• 25 Feb

    Chapter Five

    It was the best shower I had in ages. Can’t tell you how long I was in there, but I took my time. After all, there was a lot to wash away. Jackie’s death and the chase to the river had sobered me up something rotten. My head was pounding all over again and I needed a top up. I took a fresh white towel from the neatly-folded pile on the shelf in the bathroom, gave myself a cursory rubdown then strode into the lounge. Let the air finish the job. I sought out the drinks cabinet and helped myself to a large Rémy Martin. Then another. Cognac is terribly moreish, especially when nude.

    It was a small apartment. They usually are in Paris. The steam from the shower had crept into the lounge so I opened a window to clear the air. The outside sounds hummed in tune with my throbbing brain. Rue d’Assas was a narrow street. Anonymous. No shops nor cafés, an alley people cut through to reach somewhere better. The perfect place to lie low. Apartment twelve was high enough to prevent any unwanted visitors dropping by without warning. Did I say it was small? Well it was. Too small for me, but then I like my space. Minimal furnishings. You can’t spend three years in Copenhagen and not learn to appreciate their take on furniture. Those Danes know their interiors, I’ll give them that. Solid, clean lines. No clutter. No waste. Stylish. Just like me.

    After the kerfuffle on the bridge, naturally I had to make myself scarce. As soon as Black Suit had dispatched herself to the Great Beyond I had slipped back into the crowd that had formed behind me on the south side. Fortunately no-one tried to stop me. I had disappeared into the warren of the Left Bank but I knew I had to move fast. I was now directly implicated in a very public suicide, no nearer to even starting my mission and people had seen me waving a gun around. That’s never good.

    All the effects I had requested were lying out on the bed. Fresh underwear, toiletries, a Beretta with several loaded clips, a thousand francs, pack of Rothmans, passport in the name of Gerard Duchamp – that last one was particularly impressive; how Jackie got hold of a dodgy passport so fast I’ll never know, but that’s why he’s the best in The Business – and of course, a brand new suit. I was right. Italian. Canali. Charcoal, double vent, single breasted, two button. Baby blue cotton Givenchy shirt, wingtip collar, oval silver cufflinks, charcoal socks, slate suede Aubercy Derbys. Gorgeous. Excited, I slipped on my new armour. As expected, like a glove. I raised my glass. Thanks Jackie boy. Appreciated.

    The third cognac righted me on an even keel.  Time to take care of business. I looked at my watch. 4pm. Where does the time go? Must have been in that shower a good while. May even had taken a nap. Can’t quite remember. Anyway. I needed to get across the city to Chez Eugene in Montmartre and intercept this Gadbois chap. Find out what he knows about this Garibaldi blade and why it’s so damn important that the bodies had already started piling up and I had been forced to punch a monkey. Whatever it was, someone wanted it pretty badly. And they were willing to ruin my suit to get it. Who was Black Suit working for? Why did she scream about ‘the Commonwealth’ before shooting herself? And why did she top herself? She was very attractive. Right now, nothing made sense. I had another drink.

    Reckoned it was about three miles to Montmartre so shouldn’t take me more than an hour on foot. Didn’t know the way but I knew I had to head north over the Seine then shoot for the bloody great hill with the fat church on top. If I got lost, I could always ask a chap where the Moulin Rouge was and make my way from there. There isn’t a Frenchman in this city who doesn’t know the location of that little night spot. As for the square and the venue itself, I hoped some memory of my time with Jackie would creep back in, but I honestly had no recollection.

    I love stumbling around Paris. She wears her filth on her sleeve. Dirty and proud. Her buildings are tall and mighty but they are cracked and broken. So much grey. It should be depressing, but it’s not. Easiest way to woo a woman? Take her to Paris. Take her in Paris. Hell, sometimes just talking about the damn place is enough. The food, the booze, the music, the dancing…it’s all sticky grist for the lust mill. Just don’t hang around too long. Paris is a place for once upon a time, not happily ever after.

    You know what they say about Paris? It’s where divorced men go to die. That’s what I say anyway. I’ve seen enough poor buggers, spirits and balances broken by vengeful or greedy women, sink down in between her cracks, never to return. Like Mickey One Leg. Dumpy chap from Nebraska. Talk about unlucky. He actually had no legs at all. Nazi grenade took most of one on Omaha, lost the other in a distillery explosion actually in Omaha. We used to laugh about that. They said it was an accident, we used to laugh about that too. Anyway, he got lumbered with the nickname in between incidents and decided to keep it. Felt it gave him an air of mystery with the ladies. It didn’t, but that was Mickey. Deluded to the last.

