by Michael E. Lloyd
‘It’s me, Inspector.’
‘Aha! Happy Birthday, Arthur!’
‘Thanks a lot, Simon. So do I get a nice little present from the Sûreté?’
‘Yes — the promise of a small glass of beer when this is all over. Are we any closer to that?’
‘Not much. But I’m working on a fine new plan. I’ll keep you posted.’
‘Very well. And ... enjoy your special day.’
‘I shall — as soon as I put this phone down.’
Pureza too had remembered his birthday, of course, and at eight o’clock that morning she had presented him with another set of rather expensive, rather too trendy clothes, in exactly the right sizes. And he had protested, of course, for all sorts of good and polite reasons, but she still continued to insist that business had been booming since he’d come to stay. Her only condition was that she must be allowed to prepare another cuisine niçoise meal for them that evening. And he had agreed, of course, and given his best new friend a big hug of gratitude, and then come dangerously close to being kissed fully on the lips.
But Pureza would be hard at work for the next few hours, and he was now off Hardy’s radar for another whole week, and he would not be hearing from Luc or Xérus again till the very end of the month. And it was his birthday, dammit! — his first one as a free man since celebrating his twenty-first on that wonderful little Italian holiday with Emilie in 1959 ...
He took the easiest and most undemanding option for the rest of the day, lazing in the early September sun on the stony beach — why on earth couldn’t they just haul a few thousand tons of sand down here instead? — occasionally reading a page or two of his Camus novel, and most of the time admiring the ebb and (mainly) flow of carefully designed topless swimsuits. But he never plucked up the courage to wander over and inquire about any of their owners’ plans for the rest of the day.
Even though she had shut up shop ahead of her normal time, Pureza was still busy with her dinner preparations when he finally turned up at a quarter to eight. She made him open a bottle of fine Champagne at once, and they shared most of it in the kitchen while she spent another hour putting the finishing touches to her special surprises.
So by the time they had lingered over the superb three course meal and the large slices of home-made birthday cake that followed, it was almost ten o’clock as they took the last dishes back out into the kitchen. And then Pureza stifled a small yawn and smiled and squeezed his arm and suggested they leave the washing-up till the morning.
‘It’s been a long day for both of us, Arthur, and I’d really like to go to bed now.’
‘Oh, that’s fine,’ said Narone. ‘I’ve decided to give myself another little treat. I’m going to visit the Casino for the first time in my life! But don’t worry, I shan’t be gambling very much, and I’ll try not to disturb you when I get back.’
Pureza gave him an extremely dirty look, but said nothing and walked straight out of the kitchen and up the stairs. Narone wondered for a moment why she seemed so disapproving of his final little birthday fling, but then decided it must be because she thought he would be playing with her money.
He had only been inside the Casino for twenty minutes, having made certain to take nothing but his “new” currency notes out with him, when he spotted the tall blonde croupier working one of the Vingt-et-un tables.
He was all smiles at once — he simply could not disguise them, even when she caught him looking at her — but he could not bring himself to approach her. So he turned away, consoling himself with the thought that conversation with the customers was probably prohibited anyway.
He then played the tables carefully, but with no experience or any real skill, for an hour or so until he realised it was past midnight and his birthday was finally over. He’d lost a little money, but so what? It had cost him no more than a good meal for two. A very nice little birthday treat to himself. And he’d glanced across at the blonde croupier’s table several times, but she had vanished at about eleven-thirty and had not reappeared. So, time for bed.
He nodded politely to the doorman as he left, and then found Françoise Guart waiting patiently outside, smoking a long menthol cigarette and greeting him with a smiling ‘I thought you’d forgotten all about me, mon petit! So shall we go dancing, or shall we go straight home?’
Narone wondered several times over the next couple of days whether he should say anything to Pureza about his night out (and in) with Françoise. But when he realised he had no real idea why he was wondering that, he immediately dropped the stupid thought and went back to enjoying the excuse of another extended cooling-off period on the beach before continuing his pursuit of Danielle’s old sofa.
And he never returned to the Casino.
