Faites De La Contrabande
Chalon Sur-Saone, 1899. Act, And God Will Act
The railways far behind the rest of Europe they rode. And Jean Roux formerly feted of the Radicals and Parisian to his nose rode very badly. That nose muffled behind a scarf sniffled. He resisted a cough knowing that once started it would continue. Still young he blamed the old men for his downfall, his eagerly reported disgrace over the minor affair of Panama seven years before. His fellow Radicals so clearly jealous of his popularity had become pompous over the losses, and Jean in whose purse the smallest coin was a gold twenty-franc piece was not impressed to find that his brother Radicals had now risen to power.
If he had left Paris with a fortune then it was to his mind a pension. A payment in lieu of all that he would have made of France. Refusing to leave the country for Algeria or Louisiana he had instead run through what friends remained to him until approached each in turn had him leave. He had taken to drink and in his misery fed his colossal hubris in the rat dens of Marseille. There he had on a whim attended that great majesty, that marvel, a demonstration of the Lumiere brother’s cinematographe. Sobering himself, burning his worn clothes and retrieving the treasure he had hidden he risked much by returning to Paris and approaching the two brothers had offered them patronage, which they had rejected but which had seen an approach in turn to Jean Roux, now the Chevalier Roux Blanche Dammes. Despite their interest the temple had frustrated him with their secrecy, with their inner society. Four days ago had been the first time in his year of membership that Roux had been admitted to the temple. There he had demonstrated the cinematographe, their silence giving nothing away as to whether this was a wonder revealed or a treasure feared too widely lost. He had shown them the very latest, Jeanne d’Arc, thinking its message would create the right atmosphere (for Jean Roux flourished amongst rhetoric, passion and jingo). They had said little. He had been escorted to rooms in sight of the Cathedral by the silent women that he supposed would when he was summoned return for him. On rising this morning he had found her waiting, horses saddled.
It was a terrible day for a fine Parisian. Cold and clear, the winter fields under snow. The trees planted by the Bonaparte to give shade to his marching armies were bare alongside the good road. He disliked the emptiness. The sky was too large. What smells there were, were dull. The only people he had seen on the road had been two peasants with a pole between them all heavy with eels. He had to presume the ride was a part of some ordeal. The chevalier were after all knights. He hoped they did not expect him to fight a dragon though he would have happily saved a fair damsel. Jean Roux was a man that liked his stews. His family had actually been of the chevalier, the real chevalier, not the pretence of the Blanche Dammes. They had survived the terror, Napoleon and the Bourbon, now it was for him to thrive in the Third Republic.
Ahead and the woman dressed scandalously in cavalry britches and an immense riding coat turned back to see that he kept up. There was a very old-fashioned sword poking from a vent in the coat and modern pistols of the same style used by the Finnish Guard were holstered about the saddle. She kept them both in the saddle till noon when and without further explanation she turned about to lead them back they way they had come.
Jean, miserable, cursed her within his scarf and tried to settle himself more comfortably in the saddle. An impossibility he had already long discovered.
Bognor Regis, 1991. Despair Is A Narcotic
The pretty old Picturedrome cinema opposite the station had been showing a retrospective. Mable At The Wheel, The Bank, Easy Street. But cinemas were no longer picture houses, music halls for the new generation with one stage and a single performance and whilst the lobby and streets nearby had boasted much to his surprise twenty or more people looking much like him, or dressed to be, he was naked. Which was new. It was true his clothes were never his own but he generally came into the world having already begged, borrowed or stolen them. Stood with thin versions of himself, fat versions and girl versions he had been struck with embarrassment. Briefly he had darted into the next screen only to watch with widening eyes an enormous Austrian fighting a liquid American.
The Little Tramp had been caught in the spell of it. He had sat with exaggerated open mouth. Having missed the very beginning he did not learn why he was naked but he was pretty sure how he could remedy that now. Later he walked towards the smell of the sea and along the front until by the light of a fire on the beach he saw revellers. He saw too bikes. His feet crunched on the stones. He stopped when they saw him.
“You all right there, mate?” said one of the bikers. Grey, twice The Little Tramps size but looking friendly enough the biker looked concerned. It was after all the club’s Christmas party. The sea was not happy. The fire had to fight the wind. The biker came closer. “What you on, mate? You’re all right now. Having a bad one?”
The Little Tramp pointed. Something had changed in him.
The biker frowned, “You need my clothes, boots and motorcycle?”
The Dorchester, 1988. Prove Itself Worthy Of Its Own Past
Needing privacy the new owners of the hotel had closed it for extensive refurbishment. They had always stayed at the Dorchester whose sharp lines and concrete, open spaces and fraying luxury reminded them of Germany, the reconstruction. Their suite was hard to reach and only by a single elevator. Neither of the two brothers had any use for stairs. Both were old, terribly old. The younger of the two occupied a settee sized for two and framed by a whole tree decorated for Christmas and sparkling with real candles. It was rare to see an old, fat person but he was certainly both dressed only in a blanket robe and bedsores. Balanced on his chest were sausages that he had a young man to chew for him. He held a long fork whose prongs were topped with a cork. The second and older was by contrast sword-thin, a lich, a cadaver with little between skin and skull. Bald he was dressed in Hugo Boss, in black, the association with the 40s that did not escape him. In a wheelchair he was nonetheless a commanding figure. A ruthless corpse with one hand withered and one missing to the elbow. The suit was tailored to take account. That afternoon they had taken tea at the Palace, the brother’s long late mother had been a Bowes-Lyon. When the youngest of the two, Albrecht, had heard decades before of the adoption of the name Windsor he had joked ‘that then he would look forward to seeing once again your bard’s Merry Wives Of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha’.
They were not alone. Stood about the room were more Germans. Though their hair was long and their clothing fashionable they were mercenaries, and they protected the Graf Von Bode, and the Baron Meersburg (both of whom were very rich). They entertained two guests that stood before Imric on a sheet of stiff plastic. Imric said, “Gentlemen, you are both reputed to be thieves of the highest talent. I wish something stolen. It is to appear at Sotheby’s tomorrow," he took from a padded envelope a catalogue that had arrived by post that morning. "I do not wish to bid. Instead I make the offer to you. One million pounds in whatever currency or bank account you wish, on delivery, but here and by morning.”
One of the two lit up a cigarette without asking and much to Imric’s disdain. That man said, “Can’t be done. Not for a mill.”
“The price is one million. It will auction for much less but I do not believe in taking chances, nor do I care to worry myself like some merchant at market.”
“Two million, and given the time limit it’s worth that - not for whatever you want to be mysteriously moved,” said the first thief.
Imric said, “Karl?”
There was a cough, a clack. The first thief dropped splashing the second. There was less of that on the sheet by the body, the thief having been taking cleanly in the heart. Imric turned to the second thief, “I hope you are not also under the misapprehension that I wish to either barter, nor give you a choice. I keep my word - if successful you will not be harmed. But your life now depends upon bringing to me, by morning, a certain case. You will be provided with photographs and information regarding the security precautions. Time is therefore short for both of us, as an old man this is something I am used to. You as a young man are not. So,” at this Karl pointed his pistol at the second thief, then, “I am going to count to three, there will be no four.”
“By morning,” promised the thief, shaking.
“I breakfast early,” said Imric. Then, “Nice suit, John Philips of London. I have two of them myself. Rumour has it Arafat buys his there.”
Part Seven tomorrow: How Old Is Mae West?