    I first met him in ’59, outside the Moulin Rouge arguing with a Belgian sailor – the worst kind of sailor if you ask me. All fists and spittle. Anyway, this Flemish knucklehead was clearly going to flatten Mickey so I stepped in. I do that sometimes. Moments later the three of us were down a back alley behind the club and I had the Belgian sobbing for his mother. To show his gratitude, Mickey invited me inside. We got drinking, we got talking. Turned out, six months before, he’d been cleaned out by his wife. She’d gone back to Nebraska and shacked up with a maize magnate from Lincoln, but that’s by the by. Anyway. Mickey adored her. When she walked out, he lost it, then lost it even more in the bordellos of Paris. He gathered up what was left of the generous insurance pay out he received after the explosion took his last leg, wheeled himself on board a cheap steamer bound for Europe, bought a large bottle of something amber and kept on going. Drank his insides out, poor chap. I never saw him again. Later found out he met his end slumped in his wicker wheelchair, out of his skull on crème de cassis, careering towards the oncoming traffic on the Champs Elysees. Never stood a chance.[1]

    Losers like Mickey are ten a penny by the Seine. Paris attracts the heartbroken. Explains why all the creative types here are so miserable. They’ve turned being grumpy into an art form, banging on about lost loves, loneliness, all that guff. Jackie once introduced me to that Aznavour chap on a cabaret night opening for Piaf. Interesting little fellow. Armenian, but there was no mileage in waving that flag so he decided to try on being French. Better fit for the sorrow he was peddling. I told him I thought he had a great voice but he should stop warbling on about heartache and doomed relationships. I may have gone so far as to tell him he was a bit OTT. Probably shouldn’t have, but I’d had a few. Besides. I’m right. Relationships aren’t supposed to last. No sense pining over the inevitable. Draw a line. Pick yourself up. Move on.

    I collected what I needed and left the apartment. I already had a Beretta from the altercation with the lemur, so I just took the spare clips, pocketed the Rothmans and Zippo, loaded up my wallet with francs, took one last look at myself in the mirror in the lounge then strolled out through the narrow alleyways. The star batsman has left the pavilion.

    After a few wine stops on the way, I climbed the steps to Montmartre reached the Place du Tetre with a renewed sense of vim and vigour. Or should that be vin and vinegar? Oh that’s very good. I’ll definitely be using that again. The square was, as expected, very pretty. Crumbling, cobbled and quaint. I soon spied the venue. Chez Eugene. No recollection. Then again it was pretty standard fare. All boxes ticked.

    Outside, wicker chairs clustered round small metal tables under an oxblood canopy. A couple of fusty-looking aproned penguins milled in and out, holding trays of complicated drinks for the handful of patrons who were all furiously smoking and trying a bit too hard to look ‘interesting’. Some were eating food. Reminded me that I STILL hadn’t eaten and by now I must confess I was feeling a bit wobbly after all those cognacs and wine. Needed to stuff something down me and right now a heavy slice of cow and a bottle of red was precisely what the doctor ordered. I checked my hair with my hand, refastened my jacket, lit a cigarette and walked inside.

    To be continued…

    [1] They buried Mickey in Père Lachaise. He told me he always wanted to be buried at sea. Poor sod didn’t even get his dying wish. For some reason I still have his snuff box.

  • 18 Feb

    Chapter Four

    My suit was ruined. Normally I’d be livid, but right now I had other things on my mind. Like the friend dying in my arms. Jacques had cheated death many times. He’s a warhorse with a will of iron and claret for blood, most of which was now gushing onto my fine woollen trousers. I’m no medical man but I’ve been doing this long enough to tell from the crimson he was gargling, at least one lung was punctured. We both knew he was done for. As I cradled his head, Jacques coughed up a hoarse whisper:

    ‘Rue d’Assas. Douze…’

    Jacques thrust a set of keys into my hand and his eyes glazed over. He was gone. But the killer was not.

    No time to grieve. Not my style. Nor Jacques’ actually. We’ve seen comrades fall over the years. Good people. Deaths processed and filed away as ‘collateral’. Why should ours be any different? I may be absolutely fabulous, but I’m not completely deluded. I am a tool of the trade. Just another statistic. A really handsome one.

    I leapt up. The shattered window at the front of the café gave me clean access onto the street, where as you’d expect, an altercation had begun outside. Two people scrabbling around on the ground. Only one of them had a gun.

    Some noble passer-by had wrestled the assassin to the ground to stop him fleeing the scene. Brave. Stupid, but brave. Still, even if the killer wasn’t rolling around on the pavement, his clobber made him easy to spot in a crowd: jet black blazer and trousers, crimson shirt and tie. More a uniform than a suit. Like a waiter in a cheap Florentine nightspot. Curious. Even more curious, the assassin wasn’t a ‘he’ at all. Even amongst such a frantic fracas I spied athletic but familiar, distinct curves. Long, jet hair scraped back into a tight ponytail. Stunning, in a murderous kind of way. If that’s your thing. I’ve had encounters with female agents in my time. Mostly professional, some romantic, none positive. Don’t get me wrong. Women have a distinct advantage over men in the field – and I’ll tell you why.

    Now, what I’m about to disclose is a bit of a trade secret. Not many will admit this, so good thing you’ve got old Hugo Dean here to spill the beans. And you better pour yourself a stiff drink to go with those beans. Here it comes. Ready? Good. Women are stronger than men.

