by Michael E. Lloyd
Narone spent the next two days in a very strange mood, trying hard to re-acclimatise himself in his constantly stimulating new world but regularly falling back into bemused, protracted ponderings.
All through the conversation with Inspector Hardy, he’d been wondering whether to mention that Luc had already been in touch. And he’d continually held back from doing so. Cards close to his chest for now. He had absolutely no feel for which way this was going to break, and if that hard-nosed villain were to pick up the slightest hint that he’d been talking to the police, let alone mentioning he was actually in contact with Luc, well ...
And there had still been no further sign of the woman who’d been following him during those first two days. Luc’s woman, without a doubt. Although from the little he recalled of the man from those two brief encounters seven years before, he was surely a good deal younger than her. Maybe he just preferred much older girlfriends — or had married one. Or perhaps she was his big sister. A family affair. Hah! She was practically old enough to be his mother!
Anyway, the two of them had almost certainly stopped watching him. It would probably be a complete waste of their time now, of course. And they might not even still be in Nice. Why risk it, after all?
But of course the woman’s disappearance had removed Narone’s brief half-chance of quickly getting a fix on the man himself.
On both mornings he made an effort to be as friendly as he could with Pureza during their brief clashing encounters at the bathroom door and their hurried shared breakfasts. Well, she was always hurrying. She had a real job to do.
But the moment she opened the bookshop to her customers and immersed herself in her work, he felt a wonderful sense of release and scurried through as fast as he decently could, calling out his usual ‘See you later!’ without actually involving himself in any backwards glance or smile.
He knew Pureza was a saint, and he already adored her for that. But he also knew he only needed saints for a few minutes per day, and that they should not be over-encouraged.
So he spent the rest of that summery week largely in his own quiet company, luxuriating in the leaf-green public gardens or fantasising on the flesh-carpeted stony beach, walking around the city and observing more and more of the changes that had been taking place, watching the beautiful people strolling hand-in-hand all around him, and always carefully considering how best to manage his two closely related tasks. Luc and the Inspector had both given him a good deal of freedom, and although they each had very different aims, there were many overlaps in what they wanted him to do. And he would exploit those overlaps as fully as he could.
But he reminded himself on one of those afternoons (or was it Anais Nin whispering in his ear again?) that he really should make the effort to go back to the bookshop that evening and spend a little time with Pureza, since that was what she really seemed to want. And he would get another free dinner out of it, which was certainly not to be sneezed at.
* * *
On the Sunday, as promised, she took him for some extended window shopping for his early birthday presents. And the following morning they went back downtown together to purchase all the clothes she had selected for him — oh, he really had no idea, she had declared, and he completely agreed — and she ended up opening the bookshop almost two hours later than usual.
That excursion gave him a very good excuse for the long delay in making his first “nothing to report” Monday morning call from Pureza’s living room to an obviously concerned and annoyed Simon Hardy. But Narone did at least then unveil his initial strategy for finding Emilie. For the time being, he told the Inspector, he felt he should risk making only very low-profile enquiries about her disappearance. For example, it would be crazy to go sniffing around her old apartment straight away. Anyone watching him would be sure to think he was trying to retrieve the cash!
Hardy concurred, and Narone enjoyed the irony.
* * *
He began his investigations that very evening — at the Casa della Musica, of course. But as he approached it he was dismayed to see its name had been changed to the Happy Hallyday — in English! — and its facade had been freshly painted in bright oranges and limes. And inside it was now a very different sort of place. Good old Max was long gone, he soon discovered, and despite its pathetic trendy “pop-rock” name there was no longer any live music, and of course all the barmen and waiters were new. So its institutional memory had been totally lost, and Emilie Courbier, the thrilling, young avant-garde artiste who seven years earlier had turned that humble dive into one of the Old City’s most popular night spots, was remembered only as a dated myth in a small framed photograph, retained — probably through the new owners’ pure oversight — high up in the corner of the wall above the bar.
Narone walked out of the place in utter disgust. He sensed, there and then, that despite his continuing ardour for Emilie — or at least its embers — it could be days or even weeks before he summoned up the will to continue his search. But if challenged, there and then, he could not have explained why.
He spent the next three days trying once more, but largely failing again, to immerse himself in the carefree society of his new Nice.
He was still seeing beautiful young women everywhere, of course, many of them strolling or sunbathing alone. But he always passed them by. They had chosen to be out and about on their own, they obviously wanted their privacy, and he must not disturb it or do anything to alarm them.
So he continued to watch and wait for something to prod him back into some sort of action.
And as he wandered home on Thursday evening, he turned a corner and suddenly noticed the heavy clouds that were coming quickly in from behind the setting sun, and he saw again the freak formation that had perturbed him so much a few weeks before the robbery: the image of a huge and almost stationary fist with several long and puffy fingers moving steadily away from it ...
