77 Rue Paradis [MultiFormat]
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eBook by Gil Brewer
eBook Category: Mystery/Crime
eBook Description: He met a gutter angel on the roadway to hell! It began here for Baron--the whole grotesque skein of terror-- here in this Marseilles street of despair, the street called the Rue Paradis. There was Gorssmann, fat and corrupt, who waited until Baron scraped bottom--and then blackmailed him into treason. And Lili, the dark, lovely gamin, who fell in love with Baron--and worked for the man determined to destroy him. Altogether for Frank Baron it was a small hell on the street called Paradise!
eBook Publisher: Wonder Audiobooks, LLC/Wonder eBooks
Fictionwise Release Date: September 2010
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The sensuous scarlet glow from the floor lamp in the cheaply furnished room seeped under the partially closed lids of Baron's eyes, and he lay rigidly on the bed, thinking it all through one more time with a kind of fevered relentlessness. He tried to shut his mind against the harsh sounds of Elene's quick movements as she crossed and recrossed the room. He heard her hesitate before the dresser and her skirt lifted, a garter snapped against flesh, the skirt was lowered, smoothed. She cleared her throat, recommenced the nervous stalking from the wall to the scantily curtained windows overlooking the Rue Paradis and that strange, hour-lingering yellow twilight of late afternoon in Marseilles. Back and forth she stalked, to and fro, and Baron actually held his breath as he drove deep again into tight remembering. He recalled the chronologically ordered moments of the past two and a half years, perspiring and slowly thinking his way straight to this empty-handed present--to this cheap room with this cheap cocotte who somehow still possessed her soul. And to what was left of himself, Frank Baron. Even seeing it clearly, he would never admit defeat. There was too much hate for that--too much of everything.
You don't trace and seek a man for endless months, across continents, through endless cities, beyond mountains and plains, and then suddenly drop it. The insane part of it was that he really searched for a man's existence. Because he had never seen the man. A human being that existed. Somewhere....
Yes, he thought. He destroyed me. He destroyed my life. Somewhere I'll find him--someday.
Like bright black moments on a stark white screen, the tragic elements of the remembering sprang tauntingly awake, and he experienced the usual torture. Those frenzied weeks before the trials. The waiting and the cruelly patient days during which he lost his wife and his daughter, Bette. Losing Patricia, knowing she had left him, he could stand that--but Bette was something else again. The headlines, screaming, "Traitor!" The closed factories he had once been so proud of, and the closed bank accounts, too. All gone. Finished, like so much sand washed along a smooth curb into the sewer. Because all the time there had been inside him this howling cry, yelling at them that they were wrong. None heard. Not even that day on the witness stand, when the cry burst past his lips.
Ruined, destroyed, shattered by a lie.
It had taken more than one hand to accomplish everything, he knew. But he also knew that a single mind had conceived the major plan. With meagerly rationed money from a single secret bank account that his understanding lawyer had arranged for him, he began the search without a clue. He had only his oath, sworn passionately to himself, of vengeance. He did not like the word itself, because it somehow cheapened the quest. But cheap or not, that's what it was. So from the environs of the closed airplane factories, from the Midwest cities, he pursued a nebulous trail of talk. And very gradually he discovered the faint, elusive, but telltale aura of a modus operandi. A careful rationalization of this alone led him from New York to Chicago to San Francisco, then to Mexico City and Panama and Tokyo and down through Brazil and back to New Orleans and Kansas City, tracing the dim trail of that mind's existence. Questioning everywhere. To Capetown, to Italy, then back home. To Rome and Paris and home again, with the money dwindling fast now. But with the trail sometimes brightening, almost as if that mind paused to laugh, just around the corner, allowing Baron to hear the laughter. But faintly. Then, suddenly bright, it had led him to Paris--and now Marseilles. The money was all gone now, everything he owned pawned or sold, and the trail was absolutely ended.
There was nothing left to go on. It was like carrying a pail brimming with precious water for miles, only to discover suddenly that the pail had no bottom. That there had never been any water.
There had never been a name. Only a method.
Baron twisted on the bed, keeping his eyes closed and fiercely closing his mind to remembering. He did not want to remember now, only to rush skimming along the surface of things. To remember the details of each interim clearly was to go on through torture that would leave him spent, exhausted.
Elene. He had forgotten her. She meant a great deal to him and he wondered momentarily what would eventually happen to them. And as he wondered, the memories slipped away, and he began to be himself again, slowly. He relaxed, with only the ghosts haunting him. The newspapers had followed his journey quite well, but they termed it debauch. Frank Baron's death fling. Well, let them think it. To hell with everything but him.