    Why? They’re great survivors. Excellent exit strategists. Gives them that lethal edge. Men just blunder from one bloody mess to the next. We are drawn to the excitement, to the bright lights. We have no idea what’s coming and we rely on charm, fists and a fat gin to get us out of a jam. We improvise. We’re great at that. We love playing all those silly little games along the way – even if it lands us in a jam. Women are all about the long game. They do what they have to do to get where they need to be. And they do it all the time. It’s really quite admirable. Men always get stuck on the rules of whatever game we’re playing. That’s our great weakness. Fair play. Sportsmanship. It’s maddening, because even I know there’s no place for fair play in this game. So ask a woman to do the job, she’s not distracted by such trifles. She’s focused. Razor sharp. To do whatever it takes. That’s the difference. So why are men still on top? Why are we winning? Simple. We won’t let them know they’re stronger. We keep them down. Some women have cottoned on – and that’s the most deadly kind there is – but for most women, it’s a daily grind, men are doing the grinding and we’re doing a bang up job.

    The closest I ever came to having my ticket punched was also the one time a woman was sent in to do the punching. I was in Denmark during the back end of the 40s, helping Foggy[1] and the Princes round up any Nazi snitches still lurking about Copenhagen. Many had gone to ground and it was a swine of a job. Didn’t help that those pesky Ruskies were making a play for any wretched, flattened grey country now up for grabs after Hitler put a bullet in his face.

    Places like Vienna and Warsaw got the worst of it, but straight after the War even those placid Scandis fell under the cosh of the Soviet crime tsars – and they didn’t appreciate chaps like me sniffing around the place, still doing our bit for King and Country. It was a bad business, but the herring was top notch.

    Anyway. I was enjoying a much-needed beer in a grubby little basement bodega when a ferocious vixen on Stalin’s payroll got the drop on me. I should have seen it coming and I took one in the leg as punishment. She strolled in and sprayed the entire establishment with rounds from a PPS. Took out the barman and entire clientele in the process. It was a bloodbath.

    I escaped by diving behind the bar to avoid all the bullets and seized the moment when she reloaded to take her out by hurling a full bottle of snaps in her vague direction. I was hurling blind but the noise and ceasefire told me I’d got lucky. Ghastly stuff, snaps by the way. Tastes like medicine and compost. No tears over that loss. She was down and out, so I got the hell out of there. I hobbled across town with all the discretion I could muster and patched myself up in one of Foggy’s safe houses by the Lakes.

    Point is, that woman got closer than anyone before or since. In that sort of job, a gentleman would consider how to take down the target with as little mess as possible. Not her. She didn’t think twice about murdering innocent bystanders. She did what she had to do to get to me. She played the end game. She gave me my only bullet hole. And I wasn’t going to hang about to get a second.

    Quick as a flash, I dove out of the window, accidentally taking a table with me. Clumsy. By the time I’d freed myself from the furniture, Black Suit had escaped the fumbling clutches of this have-a-go hero and she was up and running. So was I. She was fast. So was I. It had been a while and my knees aren’t what they were, but these legs secured me the position of left wing for the Charterhouse First XV[2] back in the day, and I’m proud to say they’ve lost none of their pace.

    As we raced down the street I thought about firing off a shot to the leg there and then. Too many people. I couldn’t afford any more collateral damage. The paperwork alone is a bitch. Besides, who knows what this villain would do when backed into a corner? Cyanide works faster than answers. I had to bring her down the old-fashioned way. I had to make her think she could outrun me. That she had a chance. Which, of course, she didn’t.

    Black Suit swerved left down Rue Bonaparte. She was heading for the river. She feigned left again, but switched right down a side street, striking an old woman and a pigeon in her path. Baguettes and feathers everywhere. I jumped over the fallen heap of confusion and kept on her heels. It would have helped had she been in heels. She was as agile as a panther, able to bank sharp turns much more efficiently than this lumbering juggernaut.

    Left down an alley she raced. Trying to shake me off. Nice try. I skidded around the corner, only to be met with gunfire. The devious witch had found an alcove halfway down the alley and was waiting for me. I had run straight into a burst of bullets like a bally amateur. Word to the wise. If you’re ever thinking to pursue a professional assassin at high speed, on foot, with half a bottle of bourbon inside you, don’t. The heartburn is brutal.

    I leapt behind a dustbin for cover, grabbing the lid and hurling in the vague direction of my quarry. A desperate move I admit, but I wanted to catch her off balance and buy me more time. I couldn’t make out what weapon she had. The blunted, flat sound told me it was some sort of snub-nosed pistol. Probably a PPK. Nifty little toys those. Accurate and discreet. Sticks a bit but overall, a sound choice. It was certainly working for my crimson-tie chum right now.

    A bullet zinged through the metal, slamming into the brickwork above my head. I drew my Beretta and, still crouched behind the bins, returned a couple of rounds. No good. She was dug in. The only shot I could get would be a headshot. She knew that. Clever. More bullets scorched the ground before me, deliberately to keep me pinned down, then she turned and made a sharp right. I gave chase once more. This alley opened up soon onto the Seine, where it would be too open for another exchange of lead. The sprint was back on.