He ran in a cold sweat all the way back to the bookshop.
* * *
The next morning he awoke early with a new sense of purpose. He was out of the bathroom even before Pureza’s alarm clock had sounded, and by seven-thirty he had left her a little “Ciao!” note and was hurrying down towards the port, with a plan to spend the morning visiting every single café within five hundred metres of Rue Bavastro and having a nice little chat with each of their owners — particularly the older, long-established ones.
It did not take him long to confirm, from four separate, gossipy sources, exactly what he had always suspected. And it tied up pretty well with those uncaring taunts of Inspector Hardy soon after his arrest. Emilie Courbier had undoubtedly abandoned her beloved apartment within a few hours of the mention of “Narone’s show-business girlfriend” in the evening newspaper. And as far as each of his informants was concerned, she had then disappeared off the face of the earth.
But an elderly fish-wife, sipping her late-morning express through toothless gums, could not help overhearing Narone’s casual enquiry to the venerable patronne of La Grande Lune, and broke in before he had finished speaking ...
‘La petite clarinettiste? Poor child. They chased her away! The bastards!’
‘Ah! Who were they, madame?’
‘No idea. No-one has. But she was too smart for them, enfin ...’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Everyone thought she’d got straight out of town. And one of her neighbours said she’d mentioned Marseilles as she was leaving, the clever little minx. But my grandson saw her two days later, after dark, on the corner of the stretch of Rue de la Croix behind the church.’
‘But that’s the nastiest little street in the Old City!’
‘Better nasty than sorry.’
‘Was he sure it was her?’
‘Oh, yes. He never forgets a body.’
‘You don’t mean ...’
‘Mais non! She was just coming back with a little shopping. Must have cut and dyed her own hair in a hurry, he said. Made a poor job of it.’
‘Did he see which block she went into?’
‘No. He just watched her turn into the street from Rue Rossetti. He decided it was best to completely ignore her. Good lad. He never told anyone but me, and it’s probably the only secret I ever kept in my life — hah! But it’s been a long time, and you have honest eyes, monsieur.’
‘That’s all. He never saw her again. So, how long has it been?’
‘Six or seven years.’
‘Yes. Pah! Only God knows where she is now, la pauvre petite clarinettiste!’
Narone rewarded the tired old woman well for her information and consideration towards him, but he left the place with his depression redoubled. And by the time he had drawn a blank in all the other nearby cafés and bars, his spirits had reached an even lower low.
The trouble was, he kept reminding himself, he could never be sure if that well-intentioned grandson had been right. If Emilie had left Nice on the day after the robbery, as she’d hinted to her old neighbours, it was very unlikely that the injured Luc had been in any sort of position to watch her and tail her to the four winds. But if she had stayed in the Old City, and moved straight to Rue de la Croix, then she might well have been recognised there by any number of other lowlifes, and the news could easily have got back to his oppressor.
No, he could never be sure. But for Emilie’s sake, he had better still run with the assumption that Luc really might know where she was living now, even after all these years. So he must probably continue with his plan to pursue the man as doggedly as he could.
But he would need to take some more time out to think this through quite carefully. And a beer or two would definitely speed that process along.
* * *
The following Monday, after a hazy, best-forgotten weekend and another fact-free chat with the Inspector — and still without a firm plan for locating Luc — Narone had a haircut himself. Purely out of habit. And he was surprised at how little the barber chose to cut off. But he did not complain, even as he was paying up at the end. He already suspected it would be his last haircut for a very long time, and not just because of his financial position.
But that was indeed already looking weak. Less than a fortnight since his release, and more than half of his cash already gone. But he was not keen to try and recover the hidden wad from the garage yet. Let anyone still watching him continue to think he had only Emilie and the novelty of the Sixties on his mind.
So he must now take up Pureza’s offer of a loan. And he would tell her he was completely broke already, and could do with about two hundred New Francs at once. That would give him a little extra leeway. And a saint would always forgive a sinner.
She actually lent him three hundred on the spot that afternoon, insisting it came without term or condition and that she would never remind him about it.
With his conscience pricking him lightly but perceptibly enough, Narone at once resolved to try and spend several evenings “at home” over the coming weeks, continuing to enjoy Pureza’s delicious free dinners and making a real effort at meaningful conversation. He gently floated the idea to her, and she agreed with relish.
And with that small commitment made and implemented the very same day — he even helped her with the washing-up this time — he decided as he drifted off to sleep that he could now afford to ignore all the other pressures for a while and carry on with his new life of daytime ease. He deserved it, after all this time. No point in opening any more of Pandora’s boxes until he really needed to ...
Copyright © 2012 by Michael E. Lloyd