But a little later he did implement his latest ongoing financial management programme. Roughly twice a week from now on, he would again be carefully purchasing a useful little item of clothing or toiletry or whatever, each time using one of his still very warm 5000 Old Franc bills to generate a fistful of very clean, smaller New Franc notes and coins.
* * *
On the twelfth of September, Narone called Inspector Hardy and told him he once again had nothing to report. And the next morning he went to another phone box, touched as much wood as he could see, and called the Vos Meubles furniture store.
‘Can I help you?’
‘I do hope so! You delivered a new sofa to my aunt’s place in Rue Bavastro a few months ago, and you took the old pink one away to another of Roger Collard’s apartments ...’
‘Ah yes, monsieur, I remember it well. A very heavy old sofa!’
‘Yes, indeed! Well, my aunt has mislaid a treasured little brooch. It’s quite worthless, but it has great sentimental value for her, and she’s rather distressed about it. She’s searched everywhere, and she’s now wondering if it perhaps got stuck down behind one of the seat cushions.’
‘That sort of thing happens all the time!’
‘Of course. So, could you possibly tell me where you took it for Monsieur Collard? Then she and I could perhaps visit the occupants and ask them politely if we could take a quick look for the brooch.’
‘I don’t see why not, monsieur. May I ask your aunt’s name?’
‘It’s Madame Foraud.’
‘OK. I’ll check the records and make sure I give you the exact name and address. One moment, please ...’
That afternoon, Narone visited a second-hand bookstore in the New Town, negotiated a very special price on a job lot of two hundred old paperback novels, and filled three large cardboard boxes to overflowing. He then hailed a taxi to take him straight to Pureza’s bookshop. After making quite a show of unloading each heavy box and leaving them on the pavement outside while he breezed in and loudly announced his commercial triumph to Pureza and four mildly disapproving customers, he then carried them one by one up to his room, stored them in the corner next to the chest of drawers, and stayed there for almost four hours until she called him down for dinner.
She had obviously spotted several of the book titles as he was coming in and out with the boxes.
‘Did you really need to waste your precious money — my money, probably — on that load of rubbish, Arthur?’
‘Oh, they really were a bargain, Pureza! And it’s high time I read a bit of low-brow literature for a change. I’ve finished one of them already, and they’ll last me for months and months!’
She rolled her eyes in undiluted disgust and changed the subject. Narone, who actually had no intention of ever reading any of those awful books, and now felt confident that Pureza would never go near the sullied boxes herself, was happy to follow her lead and talk about whatever she chose for the rest of the evening.
The next morning he repeated his lengthy perambulations around the streets of Nice until he was totally satisfied that he was still not being followed, and ended his tour at the Old City address given to him by the owner of the furniture shop. The building on Rue Droite was more run-down than the recently “improved” property on Rue Bavastro, but its front door too was wide open — was probably never closed, he guessed — and this one showed no sign of having a concierge.
He climbed the stairs, found the door to apartment 19, and quickly worked out which window he would need to watch from the street. Then he left the building and looked around for the ideal observation point. But this time there was no easy option of a nice bench or a comfortable café. He would have to put up with loafing about, or just sitting on the pavement with his back to the wall and playing the penniless sleepy hippy. He chose the second option, took a large felt hat from his jacket pocket, pulled it down over his eyes, and made himself as comfortable as possible. He could see the shutters on the window of apartment 19 were wide open.
People entered and left the building throughout the afternoon. But just after three o’clock, an elderly woman appeared at that window and closed the shutters. A few long minutes later, she and her husband emerged onto the street. He was hobbling along with the help of a cane, and she was carrying an empty, worn-out shopping bag.
They did not look as if they had recently come into almost forty million Old Francs extracted from a “very heavy old sofa”.
And it was well over an hour before they returned, now moving even more slowly than before. They went into the building with their meagre items of shopping, and eventually the shutters were opened and the woman was visible again, turning briefly to speak to her husband before moving back into the shadows of their dingy room.
Narone stood up and got away while the going was good, and spent the rest of the day refining his plan of action.
He was back in the Old City by two o’clock the following afternoon, differently dressed, again confident he had not been followed, and now armed with a few simple tools and a soft holdall of the same size as the one Luc had used for the robbery nearly seven years earlier.