    Black Suit motored across the road, launching herself over at least one car bonnet towards the bank of the river. Dodging the oncoming traffic, I hit the far pavement. She had wheeled right, towards Notre Dame. I followed. In the open I soon gained ground. Any moment now I could easily bring her down with a swift tackle and get answers.

    My heart pounded, my lungs a furnace, but I kept on going. Before I could land my prey, Black Suit did something that surprised everyone. Turning sharp left onto the bridge across the river, she stopped sharp and grabbed a street artist from his little stool. Black Suit spun the terrified man round in front, her arm round his throat. She was using his writhing body as a human shield.

    Just as I made it onto the bridge, she fired a single shot which whistled past my ear. Jesus! I did one of my fancy forward rolls to avoid any more shots and stopped short, about twenty feet from Black Suit. People had fled the bridge. Panic. But no more gunshots. I rose to confront my target on the bridge, my gun by my side. Now it was only us.

    Black Suit stood stock still before me, her gun held to the temple of the poor artist. I was right, it was a PPK. She waited for me to react. This was the first time I got a good look at her. Sharp features, full crimson lips, large dark, angry eyes. Southern European maybe? Italian? Catching my breath, I assessed the situation.

    The hostage was one of those irritating street scribblers who charge a fortune to sketch a portrait of you that doesn’t look like you. I hate those rogues. Maybe one less on the streets of Paris would be no bad thing. And the brief did say I was to complete my mission by ‘any means’. Black Suit knew exactly how to stand to ensure I couldn’t hit her without also taking down her captive. Then again, I could shoot the artist first then bring down Black Suit.

    I raised my gun and took aim. I tightened my grip. My breath slowed, levelling the sight. We stood on the bridge in silence. Eyes locked. Frozen. Stalemate. Who would make the first move?

     ‘Power to the Commonwealth!’ screamed Black Suit. And with that, she shot herself in the head.

    Read Chapter Five here

    [1] Foggy, AKA Mogens Fog. Big wig in the Danish Resistance. Clever bastard. For a more detailed account read my thrilling romp Cold Shoulder. But you’ll have to wait. It’s not finished. Trust me, it’s worth the wait.

    [2] 58 caps, 69 tries, 16 minor injuries and 12 scores with the girls’ convent school down the road.

  • 11 Feb

    Chapter Three

    ‘Why did you not just shoot them?’

    It was a fair question. Looking back, my strategy for dispatching the heavies in the hotel ended up being far from discrete. The opposite I’d say. I mean, I did break a door and ruin someone’s lunch. I waited until after the waiter brought our drinks, then explained as best I could.

    ‘If I’d shot them, old boy, they’d know it was me.  It’s what I do.’
    ‘Shooting people?’
    ‘Yes.’ It really was. I’ve shot a lot of people.

    Jacques gave me one of his looks and took a gulp of a sumptuous Burgundy so treacly you could spread it on your brioche.

    ‘You’re an idiot,’ he scoffed.
    ‘No, I’m not. I’ve just had an off day, that’s all.’
    ‘Does not sound so off to me. You rendered five people unconscious before lunch.’
    ‘And a lemur.’
     ‘How did you know it was a lemur?’
    ‘He told me it was a lemur.’
    ‘Have you ever seen a lemur?
    ‘No. But why lie?’

    I chuckled. Jackie was right.  I didn’t know what a lemur was. I’d heard the word, but to be honest I thought it was a type of cat. Or a car. A Lotus Lemur. Sounds about right. Good old Jackie. Always there to buy me a drink and keep me in line. I gazed up at the two fat Orientals perching above us, and took a hit from my huge bourbon. Four Roses. Impressed they had it behind the bar, but then again, Les Deux Magots is no ordinary cafe.

    We always met here. This was ‘the usual place’. It’s possibly the most famous café in Paris. Fancy types have been falling through its doors for decades. Scribblers, thinkers, doodlers, drinkers. I think Hemingway once fought a pig in here. Or a lion. One of the two. Anyway. These days, famous actors from both sides of the Atlantic often stumble around the premises, failing to find the exit. This is why we always met here. With everyone so busy gawping at sozzled celebrities, no one ever notices two impossibly handsome men in the corner, quietly getting down to business.

    ‘So,’ I began. ‘You got everything I asked for?’
    ‘Almost. It is all in the apartment, mon ami. But I suggest you prepare yourself.’
    ‘How so?’
    ‘I could not get you the Crombie.’

    I tried not to look disappointed, but I was. I love a Crombie. A suit favoured by kings and presidents, don’t you know. And that chap from Bristol. The one who made it in pictures, he swears by them. Gary[1] something. Can’t remember. Anyway. Point is, you always look sharp in a Crombie. Timeless and classic.

    ‘Well what have you got me?’ I asked. ‘I can’t stroll around Paris is a cheap suit.’
    ‘I do not think you will complain… come. We drink here, I take you to my place.’
    ‘What abut my croque monsieur?’ I still really wanted one.
    ‘I’ll fix you something at mine,’ Jackie purred. ‘Besides, I have not seen you in a long time. It would be très jolie to have you back at mine.’
    ‘Sounds kinky’, I said. ‘Will there be anyone else there?’
    ‘Do you want there to be?’
    ‘On what?’
    ‘On what you’re in the mood for.’