"Frank, mon cher," she said.
"Yes?" He looked at her and she smiled at him with that quick motion of the head and shoulders that helped to reveal the self-conscious boldness he admired.
"I am hungry," she said.
He said nothing, watching her. He knew she didn't like being watched. It made her move her head and shoulders still more and he liked seeing this. Scarlet touched her cheeks and her dark eyes sparkled and he wished they could go someplace far beyond far mountains. He knew he would never find a better companion, a more understanding lover. Since they had met that night in the cafe, she refused to leave him. She liked his nose. She refused to speak of any other reason for remaining with him. "It is your nose," she told him. "It is a great, defiant nose. A strong block of a nose. A nose with character. Many persons have noses that are entertaining," she told him. "But none is so interesting as your nose, cheri. Let it go at that, then. I am in love with your nose."
For his own part, he had never imagined a prostitute could be anything like Elene. He had heard the stories, but he had never met one. Not like Elene. For many days now he had refused to admit to himself that she had any calling other than their own life together. He couldn't understand why she stayed with him. He knew he was boresome. They had not eaten regularly. They were behind in their rent. Looking at her now, he wished they could always be together. If peace might ever be found, then surely Elene had helped to show him a way.
"Well?" she said. She was wearing a soft dark blue skirt and it was tight, sheathing her fine hips. A loose white blouse fresh from her private iron lay smoothly beneath the golden-brown flush of hair that coiled and clung to her shoulders. Her breasts moved vigorously against the blouse and Elene was very much alive. But hungry, he thought. Yes.
"You wish to be free of me?" he said.
Her scowl was dark, her gaze threatening. "No."
"What will we do?"
"I will work."
He grinned at her. About everything she was coldly frank. Her life had taught her that was the easier way. Now she pouted slightly.
"But I am hungry."
"You know I've got that money."
She nodded. "You went out to the Chateau d'If this morning."
They looked at each other for a time and he thought about the five hundred francs in his pocket. It was the most money he'd had at one time in weeks. He had helped a Frenchman take a boatload of tourists out to the Chateau d'If. He had rowed one boat and the Frenchman the other. They had insisted on going out in rowboats. There were all kinds of excursion boats that left the Vieux Port on regular runs to the island Dumas had made famous with his adventurous Count of Monte Cristo.
Elene came over to the bed and sat beside him. She touched his forehead, whistled silently. "Fever," she said.
He clawed into his pants pocket, brought out the single paper bill, quickly thrust it in the open flaring throat of her blouse, down between the warm breasts.
"I won't be long," she said. "We will eat, cheri.
"No appetite, Elene."
She smiled, leaned and kissed him, and he felt the vague stirrings of desire as her damp lips pressed his. For a moment she leaned hard against him, her body and her hands moving with that same frank, bold approach he had enjoyed during all their days together. Abruptly she moved away and smiled at him once again. She waved a warning finger.
"Later," she said. "We must eat first." She paused and he wished she would go away. He needed her much too much. "Frank," she said, "I'm going to buy cognac, too. You need the brandy." She paused, turned away, and slow agitation showed in the stiffening of her shoulders. "For three hours," she said. "For three hours you have not spoken. I will return quickly, and we will talk."
"We owe money here," he said.
"All right. See that you don't open the brandy before you get here. See you don't forget to come home."
She grinned wickedly and winked. "When I get back, you'll tell me everything," she said. "I love your nose, but I think a nose is not enough. You are holding it inside you, cheri. This is bad. If I thought it could be a woman, I would laugh. It would be to laugh at. But it is not a woman. It is something else and you must tell me."
"You think I'd be all right then?"
She went away and he heard her heels clicking on the stairs. The street door slammed and again he heard her heels down there on Paradis, clicking on the pavement. Then nothing, and he lay there wondering how he could ever explain it to her. She knew nothing and up to now she had not questioned him. He began to know he had to leave her. Yet the very thought of being away from her frightened him, because for this first time he understood what it was like to be alone.
He sat up on the bed, swung his feet to the floor, and stared across the room through the scarlet lamp glow.
Elene had come from Normandy. As a very young girl she had sold herself to the Boches during World War II, when her home had been destroyed. She nursed her father through sickness this way. They lived in a ruined cellar and she fed him, buying food with money earned in the only manner possible. When he died, she walked and flirted her way to Paris on the Red Ball Highway, then eventually came to Marseilles. She was frantically alone when he found her that night in the cafe. She was sorry for nothing, refused to discuss it after the first explanation. She was one of many.
