‘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.’
‘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.’
‘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 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 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.
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 -’
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.’
‘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.
 Been informed it’s actually Cary. Not his real name. Ridiculous name.
 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.