    Now it was my turn to smile. He knew what I was getting at. Oh yes.

    ‘Don’t you have work to do?’ Jacques grunted, waving a ridiculously thin cigarette towards the brief on the table. He was right. I sighed. No time for hanky panky. Not today. I picked up the manila envelope and opened it. It was a single piece of paper with three lines of typed text, short and to the point:


    Top Floor uses code for all their communications, which is extremely irritating. I’m a busy man, the last thing I need is cryptic gobbledygook cluttering up my brain. When you’re in a tight spot, with a dubious Frenchman as your only ally, instructions need to be as clear as possible. Where do I go? Who do I sleep with? Will I need an umbrella?

    There was a silence as I digested the words on the page. Jackie scanned the room and the street beyond.

    ‘What is it?’ He asked.
    ‘It’s a puzzler.’

    I handed Jacques the brief. I knew I could trust him; I wasn’t worried about that. He has always been a vital chum in the field. After all this time I’m still not quite sure who he works for – that’s how good he is – but he’s always done right by me and now I needed him more than ever. Jacques eased his wine down on the table, retrieved a crooked pair of round wire-frame spectacles from his waistcoat ticket pocket and perched them on his nose. He read the brief just once, then placed it face down on the table. He removed his spectacles, placed them back in his pocket. He picked up his glass. There was another long silence.

    ‘Well?’ I asked.

    The silence continued as Jacques chewed his wine. I started to twitch. I was hot, bothered and STILL hadn’t had a shower. I also needed the toilet. Eventually he spoke.

    ‘Well? What do you make of it?’
    ‘It’s very short,’ I said.
    ‘That, Hugo, is why it is called a brief.’

    Clever French bastard. Always one step ahead. I stared at the words on the page, hoping they’d turn into something that made sense. It wasn’t code, I knew that much. I also knew what ‘any means’ meant. Now I wished I’d received the brief before I got on the plane. This morning would have played out very differently, believe you me. You never feel more alive than when you kill a man. They say it numbs your senses. Hogwash. Everything is heightened. Colours are brighter, sounds are sharper. Even food tastes better. Murder is like chewing on the best kind of peyote, but I wouldn’t advise either. Certainly not both, and definitely not at the same time. Tried it once. Dreadful mistake.[2]

    I sculled my bourbon and clicked at the waiter to bring us another round. This required brain power and my brain works best when wet.

    ‘Seems to me,’ Jacques said, ‘that they want you to find the Sword of Garibaldi. And it is of the utmost important that you do so as soon as possible.’
    ‘Sounds like another wild goose chase to me,’ I snorted. I was itching for my next drink.
    ‘Perhaps,’ Jacques shrugged, ‘but it is clear your precious Department wants it pretty badly. “Any means necessary.”’
    ‘What’s this Garibaldi Blade then?’ I asked.

    I’d never heard of it. Top Floor sends me after various trinkets now and then, but more often than not I come back empty handed and no one bats an eye. Probably a tax dodge.

    ‘Mon ami, I have no idea,’ smiled Jackie. ‘But I suggest you start with Monsieur Gadbois.’

    Our drinks arrived. I sank mine and ordered another before the waiter even turned his back on our table.

    ‘And who’s this Garibaldi chap?’ I asked. ‘Some grubby wop, never done a day’s work in his life?’

    Jacques stared at me long enough to tell me he wasn’t just ‘some grubby wop’. Shouldn’t have said that, not sure why I did. I felt lightheaded. My third bourbon arrived and I downed that in one too. This would blow away the cobwebs. Before sending away the waiter once more, however, I asked for a glass of water. For Jacques, you understand. The poor man must be pretty drunk by now.

    ‘So, Garibaldi,’ I said, in a voice so loud it surprised both of us, ‘he live around here?

    It was then that Jacques got quite cross. Perhaps it was the wine. His face always turned red when annoyed. It looked very funny. I stifled a chuckle. I was no longer in the mood for this stupid mission. I just wanted to spend the afternoon getting smashed right here in this chair. Paris is a city for lounging and drinking. Time means less here. Actions have fewer consequences. Good job I was with Jackie Boy to keep me focused, even if he had turned into a grumpy old crosspatch. I put my glass down near the table, which for some reason had started to move. Taking care to speak clearly, I asked Jacques to tell me all he knew.

    Turns out Garibaldi didn’t live in Paris. Turns out he was dead. Died last century. This was why, suggested Jacques, I hadn’t heard of him. Jacques was right. I have no interest in history. The only dates that interests me are either on a bottle of Krug or waiting for me at the bar. I’m a man of the moment. Live for now, that’s my motto. Or is it carpe diem? One of the two. To me, history is old duffers asleep in stuffy libraries. I leave history where it belongs. In the past. Ooh, that’s good. I’ll remember that one and use it again when I’m next talking to someone about history. But at that moment it was Jacques doing the talking and probably about the job, so I forced myself to listen.