He strolled casually down Rue Droite and past the apartment block, noting that the shutters of number 19 were fully open, as before. Then he moved into the wider adjacent Rue Rossetti and hovered there for over an hour, initially browsing the window displays of the only three shops nearby, then later taking up his dozy hippy position in a very different place this time, but always keeping one eye on the street corner.
And at three-fifteen the aged couple appeared again, right on cue, and shuffled off for — hopefully — another hour-long trip to the cheapest shops in town.
Narone did not hang around. As he approached the building, he was glad to see the shutters of number 19 were now closed. He would simply have to trust there was nobody left inside.
For a man long-skilled in making off with some of the world’s most luxurious automobiles, breaking into that sorry apartment presented no problem. He even managed to do it without damaging either the cheap lock or the tatty woodwork. So nobody would ever know he had been there.
He opened the door and peeped in. Yes, there it was! He darted inside, closed the door behind him and got to work, quietly upending the sofa to reveal the bottom fabric and prising off not only the four thumbtacks he had carefully removed and repositioned all those years before, but a lot more besides. And now the first of the wads of cash was suddenly visible!
His heart was pounding as he counted them out of the sofa and into his bag. Thirty ... forty ... fifty ... sixty ... sixty-five. Those had been easy! But there were still nine left to find — he had never forgotten the number he’d posted through the little gap he’d originally made. So now he began delving more deeply into the farthest corners of the springs and the upholstery, and one by one the remaining wads succumbed to his grasping hand. Seventy-two ... seventy-three ... seventy-four!
He zipped up the holdall with a triumphant flourish. He had recovered all thirty-seven million balles!
He quickly pressed a few of the thumbtacks back into the wooden frame to ensure the material would not flop out to one side, stored the rest of them in his pocket, righted the sofa, and repositioned it exactly where it had previously been. Then, after checking there was no-one around in the corridor, he tiptoed out of the apartment, gently pulled the door closed behind him, and hurried down the stairs. He was back on Rue Droite less than ten minutes after he had entered the building, with no potential pursuers in sight. And three minutes later, he and his very ordinary travel bag had zigzagged unobserved through the rabbit warren of the Old City alleys and were now enveloped in the bustling crowds of the Cours Saleya market.
He spent the rest of the day on the buses — which of course took him back to that similarly anxious time immediately following the robbery — travelling the length and breadth of the city repeatedly for nearly seven hours before descending for the last time at the ill-lit central bus station and cautiously making his way up Quai Saint-Jean-Baptiste. Nobody had been following him all day.
And he’d had a lot of time to think, since collecting the cash. Maybe he should hang on to a few of those wads for himself, as Luc had so helpfully “suggested” a few weeks before. Surely the man could not possibly know exactly how much the gang had grabbed in the rush and confusion of that bodged robbery? So surely there would be no comebacks if he did help himself to the cut he deserved after doing all this extra work for Luc?
It was now well past eleven o’clock, and all the lights were out above Pureza’s bookshop. He unlocked and re-locked the front door and made his way up to his room, exactly as he had done many times before.
And after using the bathroom as noisily as usual, he shut his own door again and got to work as noiselessly as he could. Five minutes later, fifty of his tatty old paperbacks were sitting in his new zip-up bag, four wads of banknotes had been tucked into his jacket pockets awaiting their next temporary home, and thirty-five million Old Francs were evenly spread out in brown paper bags at the bottom of three very large boxes of books.
The next day, while Pureza was out for lunch, he would walk down to Rue du Lycée and donate his bagful of unwanted novels to another second-hand shop. Then he would buy himself a cheap little rucksack, roll his four wads of cash up in a spare shirt and stuff them in along with an old pullover, and deposit it at the railway station left-luggage office for as long as they would allow.
Then he would spend the entire weekend deciding what he was going to say about the money to Luc, and to Xérus, and to the police.
As he struggled to get off to sleep in the intimate company of such a fortune, he reflected on how he would have liked to give that poor old couple a bit of cash to make their lives a little easier for a while. But he could certainly not have afforded to leave any trace of his visit there today. Maybe he would find a way to do something for them, some other day ...
Copyright © 2012 by Michael E. Lloyd