’t have milk? Bringing your own is a gamble, especially in the summer months. The merest whiff of fermenting dairy sends even the most seduced woman screaming for the exit, no matter how suave you are. And I am very suave indeed. Also, this approach never works on men. Learned that the hard way. I don’t normally misread the situation but that was about a ten and I had to make a swift entrance via the gents. I do a lot of coming and going via public convenience. Comes with the territory.
Anyway. Earlier that night, I had taken the precaution of checking with Louis behind the bar that the Marquee had fresh milk in stock. He had informed me a school trip was expected that very afternoon and had made a bulk order. I was all set. Sadly, I never got the chance to execute my brilliant plan. The call from The Department came through when I was in my room. Just after I got out of the shower as it happens. I had to drop everything, head straight to Dulles and take the red-eye to Paris. I was then instructed to check in to the Gaston Strompf Suite at the Hotel de Louvre under the name Gerard Duchamp. There I would find a brief detailing a really important, highly-classified mission straight from Top Floor, then await further instruction. Exciting stuff, eh? Before taking a taxi to the airport, I had phoned The Department, requesting a fresh wardrobe and effects to be delivered by hand upon my arrival. Naturally, my measurements are on file, and I was assured that all would be ready and waiting. And yet here I was. Waiting and not at all ready.
Here’s what I did have. Twenty-two American dollars in my wallet, a recently-acquired, fully-loaded but unproven Beretta, and Her Majesty’s passport in the name of Mr Hugo Dean. And that was it. I knew the man checking in to the Hotel de Louvre must be Monsieur Gerard Duchamp, otherwise this entire jig was up. This had been a bad start. If I didn’t get a move on, even the typically slow-witted French airport security would soon ask enough right questions to nail me before I’d even made it into a cab. Then it’s game over. Fortunately, the taxi rank was swift to move and within minutes I was in a car bound for Paris. I had no francs to pay, but as we raced north along the autoroute, I hatched a plan. I would fake a bilious attack, ask the driver to pull over, and then, when the driver inevitably came to my aid, I would punch him in the face. I knew it would work. It had just worked on the chap in the airport and he was French too.
The plan worked. No surprise there. As we reached the city centre I began my performance. Truly Oscar-worthy. Fantastic. We pulled up on Rue d’Echelle, just round the corner from the hotel. As expected, the cabbie responded to my affectations of distress and, at the exact moment he opened my passenger door, a prize-winning left jab to the jaw sent him reeling into a lamp post. En garde, Monsieur! Ha! Did you like that? I come up with funny little things like that all the time. I’m also an excellent singer.
After rinsing him for loose change, I buttoned my jacket, smoothed my hair across my brow – which had not even broken into a sweat by the way – then sauntered not to the hotel, but a few hundred yards in a northerly direction. I knew there was a payphone where Rue Saint-Anne meets Rue Villedo. Four years ago I had used it as a toilet after an aggressive duck dinner at Chez Pedro with Fidel the Hairy Dutchman. Pedro’s is a curious place. All poultry and game dishes are served in the traditional French style, with the feathers still on. Despite my rock-solid constitution, the tickling of plumage to my stomach lining provoked a hideous eruption in both directions. That night I resembled some sort of frightful human Catherine Wheel. As I made my way to revisit the scene of the crime, I wondered if any evidence still stained the pavement, a ghastly reminder of a terrible night.
I arrived at the spot where I remembered the telephone kiosk to be, only to discover that it wasn’t. Odd. It had been replaced by a man walking a tortoise on a lead. Typical French. How long they had been there was anyone’s guess, but I was almost certain the telephone had been removed quite some time before. Damn. I briefly considered punching both of them in the face, but realised it would benefit no one and I couldn’t bring myself to strike a tortoise. I’m not a monster. Instead I altered my facial expression, conveying to anyone who might be watching that I had just remembered an urgent appointment on the other side of the street. I turned on my heels and crossed the road towards Rue Therese. It’s a tatty but charming little street lined with stalls selling overripe fruit, dowdy flowers and Algerian pottery. To my relief, I spied the missing telephone kiosk, which for some reason had been relocated to the end of this street. It was much cleaner than I remembered, and looked completely different, but I knew it was the same one. You don’t forget a night like that. Not with the Hairy Dutchman. Time to make the call.
I couldn’t call The Department. An attempt had been made on my life by the very man sent to meet me. If indeed he had been sent to meet me. Whoever wanted me out of the picture had the means to intercept confidential calls made to and from the most secret organisation in England. All channels were compromised. Even worse, there was probably a mole in the Department. A devious, treacherous little mole with piggy eyes and fur. OK, maybe not fur, but then again, nothing surprises me these days, what with all that science flying around. Before this decade is out, they’ll be giving desk jobs to dogs and firing a chap to the moon, you mark my words. Anyway. I knew I couldn’t reach out to any of my fellow Employees. Suits me. I am the best there is. Why should I be compromised by bunglers, oafs and stooges? This was the real deal and I needed real help. Time to go dark. Time to go deep. Time to call Jacques.
I knew Jacques wouldn’t let me down. We had been friends since his wife enjoyed us both back in ’56. That was a hell of a honeymoon. Hazy but fond memories of our time in Gstaad: me, Jacques, Mutti, a Jacuzzi and a case of Cristal I’d picked up in Reims. I lost touch with Mutti soon after, but Jackie and I remain close chums. We once made a vow that if either of us were in hot water, just like on that steamy night in Switzerland, we could rely on each other for anything and everything. I picked up the receiver, flicked through my mental Rolodex and retrieved his number. Let’s hope he still lived in the city. He moved back to Paris two years ago, I knew that much, but that’s a lifetime in our line of work. For all I knew, he could be in St. Tropez, face down on someone soft, or just as easily on a quest for gold in the Yukon. Fingers crossed he would answer the call. I was more than a little ripe and in desperate need of what I like to call ‘The Three S’s’: shower, shave and suit. A Kilgour is ideal for promenading through Capitol Hill, or even the Burlington Arcade, but it was far too thick for Paris in July.
I dialled the number and waited. The tone trilled for an age before a voice picked up.
‘Jackie, you old swine!’ I cried. ‘Dean here. In a bit of a pickle, I’m afraid. Job’s taken a rum turn before kick off. Need to call in a favour. Pull a few strings and turn this around before tea. You with me?’ I always play up the Englishness to Jacques. He loves it.
There was a long silence. Perhaps I had called the wrong number? Perhaps Jacques was dead? Perhaps I wasn’t even on the phone? I looked at the receiver. I definitely was.
‘Hugo. What do you need?’
It was Jacques! Good old Jacques. Never one to mince words.
‘The usual. The Three S’s, froggy ID, cash, rounds…’
I filled him in on the details, basically repeating the list I had reeled off to Clown at the airport. Jacques said that wouldn’t be a problem. Not for him. It never is.
‘Meet me at the usual place,’ he said. ‘Two hours.’
‘Two hours,’ I replied. Perfect. ‘Gives me plenty of time to get my brief from the hotel and meet you there.’
‘Hugo, are you mad? You cannot check in without ID.’
‘Who said anything about checking in?’
‘They will be waiting for you, mon ami.’
‘Then I’d better not let them down.’
I hung up. I was terribly pleased with that last remark. Very clever. I checked my Rolex. Just gone noon. Before heading off towards the hotel, I glanced back at the pristine telephone kiosk one last time. I needed the toilet.
See previous mission: The Tall Man, also written by the author, with help by those who were actually there. Many thanks for your contribution. You will be paid when I get paid.