    ‘General Giuseppe Garibaldi,’ he began, ‘was the father of modern Italy. He-’
    ‘So he was a soldier?’
    ‘He was many things, Hugo,’ smiled Jacques, clearly enjoying his lesson. ‘Soldier, politician, revolutionary, warrior, leader. He was the people’s champion. He was a force of nature. He was a thief and a hero. He was -’
    ‘A biscuit!’

    That was the best joke I’ve made in a long time.

     ‘He was,’ Jackie continued, ‘one of the most important Italian figures of the nineteenth century. All the great intellectuals of the time adored him.’
    ‘I see,’ I said, not quite seeing. ‘So what’s this sword business? And this is France not Italy. Why the hell am I in Paris?’
    ‘That I do not know. As I said, here’s your jumping-off point.’

    Jacques prodded the brief with a long finger.

    ‘Come on, Jackie,’ I said, folding and tucking the brief inside my jacket pocket. ‘Please tell me you know this Gadbois fellow?’
    ‘I know of him’, replied Jacques. ‘Purely by chance, I can assure you.’

    I leaned in. Now I was finally getting interested.

    ‘Marcel Gadbois lives in the heart of Paris. Teaches at the Sorbonne. As a matter of fact, I just finished reading his latest work. Nineteenth-century European revolutionary politics. It was, how you say, illuminating. Anyway. The biography on the inside cover said that Gadbois lives in Montmartre. When I saw his photograph on the back of the book I realised I had seen him before.’
    ‘Go on.’
    ‘He takes his dinner at the same bistro I often enjoy. He’s there every night. I don’t blame him. It is superb. They have, how you English say, “spiffing steak.”’
    ‘Never mind the beef, old boy. The name?’
    ‘Chez Eugene. On Place du Tetre. We’ve been there before.’

    I stared at Jackie’s nose.

    ‘You remember?’ he nudged. ‘That beautiful square in the shadow of the Sacré-Cœur. We had a wager that you could not drink for 24 hours straight.’

    I winced. Must have lost that bet.

    ‘You lasted 26,’ smiled Jacques. ‘I remember you serenading a short, blonde waitress Au Lapin Agile while standing on the piano.’
    I grimaced. ‘Did it work?’
    ‘You were naked.’
    ‘Well this is fantastic news, Jackie!’ I said, trying not to leap from my chair. ‘Not the nude singing bit. This meeting, right here, now. It’s meant to be. Me calling you, you knowing about this froggy boffin. My stars, someone’s smiling down on me! Probably making up for the whole monkey business at the airport.’

    This time I did leap from my chair.

    ‘Come on, let’s head to yours, get me right as rain and this evening we can lean on this Gadbois character over a spiffing steak!’
    ‘Before we go, I recommend you wipe that off.’

    He gestured to my face. I felt my top lip and looked at my fingers. I still had the makeshift moustache I’d smeared on back at the hotel. What a prize tit!

    ‘Jackie, you absolute swine! When were you going to tell me about that?’
    ‘I just did.’

    Good old Jackie.

    ‘Righto,’ I said. ‘Two ticks.’

    I made my way down the spiral staircase to the gents. I wasn’t really angry at Jacques. This terrible day was getting better by the minute. A tad squiffy, but I was back on a job and I had a solid lead. Things were falling into place. My dear Paris and her dark pleasures will have to wait. I washed my face clean in the sink – another excellent public toilet by the way – and bounded back up to Jacques, who was still at the table, settling up with the waiter.

    ‘Shall we?’ I asked, a spring in my step. I was excited about what surprise suit my friend had waiting for me back in his apartment. Something elegantly European perhaps? If you can’t go British, you can’t go wrong with a crisp Brioni or the clean lines of a Zegna.

    Jacques wearily rose and smiled one of his crooked smiled. I really am terribly fond of Jacques. So we were both quite upset when the front window exploded and three bullets screamed into his chest. 

    Read Chapter Four here

    [1] Been informed it’s actually Cary. Not his real name. Ridiculous name.

    [2] Summer of ’54. Trapped in Piedras Negras when hurricane Alice hit. Not much to do. Lost a game of poker. No fit state. Things got ugly. I still can’t go back to that end of the Rio Bravo. Shame.

  • 04 Feb

    Chapter Two

    The lavatory in the lobby of the Hotel de Louvre is magnificent. Just superb. One of my favourites. The flush mechanism is like on a plane. Strong, swift and discrete. An absolute joy to use. The room is not just clean, it’s also light, spacious and secure. It has a massive mirror. It also has a narrow awning window above the stall in the far left corner from the entrance that is all too easy to open from the outside.

    Naturally this was my way in. Jacques was right. They would almost certainly be waiting for me. Walking in through the lobby was out of the question. Checking in not an option. Even with a phony ID, they’ve probably paid off the receptionist. Last time I stayed here, it was some slimy little toad who mocked my wingtips. I got back at him though, but that’s another story.[1] Fortunately for me, I have spent so many nights in this particular establishment, I know every inch. Time wasn’t on my side and, as I said, I really needed the toilet, so it was perfect. Two birds. One stone.

