The Mug’s Game
by Arthur Mackeown
The damp and dreary spring morning when the printer Jules Benoît first met the one-armed man who called himself Jacques began like any other morning. At 8.00 a.m. sharp, he arrived at his little print shop on the edge of the busy market in Les Halles, chained his bike to a lamppost, bought a paper from the newsstand on the corner, and unlocked the door.
As he did so, a pair of German soldiers passed by. The nearest one nodded to him and politely wished him good morning. When Benoît turned his head away without answering, the man actually looked disappointed for a moment, then he shrugged, said something in German to his companion, and they walked on. Benoît shook his head wearily. What did he expect? Hugs and kisses?
* * *
Once inside the print shop, Benoît put the kettle on, and opened the paper. The lead story was the execution by guillotine of three students caught distributing anti-German propaganda at the Sorbonne. The execution had taken place at dawn that very morning in the notorious Gestapo prison of La Santé.
“Young fools!” Benoît muttered to himself. They should have stuck to their books instead of trying to defeat the Boche all by themselves with bits of paper. There’d be plenty of chances for playing the hero when le général returned. On that great day, Benoît would forget his aching back and his 63 years and be out on the streets like all the rest, his ancient First World War rifle in his hands. He wasn’t sure the thing would still fire, but Heaven help anyone on the wrong end of it if it did. Until then, however, a sensible man kept his powder dry and his head down, and Jules Benoît was a very sensible man.
* * *
Just as Benoît was pouring out his tea, the bell over the door rang. A small, bespectacled man in a rumpled suit came in. He was carrying a sample case with the name of an ink supplier on it. He lowered the case to the floor with a gasp of relief.
“Morning, M’sieu Benoît,” he said. “My name is Jacques. It is M’sieu Benoît, isn’t it?”
“That’s me,” the printer said, “and I’m not buying.”
“You haven’t heard my pitch, yet,” replied the little man. “Could I trouble you for some of that tea? It’s cold as the devil out there.”
“There’s no sugar,”
“Never is.” The visitor accepted the tea with his left hand. His right sleeve was empty.
“So,” Jacques asked after his first sip, “how’s business?”
“As you see.” Benoît nodded at the walls, which were covered with samples of his wares: wedding invitations, obituaries, posters, ancient playbills, menus, and patent medicine ads. One wall was devoted entirely to crudely-drawn smutty postcards with outdated jokes. The visitor got to his feet and examined them with interest, laughing to himself at some of the captions.
“You must make a fair bit out of these. Write them yourself, did you?”
Benoît eyed him suspiciously. “What did you say your name was?”
“I told you. It’s Jacques.”
“I’ll bet,” said Benoît, “you’re up to something, you are. And don’t try to kid me you’re selling ink. Apart from anything else, your hand is too clean. If you were in the trade, they’d be like mine. So what are you selling?”
Jacques — or whatever his real name was — sat down again, and gazed at Benoît through his round spectacles for almost half a minute, all the while feeling his right sleeve over and over as if he still hoped to find the limb that ought to be there. The smile he had worn since entering the print shop disappeared.
“Fancy doing my portrait, do you?” asked Benoît, and grinned at his own joke, as well he might. He was a short, skinny, wrinkled fellow, with hollow, stubbled cheeks, and faded watery blue eyes, he was hardly anyone’s idea of an oil painting.
Jacques ignored Benoît’s little jest. “Tell me, M’sieu Benoît,” he said, suddenly, “do you love your country?”
“It’s a simple question.”
“What’s it got to do with you?”
“Well, don’t,” said Benoît. “Now, you either tell me what you want, or get out.”
“That’s easy enough. I’ve got a job for you.”
“Job? What sort of job?”
Jacques took a sheet of paper from the sample case. “Can you copy this flier? We want as many as you can manage for tomorrow night. We’ll pay your expenses, and there’ll more later on. What do you say?”
“Who’s ‘we’ when we’re at home?”
“Just a group of patriots. Will you print it?”
Benoît didn’t much like the sound of ‘patriots’. “Depends. What does it say?”
“See for yourself.”
Benoît took the flier and began to read from it out loud: Citizens of Paris, do not believe the enemy when he tells you... That was as far as he got. He stopped reading and shook his head. “Mug’s game,” he said. “Don’t you read the papers? The Boche will have my head on a plate if they trace this back here. Count me out.”
“And your duty to your country? What of that?”
“Duty?” snapped Benoît. “Who do you think you are, marching in here without so much as a by-your-leave and lecturing me about duty? I was in the trenches doing my duty when you were still hanging on your mother’s tit.”
Jacques raised his hand. “I didn’t come here to fight with you. Just answer me one question. When I arrived the first thing I noticed was the sign above the door. It says: Benoît and Son. Where is your son, Jules?”
“Dead,” Benoît said flatly. “1940. The very first day. That’s what killed his mother. But you knew that already, didn’t you? That’s why you’re here.”