He sat on the bed and realized that he was straining to hear her returning footsteps. She didn't have far to go, only to the corner and back, and he waited. Time slipped by and there was no sound from the street. The yellow twilight progressed into further yellow twilight, darkening faintly, but not yet dusk.
He blanked out his mind. He thought of the brandy. They would forget for this one night, and tomorrow he would start fresh. He would begin again, because there had to be a renewal of the trail.
Only she did not come. He refused to think she might have slipped away with the money for a night of her own. Yet he could not keep the thought from his mind. She was human, all too human. And he was anything but fun for her.
He began to pace the room. He looked down on the street. It was solemnly empty and the room with its scarlet lamp glowing was suddenly a torture. He knew he had to stop thinking this way. He knew it was not alone Elene's going with the money that bothered him. It was everything. He needed that brandy and a moment later he was on the street himself.
He would tell her how foolish he had acted. She would meet him on the sidewalk.
But she did not. Elene wasn't in the cafe where they bought their wine. The bakery was closed. He moved down Paradis to the Cannebiere and headed toward the harbor. If she had decided to make it a night of her own, that was the direction she would take. It was where he had found her and it was where she would be....
Then finally the twilight had become a yellow dusk. He hurried now up from the Vieux Port along the Cannebiere, heading for the next tourist cafe. He had tried the ones along the harbor; she hadn't been there. Understanding and anxiety had given way to anger now. If he could get his hands on her and at least some small remaining part of his five hundred francs he would be happy. Also lucky.
He decided to warm her bottom. Yet how could he expect her to act differently?
Then somehow he knew she was gone. There were a few more spots he might try, but he felt it, a washing away of faith. Because he had so little faith in anything. He tried to tell himself that Elene was not the type to run off. Wasn't she? He laughed to himself, walking swiftly now.
The small gray German Opel sedan stopped directly before him as he stepped down from the curb into the street. The rear door came open and he saw the gun.
"Get in," a man said.
There was nothing else to do. It was that simple. He had no time to think and it was like a revelation of the ending he had been coming to. The door, in opening, brushed his sleeve. One step and he was in the car. A man in the front seat beside the driver put a hat on his sleekly combed head. "Alors."
The Opel sped up the street. The door slammed, and Baron waited with a kind of empty patience.
They had worked very fast and with professional skill. A slow tension began to build inside Baron as he realized this. Somehow, the dreamlike way the car had appeared, and the way he found himself here on the rear seat, became a truth among a life of hazy lies.
The man in the front seat partially turned his head.
"Monsieur Baron? Frank Baron?"
"Please, monsieur. Say nothing. No one will speak to you. Voila. It would be a waste."
Baron sat stiffly now on the edge of the small rear seat. He saw the man up there tap the driver on the shoulder, point to the left.
They came onto the Rue Vacon and turned right on Paradis, and by the time they passed the building where he had his room--or where Elene had hers--they were doing an easy sixty. On Paradis this was an interesting speed. They lurched on the old tracks, narrowly missed taking a wheel off a horse-driven cart, swung back into the right lane, bumping across the worn bricks.
He had seen none of them before. The driver was young, he wore a cap, and though it was dusk now and rapidly darkening, Baron made out a very red face. The man beside him was in command.
He glanced across at his neighbor in the rear seat. The heavy gun barrel clunked just once, sharply, across his kneecap.
"Look," he said. "This is foolish. What the hell is this?"
The Opel's engine was in good shape. He could feel that much. It sounded as if it were winding up, like a spring-wound toy car just before it exhausts itself. Only this engine was not tired.
They turned left again, passed the prefecture, came on along until they struck the broad, tree-lined Prado. Now the driver really opened it up. It was plain they weren't going to stop for a while.
He stopped himself from looking once more toward the man beside him. The kneecap pained badly. For another moment or two he remained on the edge of the seat. He no longer thought about being hungry. He had forgotten Elene and the five hundred francs. He had absolutely no idea of what it was all about. He sat there, frightened. Then gradually the fright went away. There was nothing to hinge it on. No reason to be afraid.
"You've made a mistake," he said. "I have no money, not a franc. I'm completely broke."
They knew him. The hell with it. He had been trying to say the hell with it in Marseilles for three months now. He could afford to go on saying it. He got a smile out of that and relaxed in the seat. There was nothing else to say. For three months he had been at a standstill. It didn't matter what was happening, so long as it was something. His life no longer mattered. It traveled a course, that was all. He had to recover volition and one way was as good as another.