    Take a tip from one who knows. The trick to sneaking into the basement toilet at the de Louvre is to duck down in the alley behind the building, find said window, then apply the right amount of pressure on the base of the wooden frame. The whole thing is rotten. Not enough to notice in passing, but if you have experience breaking into houses, you can spot the signs in the paint work. I pressed down at just the right spot, cracked the window, reached in, unlatched it from the outside and silently pulled open the awning. Easy. That’s the thing about these old buildings. They’re old. I probably should have checked to see if anyone was using the services upon my descent, but I was so pleased with my brilliant plan, I forgot to look down.

    As I lowered myself onto the man’s face, he was as surprised as me. More frightened than angry, but definitely upset. In situations like this, I am grateful to have inherited my grandmother’s cat-like reflexes. One swift kick and he was done. He slumped against the wall of the stall and slid down unconscious and half dressed onto the cold marble floor. I never kill unless I have to. Certainly not when I need the toilet.

    Moments later I was prepared for anything. Light, fresh, ready to go. I emerged from the stall and washed my hands in the sink, eyeing myself in the generous mirror. That’s when I saw the bathroom attendant. A slim man in his sixties. Elderly. Confused. Makes sense. He had seen one man go into a stall and a much more handsome man emerge. Probably the most exciting thing that’s happened to him in years. He’ll talk. Do I silence him too? Seems unsporting. Besides, I believe that if you throw enough money at a problem it usually goes away, so I heavily tipped the old gent with all I had left from the cabbie. Smart move.

    Gesturing to the toilet cubicle, I told him I wouldn’t go in there for a while if I were him. At least an hour, just to be on the safe side. It was more time than I needed, but it’s always best to be thorough. He looked horrified but he handed me a fresh towel nonetheless. I smiled. I never get tired of this sort of thing. I finished checking my reflection, readjusted my belt, smoothed down my hair, said ‘merci et au revoir’ to my new chum, felt in my hip pocket for my gun, then glided out of the room.

    The entrance to the ground floor bathroom at the de Louvre is right next to a service door which leads directly to a back stairwell. It’s never locked. Typical French. If you had the time and inclination, you could stroll into every apartment in Paris without breaking as much as a sweat. I knew the drill. My mission brief would be waiting for me in the Gaston Strompf Suite. To be specific, it would be secreted inside the pages of a Gideon Bible in the top drawer of the night stand on the let hand side of the sturdy king-size in the master bedroom. Standard. All I had to do was infiltrate, retrieve brief, exit, then meet with Jacques at the usual place at 2pm. I glanced at my watch. 12:34. Shouldn’t be too hard. Not for me.

    The suite was on the sixth floor. To this day I have no idea who Gaston Strompf was. Someone did tell me. A particularly waspish blonde I brought back here one New Year’s Eve. She was an expert in Parisian political history, a subject I was particularly interested in that night. I listened to her waffle on by the fire long enough for me to seal the deal, then was off at first light to silence an Amish forger with a weakness for Dutch Blitz.[2] But that’s another story. Anyway. I had break into the suite with the stealth of a cougar. Fortunately, I have the stealth of a fox, which is better.

    I ascended the stairwell and squeezed open the door onto sixth. Shabby corridor. Art deco. Authentic. Not to my tastes, but there you go. It was a short scamper past a handful of rooms on either side before the corridor turned sharply to the right. The suite was at the very end. Even before turning the corner, I could sense there was at least one hulking goon outside the door, sent to mean me harm. Fifteen years in this game, you can smell the creamy taste of danger a mile away and there were two full-fat scoops of the stuff outside my room. Two of them. One of me. Should be fun.

    For such a situation, they train you to divide and conquer. Isolate and exploit. Separate and eliminate. By any means necessary. Easier said than done. What was the alternative? I could just shoot them both in the head. Quick and certain. But it would be messy. Exploding brains often has a trajectory that’s hard to predict. Also, disposing of bodies is not as straightforward as you might think; there’s only so many corpses you can stuff into a laundry cupboard before it just gets daft. The last thing I wanted was to be rumbled by some innocent maid as I hauled a pair of freshly-offed goons across the carpet. You try dragging anyone over thick hotel shag. It’s hard work, dead or otherwise.

                I stood there momentarily pondering my next move, but the decision was made for me. The elevator pinged behind me. A waiter from the hotel restaurant emerged, pushing a trolley laden with food. He was roughly my height and build. Handy that. I approached the unfortunate stooge and casually punched him in the face. Catching him before he hit the deck, I dragged him into a nearby laundry cupboard, silently closing the door behind us.

    In the cramped dark I removed his apron and waiter’s jacket. I slipped off my Kilgour and made the swap. Turns out he wasn’t exactly my size – not quite as broad across the chest –  but it would do. When I silently cracked open the door, the shaft of light illuminated a pristine silver Zippo that had fallen out of the waiter’s pocket and onto the floor. I’ll be having that. Merci buckets!

    I crept back out into the corridor, hoping no one had removed the abandoned trolley. It was still there. I couldn’t resist. I lifted the silver cloche. Boeuf Bourguignon with potato gratin and buttery beans. There was also a freshly-opened bottle of something heavy and red. God, I was hungry.