“Of course it is,” replied Jacques, and touched his empty sleeve again. “You’ve got a score to settle, just like I have.”
“I’ll settle it in my own time.”
“That time is now.”
“I told you, no.”
“Fair enough,” said Jacques and handed Benoît another piece of paper. “You can find me at this number if you need to.”
“You’ll have a long wait.”
* * *
The following morning began with an announcement on the 7 o’clock news from Radio Paris, just as Benoît was getting ready for work. It seemed a German soldier had been gunned down on the Metro by Resistance terrorists, and the public was requested to be on the alert, and to cooperate with the authorities in the hunt for the criminals.
Benoît knew what ‘be on the alert’ meant: it meant exactly the same as ‘cooperate with the authorities.’ In a word, Trouble with a capital T, for the killing of a German, especially one in uniform, would stir up an absolute hornets’ nest, with the whole city turned inside out for days, if not weeks. There would be roadblocks, identity checks, interrogations and mass arrests, and anyone who looked even the least bit fishy could well be dragged before a tribunal and shot before the ink on the judge’s stamp was dry.
It did not occur to him to stay home on such a day. Others might, but not Jules Benoît. He took great pride in never missing a day’s work, and this was no different. Even so, there was no point in asking for it, so he decided to play safe and take a roundabout route to the print shop through the maze of back streets to the north of Les Halles in order to evade the road blocks.
Not that it did him any good. He hadn’t gone a kilometre before he turned a corner and ran smack into a road block on the Rue Montorgueil. Whoever had given the order to erect it there certainly knew what he was doing. At this hour, the street was jam-packed with bicycle carts, horse-drawn buses, gas cars, and trams with no room to turn round or back out. There they all were, trapped like fish in a barrel.
The road block was manned by black-bereted Milice, the hated fascist militia that always turned out when there was dirty work to be done. These boys were a law unto themselves. Their German masters allowed them to arrest, torture and kill with impunity. Benoît, like the rest of the civilian population, had quickly learned to give them a wide berth.
There was no escaping them today, though, and one of the bastards — wouldn’t you just know it, with a hundred others to choose from — marched straight up to Benoît and glared at him. “Carte d’identité!” he snapped. “Hurry it up!”
Benoît held the card out with a hand that shook slightly. They liked to see that. The cop looked it over carefully, pausing several times to compare Benoît’s face with the photograph.
Can’t you read? thought Benoît. He knew better than to say it out loud, though.
“Benoît. Jules Benoît, sir,” he answered smartly. Then he saluted, and stood to attention as if on parade.
“Where are you going?”
“Work, sir. I’ve got my own little printing shop, Benoît and Son. It’s only ten minutes from here, on the corner of Les Ha...”
“Shut up. Just answer the questions. Who else works there?”
“It’s only me, now, sir. Had to let the boy go, business is so slow these days. You know how it is.”
“As if I care,” said the Milicien. Then he pointed to Benoît’s saddle bag. “What have you got in here? Show me.”
Before Benoît could obey there was a commotion up ahead. An SS platoon had arrived at the road block. The soldiers began ordering passengers off one of the trams, then marched them away at gunpoint.
The cop forgot the saddle bag and hurried off to help, pulling his baton from his belt as he ran. At the same time Benoît saw other soldiers rounding up passersby and herding them through a gauntlet of hysterically barking dogs in the direction of a line of trucks parked at the crossroads on the far side of the barrier.
Here we go, he thought. They can’t find the real shooters, so they’re taking it out on the first poor sods they can lay their hands on.
Then he saw the girl. She couldn’t have been more than twenty years old. Someone must have hit her in the face, because blood was pouring from her nose and staining her dress. Even so, she wasn’t going without a fight. She struggled furiously as she was frog-marched across the road towards the trucks.
A few steps from the pavement, she managed to break free of the soldier who gripped her arm and Benoît thought she would make a run for it, but she didn’t. Instead, she slapped the soldier so hard he staggered back, tripped over the curb behind him, and sat down with a thud.
Several of his friends laughed their heads off as he tried clumsily to get to his feet, then one of them struck the girl with a rifle butt and tossed her into the back of the nearest truck, where she lay still.
Things went quickly after that. The officers rapped out orders, the soldiers and the Milice withdrew. The trucks revved up and moved off with their terrified cargos. Finally, the barrier was lifted, freeing the crush of vehicles behind it, and Benoît, too, went on his way.
* * *
When he reached the print shop, he sat down and stared blankly at the phone for a full five minutes before pulling from his pocket the crumpled piece of paper Jacques had given him. He dialed the number scrawled on it. A woman answered, then Jacques himself came on the line.
“It’s about yesterday,” Benoît said. “I’ll do it.”
“I thought you might. What changed your mind?”
Benoît sighed. “Just some girl I saw today.”
Copyright © 2014 by Arthur Mackeown