They drove for some time. He quit trying to place where they were going. It was much too dark now, and they traveled too fast. Besides, it was tiresome. Whatever it was they wanted, he would soon find out.
He kept himself somehow in this frame of mind until the car turned abruptly into an alley and stopped. All he knew was that they were somewhere north of St. Charles' Station. They had wound in and out all over Marseilles.
The man from the front seat held the door open for him. His friend in the rear prodded him tightly with the gun barrel. He got out and looked at the man from the front seat.
"All right," the driver said. He had unlocked a door in the brick wall of the alley. They went into darkness.
He began not to like it again. The fright began to work up into him again. He tried to push it away, to retain the feeling he had manufactured in the car. He could not do it. He remembered Elene and suddenly felt that those few moments before she left the room had been moments of peace. Because now his personal tortures were sinking into a background of memory only. He found he did not like this at all.
They went along a damp, musty-smelling stone hallway. Their heels chunked hollowly on big stone flags. The young driver lit a flashlight and Baron had an impression of brick walls, well worn. They turned down a corridor to the right and went through a curlicued wrought-iron gate into the usual garden. As they crossed the garden on more flags under a star-freckled sky, Baron saw that it was not the usual garden. Flowers bloomed in the night and buds swung from an enormous vine, like giant teardrops. There was the heavy, suffocating odor of night-blooming jasmine. A miniature fountain sprayed weakly from a plump, doll-like stone nymph's head into a circular cement dish in the center of the garden. They went past some twisted trees that looked like weary old ladies flapping lace shawls over their heads. They entered another door by way of another wrought-iron gate and went down another corridor.
The flashlight in the driver's hand stopped, played on a door and latch. He knocked. He turned, grunted at the man with the hat.
"Again," the man with the hat said. "Encore.
The driver knocked again.
"Yes. Enter," a woman said.
The flashlight went out. But not before Baron saw the driver smile brightly at the man in the hat. The gun poked. The door opened.
Inside it was warmer, but the smell was still present. It was an odor he had often met with in Marseilles; a presence of damp stone and gray, tired centuries.
The woman was seated at a table across the room, with her back to them. She rose. She turned and glanced at the man in the hat without looking at anybody else. It was quite a feat, Baron decided. She wore a red artist's smock and held a long slim paintbrush in one hand. She had been painting designs on pottery and china plates. Some of the plates, showing carefully intricate work, were racked against the wall above the table where she worked. She was quite tall and slim. The smock somehow managed to reveal the slimness and at the same time give promise of a fine young body beneath it. Her legs were straight, her shoes black, high-heeled, dainty. Her hair was raven black, not too long, and there was something sly about her. Right away Baron liked the slyness.
"Yes," she said. "One moment."
She disappeared behind an immense Chinese screen with a scene of red and green dragons and a white pagoda by a turquoise lake painted on the black cloth.
A man's voice reached them, but the words were unintelligible. Baron heard the door open behind him then. He glanced around and the driver and the man with the gun were just leaving.
"Quietly," the man in the hat said. He had the gun now, holding it in a hand sheathed in a gray cloth glove.
The room was very quiet, as though they were deep underground. Baron could smell linseed oil now, and turpentine and paint.
The girl spoke softly from the other room and again the man's voice reached them.
Baron looked at the man in the hat. He did not like what he saw. Everything fitted too well. The man looked quite human, no different from anyone else. He was a man of medium build in a gray suit, wearing a gray topcoat of thin smooth material and a gray Homburg. His shoes were shiny, but not too shiny. His eyes looked quite honest, unsuspicious. He wore an inconspicuous blue tie and his shirt collar was clean. It was too perfect. There was nothing particular about the face. Two eyes, a nose, and a mouth. But the gloves. Baron was immediately suspicious of any man who wore one glove with the back turned down and carried the other in his bare hand.
Too, there was the gun.
"Come," the girl said.
She waited by the corner of the screen and looked at the floor as they walked past her. Baron got a whiff of good perfume, very faint, elusive. The jasmine out there in the garden should give up, he thought. It wouldn't stand a chance.
He kept trying to bolster his courage in this way. He frankly admitted to himself now that he was scared.
"He is here," the man in the hat said.
A huge bull of a man stood looking at them from behind a desk as big as a barn door. He drummed fingers like miniature baseball bats on the desk top.
"Lili," he said, "close and lock both doors. Thanks."
He looked at Baron and sighed.