5:34 am. Paris awakes. I find myself nestling the streets of Pigalle, the beeps of a roadsweeper gently buffering the ground to one side of my face.
"Monsieur, please. I have a job to do." Me too.
7:00 am. The Quai des Orfevres.
"I trust that you were glued, like the rest of this city, to the television set last night? For the final? Of The Brainiest Kid In Paris?" Choux is rummaging, aggressively, for Chupachups.
"You know I don't get time to watch tv, Choux."
"Yes, you say this - but what exactly is it you get time to do, Corbeau?"
I look out the window, across the Quai.
"Anyway," he continues, "Matthieu Mont scooped the fruitbowl. Studious ten year old. I don't understand the appeal of it all myself, but was relieved. The press were off my back in pursuit of the lad. Quite a celebrity. For a short time."
"Mm. Abducted this morning. Listen to this." He unwraps the candy, taps it on his desk phone.
"kkkrrkrk. Yay. We got your brainiest kid. A billion francs or we dope him up. (another voice) Take his glasses! (laughter) Yeah! (laughter) Write the cheque or he loses his bins, walks off something tall. (laughter). prrp"
The Funky Family. "Keep the freak," I whisper into the Quai.
Choux chokes. "Are you still drunk? It's simple. In a few hours the entire national reserve of French francs might as well be gunked into a de Saint Phalle dodo bird and walked up the Seine. Jacques Lang would have wanted it that way. Those loons don't watch the news so we want you to Fed-Ex pure loo-roll. Trust me, we'll have the kid."
Madame Burgalat is the concierge in my apartment block. Never have I met a woman who worries so openly about so very little.
"Corbeau!" I hear her croaking richocet about the corridor as I begin to mount the stairs. She approaches, as fast as her withering hips can accomplish, arms tight about her pinny. "Corbeau. A man came. He looked important." As she passes me an envelope, her peanut-sized eyes seem to plead with mine to instil a thread of sense to it all, even to disguise this awful havoc with some pretence at equilibrium, this ruination of her pattern. I kiss her absent-mindedly, mount the steps.
M Corbeau. Do forgive me - you and I have never met. I believe that you were a good friend to my wife, Anne, during her time as a student and political activist in the late 1960s. You may be interested to know that Anne has written a book about those years and, as a surprise to her, I am inviting friends from that period, those that I can trace, to a party - this Saturday 29th. I would very much be honoured if you could make it. And do tell any others who may have known her! Kind regards. Alain Renaud.
An address. A time. Tonight!
Punctuality is the key - as I say - Anne will be unaware.
Anne. The last time I saw Anne was from the corner of my eye, over one shoulder, leaving the living room where I had agreed to sleep. I heard her fill a pan for coffee in the kitchen. She was padding through as I closed the door, and I couldn't know that the next time I would see her would be tonight, twenty three years down the line.
Advice: do not gloat on that moment, the exquisite but fatal moment you decide to give your lover over to someone they love much more than you. One might feel like fighting, make an offer to change. Something. One can wear the martyr's coat, half-hoping this will swing their feelings. And unless one is strong, one will live a life of half-hope forever. A week, a month of half-hoping the phone will ring or the door will knock, half-hoping for the dropped case, the shamed face and the open arms. More months of half-hoping for the cool, favour-loaded approach to a faltering stop in the shopping arcade. Just in the area. Was just in the area. More months - a year - of half-hoping for the Christmas card asking how are you and what you're up to these days. It didn't work. You? And you even catch yourself imagining a mutual friend informing 'Oh she's dead now - a boating accident - didn't you know?' Just to hear, hear something. And every morning you sling your half-hope over your shoulder like a splat-up raincoat you just can't find the time to get dry cleaned. And you just can't find the time for a haircut.
I look in the mirror. I need a haircut.
"On top of the brainiest kid thing?" Xavier blows his scissors and shows me a length. "So much?"
"Fine. Let him sort it out if he's so smart."