    I took one potato and washed it down with a generous swig of wine. Well. You would, wouldn’t you? As I wiped my mouth a panicked thought occurred. I still had my face. The face they would be looking for. I had to do something. After all, this face is hard to forget. I noticed the cork of the open red lying on the trolley next to the bottle. Perfect. I dug out the Zippo and charred one end of the cork. I then smeared the blackened end several times across my top lip to fashion a superb makeshift French moustache. Did I tell you I’m a master of disguise? Well I am.

    With boosted confidence, I re-pocketed the Zippo, rolled the trolley round the corner and towards the door to my suite. Towards the two armed men. Who wanted me dead. Here I was, hiding in plain site, dressed as a proper Frenchman. This was finally getting exciting.

                Now, my French isn’t what it was. It had proved useful in Normandy, but mainly for persuading farmers’ wives to part with much-needed provisions. Or their bloomers. I was young then. Not as classy as I am now, but you’ve got to remember, it was a different time. We made the best of a really bad business. Twenty years on and it all seems a bit silly now. Back then, some things were easier. There were clear lines. We were the goodies, Hitler’s yobs the baddies. These days I’ll be damned if I could tell you who’s on whose side.

    Six months ago I had to work with a Japanese chap in Shanghai.[3] Can you imagine? Dreadful. After that, I informed Top Floor that if I was going to be saddled with a partner, he had to be over a certain height. I never heard back, but I’m pretty sure they took my point. Anyway. My lingua franca was more likely to blow my cover than reinforce it. I can understand fine, but speaking it is another matter. As I approached the pair of heavies at the door, I decided not to attempt the native tongue. Instead I chose to speak English but in my best French accent. Fool proof. Ingenious. It was the last thing anyone would expect. Despite my pounding headache, I was clearly still firing on all cylinders.

    ‘Bonjour, gents!’

    So far so good. The thug on the left spoke first.

    ‘Qu’est-ce que vous faites? Personne ne commandé nourriture ici!’[4]

    ‘I believe ze gent oo iz stayin’ ‘ere’ pheuned ahead for rheum servize.’

    The thug on the right piped up.

    ‘Qu’est-ce que sur votre lèvre supérieure?’

                Damn. Somehow my cover had been blown. Time to move. With my left hand I grabbed the cloche and smashed the edge in Left Thug’s throat. He reeled back and to the side, choking for breath. Flummoxed, Right Thug fumbled for his gun but I was already two steps ahead. Kicking back the trolley behind us, I snatched the tray with my right hand and hurled steaming beef dinner right into his eyes. Blinded by piping hot jus, Right Thug dropped his weapon and fell back towards the door to the suite.

    Harnessing his momentum, I took a step forward and barged my shoulder into his nose. Hard. Blood went everywhere, his head crashed against the door, both broke open and the fiend was down. Not quite out, but the blow bought me enough time. Meanwhile, Left Thug had regained his breath and was coming for me, hard and heavy. I wheeled round, regained my balance, shifted my weight, then landed a hard left jab to Left Thug’s temple and wound up a whirlwind haymaker with my right. Sloppy finish I know, but I made it count. His body hit the trolley then the carpet, he was out for the count.

    I could hear Right Thug groaning from the floor in the room. I turned and entered, silencing him with a swift kick to the side of the head. It was over in seconds. Hugo Dean: 2, Hired Thugs: 0. That’s the thing about me. Sometimes I just punch them in the face, sometimes I actually fight.

    The pair of fallen goons were little more than glorified doormen but from the look of them, they were used to a scrap. They would come round soon enough. I took another two glugs of wine from the trolley then raced through to the master bedroom, opened the drawer of the nightstand and, sure enough, the familiar sealed manila envelope was tucked inside the Bible. I grabbed the brief then made a swift exit via the supply cupboard to retrieve my Kilgour.

    I tore off the apron, now stained with sauce, oil and blood, and tossed it onto the still-unconscious waiter. I grabbed my jacket and made my way down the back stairs, discarding the waiter’s coat down the stairwell. I emerged onto the first floor, exhilarated by my recent fisticuff victory. Striding through the hotel lobby, I swirled my Kilgour back on over my shoulders without missing a step, strolled past reception and out into the city. Now I needed two things: get to Jacques and get a proper drink. And a croque monsieur. Three things.

    Read Chapter Three here

    [1] No need to go into it now, but let’s just say he won’t be putting his shoes on in a hurry for a long while. See also the concierge with the limp at the Grosvenor and the head chef at the Algonquin who burnt my Dover Sole.

    [2] A fast-paced card game that’s destroyed the faith of many a devout Christian. Similar to Nertz, only without the violence.

    [3] Special agent Haruki Koki of the Japanese Secret Service. Tiny. Looked like a child. A deadly child. Flew off the handle whenever I ruffled his hair. Perished in Kobe Marina. Only partially my fault.

    [4] At the time I only got the gist of what he said. This translation has been since checked and verified by Marie in Finance. God bless you. I owe you a long wet lunch.