I walk through the Samaritaine. It's time I got a new look - something fresh, party clothes. I scour the rails. Much of this stuff I remember. Combats. Che. What's this? Pornstar. Stuff with paint drips, New Wave zips. Revolution. Pre-stained. Pre-stained? I grab a funky shirt and slip into the changing room.
Corbeau. Look. Look. One button strains. Soon it's two. The bad shave. Eyes red well into the pm. But there's still something there. Smile. Not that much. Stand straight. But relax. Stand straight but relax. Narrow the eyes. What did she say? He strode across the room. There's no room to stride in here.
I stride across the hall. Renaud rushes to catch up, to take my coat. I wouldn't have recognised him at all. The house is tastefully decorated, minimal lines pitch complimentary points of neo-classical furnishings at the eye. That's what it feels like - a place made for the eye. A perfectly situated nod to pop, something wild. Kappoww.
To be honest, I don't recognise these faces, their Agnes B and Hugo Boss. "Viola! The Inspecteur has kindly taken an hour off from the hot pursuit of little Matthieu Mont." People chuckle, someone pauses, then "Oh yes!" I am introduced to a group I may or may not have met in Strasbourg and we try discussing Nanterre as Renaud selects a minidisc. I watch the clock. "No offence, Corbeau!" Copkilling. He dances to the sofa, lays himself gently down across the headboard.
"None taken." I actually laugh but it evaporates, and the rest of the room begins to evaporate, then Paris evaporates itself away, as everything does - only that sofa stays real.
A satchel toppled under her calves; barefoot, pink sweatshirt and combats; a just-begun Vingt Ans questionnaire; Anne's eyes but slightly darker, and her chestnut hair to a tee. Features - more pronounced but still focusing - would eventually be stronger. At certain angles, this is Anne. She looks up slowly as I approach. I take in the amplitude of her face, open and more inquiring. But Anne, mainly.
"Pretty, no?" Renaud lets a finger stroll down her back. I watch the girl make a face, roll her eyes and ssst. "Four months off her sixteenth. It's too long - the boys are trading tickets. No no I turn them back. She's not ready." The girl props herself up on an elbow, seemingly enraptured by this story. "You must wait. Wait. Let me reinforce that pute ceiling - for soon it will be boom bang boom all through the night. Eh?" He reaches his hand across her back but she tips her things away and scatters from the room in seconds.
With Renaud cracking up behind me, I watch her turn sharply onto the stairway and - for the briefest moment - before she tackles it three steps at a time, I think she looks at me. A blush has taken her cheek, her lip is bitten and I think her eyes say something stronger than I could ever have expected from any child. Like 'I hope you remember this'. Or something.
"This is not how I would introduce my daughter."
"Oh, Inspecteur. Come. I will open your eyes."
He leads me to a large desk, lowers an anglepoise across a moonscape of monochrome ropes and hogtied curves. "From our most popular release this season. Japanese." He whispers, tracing a finger across a gag. "Beautiful."
I turn off the light and leave him there, laughing.
I sit on the sofa, Anne is late. I take another wine and stare at the ceiling. The television is on but down. I stare at the ceiling.
When I look, the girl has returned to the room. She is wearing a soft, orange pyjama set, backs into a curl beside me. Before I can speak, she brushes her damp hair away and rests her head against my shoulder. My fingers flex, I flinch. She lays an arm across my belly - which I pull in so instinctively it forces me to groan audibly. Still groaning, I scan the room. No-one seems to have noticed her arrival, except Renaud. He is rocking cigar smoke, casually, into the air, narrowing an eye over someone's shoulder, and I'm sure I see him manipulate a smirk into 'Boom. Bang. Boom.' - but he has so quickly slipped back to contribute something to the collective anecdote, it could be my imagination.
The girl sighs, repositions herself restlessly and I am held by her smells - shower gel, baby powder, cinnamon gum.
"Are you really going to save the brainiest kid?" She looks up at my mouth, places the tip of a finger on my chin.
"Yes," is all I can reply, and even this is a struggle.
I worm an eye down at her: she is pursing her lips and making strange noises with her tongue and teeth. "I practice kissing," she confesses, buried against my chest. "Look!"
She starts gnawing a thumb knuckle, pecks it with a glazed expression. "I'm not very good."
"No you are not!" I announce somewhat abruptly and this startles her - she can feel me begin to pull away from her, underneath. I look back, worried I will see her starstruck. "You are exceptional," I change my story. "The best." I wonder what this girl wants from me. "Listen. Stop kissing. Do well at school. Take a solid job. Invest somewhere sensible. And not in love."
She sighs, sits up as I feel a need for more wine. "I'm going to die," she suddenly opens her mouth wide and I look down her throat, patched with blue about the tongue and teeth. "I eat pens."
I don't really understand why I did what I did then, but I placed a hand around the back of her neck and tipped the glass of wine into her throat. Her initial reaction was laughter, then she looked worried, struggled to stand but I gripped her, dropped the glass and covered her mouth. Cupped my hand. Spit. Swallow. Sorry. She pushed me. Pushed herself onto the carpet. I cowered, trying to pick her up, she screamed.
"Jesus Christ!" Renaud and some others were wrestling me to the floor when Anne walked in. I swung at him, someone inverted me, almost comically, over a Louis Quatorze footrest and I swiped a vase into the air. As I scrambled to my feet, another tried to pin me down by sitting on me. I limped out and held myself, back to the wall, as the girl fled up to her mother's arms.
"I'm so sorry." I move towards both of them, my funky shirt twisted like a straightjacket, but the circle of guests threaten me with their fists, a chair.
Lights. Cameras. Action. It all goes wrong. Dutronc takes it in the guts, a bloodbag bursts through his back and I watch a red mulch shower the carpet. He falls. I catch him, retreating. Another shot splits past my ear.
I throw us both, with a camera twist, through a bedroom door. Dutronc's been hit. Repeat!
I open the window, look out. A chopper up there, on the roof. We are fifteen storeys above the Paris projects.
We're coming in. Stay back. Cover the boy.
The last I saw of the boy he was clutching his way through a suitcase full of francs, staring round a wall of bongs at his own rescue taking place on television, laughing nervously at Dutronc and myself.
The shooting stops, someone knocks off the sound system, the bedroom door is nudged apart with a Nike. crrrkk. All I can see is a poster - The Clash, Sandanista. Dutronc isn't moving on the bed.
"Hey, Harry Potsmoke here spilled some scary beans about the franc. Says they're fit for nitch from now on in."
The bedroom is half-stripped of wallpaper, just the concrete hutch it is. People live like this. A hand holds out a revolver and I become suspicious of the theatrical way it is dropped off a finger. He comes through with two hands raised.
"Hey Jim, what say you and me get outta Paris spoonfed, both eyes lifting up a nurses skirt in the old folks home. I'm a family man, Jim."
The entry is batonned open in a second, the kidnapper rolls as tear gas flashes past and it's backdraft billows up the corridor. Move Move Move! The Floor! Boots.
Barricaded uselessly, serious kicks start clapping the bedroom door off it's hinges. I angle my gun at him, finding my feet.
"Shit Jim. Nice doing business."
Shots. Voices. fade
New Year's Day. I'm writing my Christmas cards a week out of date. I haven't had the time. I take another from the box, turn a page in my address book. They're quickly bought, these cards. A cabin, snow, a robin.
Men assume that women know. That's their problem. They stop saying I love you. I'll do one for Madame Burgalat. Lots of love, Corbeau. Take it down in a moment.
I watch tv - just to see the brainiest kid, sitting there in his hospital bed. Smiling away over the top of some Goethe. Freak. But Paris dances. Being "treated for shock" by his English doctor.
"What's an English doctor doing in Paris?" I remember asking her in the ambulance. She looked at me like that was a chat-up line. I'm not even sure if it was.
"Who was that woman, Corbeau?" Madame Burgalat croaks, her peanut-sized eyes swivelling, pleading with mine. I pass the card and kiss her cheek, a special kiss with a free grrr inside.
"You know what kind of kiss that is?"
"Yes, yes," she turns away. "A 'shut up' kiss."