Authors: Russ Rymer
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #Thrillers, #General
Copyright Â© 2013 by Russ Rymer
All rights reserved.
For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10003.
The Library of Congress has cataloged the print edition as follows:
Paris twilight / Russ Rymer.
For Susan, at last
Before the old wound dries, it bleeds again.
'M NOT SURE HOW
to explain this, why I am writing to you, you of all people, and writing to you now, except for the simple circumstance that the rain has chased me into this place and does not appear to want to let me go, and here in my confinement all I can find in my purse to occupy me are a pen, a nail file, a piece of paper: prisoner's tools. I'm ignoring the file. Daniel, I need a witness, and there's no one else to turn to. Can you imagine how many witnesses we have lost by now, you and I, how little sense it all makes, those ancient awful dramas, with no one around to remember how splendid they were? Oh, how I have hated you! And now you are back on my mind because of the Brahms. And before that, I suppose, the train ride in from the airport. It was snowing. The winter this year was
, as they call it here, and that afternoon was too. With the flurries and the overcast, the day seemed hours ahead of itself, and reminded me of that other train ride, so long ago, when we had decided to go back into New York despite the blizzard, the fields and the Connecticut estuaries slipping by us, the snowflakes curling bright against the windows, your head in my lap. I see now, sitting in this dreary-day cafÃ©, how unmoored I was becoming even so early on, just off the plane, with the onrush of dark and the RER hurtling me toward this city where I have none of the things I know to grab on to to keep my mind from wandering. So, of course, the Brahms and the train. And also, I confess, I'm emboldened by the knowledge that whatever I set down here you will never read, that I will never know your thoughts. Such comfort! You see, Daniel, that after all, you have left me safe at last.
It was a Thursday, that afternoon when I got in. I deserted the train at Gare du Nord, and, pushing out with the crowd onto rue de Dun-Â kerque, I was tempted to try to walk it, even with the weather, but I had the bags, and I didn't want to arrive all soggy and sad and middle-aged in some terrible cold, grand lobby. They were putting me up at the ClairiÃ¨re. Anyway, my day was hardly over; they'd scheduled me for an evening meeting, which I dreaded, if only because Willem would be there, and I was nervous about seeing Willem. So I caught a cab, shards of war news on the radio as we swerved our way through town. In the deserts of Arabia, Western armies were gathering to drive Iraqi legions from Kuwait. From the news accounts emitting from the dashboard, the first pitched skirmishes were being fought right here.
L'HÃ´tel la ClairiÃ¨re de l'Armistice, when we reached it, was as monstrous as I'd imagined it would be, one of those push-pull places full of servile staff and imposing dÃ©cor, all this uncomfortable comfort, walnut and crystal and that grotesque white furniture trimmed in gilt that always reminds me of dental work, or naval uniforms. My room wasn't ready, of course. I dumped my bags on the concierge, and the martinet at the check-in desk (his humility had been honed to a murderous edge) scrutinized my passport and refused my credit cardâ
he sniffed. Already settled. It was almost as an afterthought (though with a world of forethought devoted to his gesture) that he handed me the message, just as a voice behind me boomed, “Mademoiselle.” I stuffed the envelope into my purse with the luggage receipt.
The accent was clearly Anglo, and I responded with all the mademoisellian coquettishness my fifty years could muster. “Why, sir,” I said, “you flatter me.” I meant it as a quip, but really I was bracing myself. It's a reflex. Whatever was approaching, I wanted a stance to handle it. Of course, at the same time, I knew exactly who to expect, whose familiar Anglo accent I was hearing, and I turned and we embraced. My first thought was
My, he's prospered!
âdo you remember what a skinny guy Willem used to be?âand then immediately I was reminded of my own prosperity and grew self-conscious. After a few seconds of squeezing the life out of me, he held me out at arm's length with locked elbows and a hand on each shoulderâwhy do men of a certain stature think women enjoy being grasped like a lectern?âand gave me
: you know, this tight-lipped side glance full of rue and fondness that's supposed to add up to the gaze of enduring love. “My God, you haven't changed a bit,” he said, intoning, and I shot him my expression of enduring dismissal, and he said that, well, we could head out whenever I was ready.
I checked myself over in my mindâwas my travel attire really presentable? My travel face?âand I heard myself babbling that he really hadn't needed to pick me up at the hotel, I could easily have caught a cab, that we could leave right away, why not, since I couldn't check in yet. We stepped out under the porte-cochÃ¨re and he helped me into the back of a long, dark Mercedes that slid up to the curb and gave the driver a destination. I thought:
His first honest sentence
. On the way down the boulevard, he ventured another, more quietly. “Thank you for doing this, Matilde.”
“You're very welcome,” I said, and, after a while, “I don't call a paid month in Paris much of a sacrifice.”
“It's an exorbitant amount of time,” he said. “Maybe five weeks, we still don't know.”
“Well, I told you when you called, you're not exactly dragging me away from anything.”
He looked at me slightly mystified, as though I had answered a question about something else.
I had thought the ride would be a short one; that's generally how things work in such arrangements, proximity being at a premium. But we headed down the boulevard to the highway and out of the city center into the neighborhoods of some inner
. The traffic, at first, was more clotted even than I remembered it, even for late on a weekday afternoon. Willem leaned over the seatback to inquire.
,” the chauffeur answeredâhe was an Algerian, Willem would later inform me, whose name was DrÃ´letâthe protests
“contre la guerre.”
The snow flurries had abated, and as soon as we escaped the city, the roads cleared of other cars. A small village flashed by, and another and smaller one, and then we were on a winding country avenue passing the walls of enclosed estates, until finally the Mercedes turned up a pea-gravel driveway that led through the lawns of a large old chateau. Former chateau. It was a hospital now. There were no indicators of such, no glaring emergency bay, no
signs lining the road or speed bumps on the drive, and no name on the art-nouveau beveled-glass door, but it was irrefutably a hospital. With a little practice, you can smell them a mile away.
There was a small lobby inside the beveled glass, but no public waiting room and no records window staffed by admitting nurses, only a stocky, efficient, daunting woman in a silk dress and sensible heels sitting behind a table who half stood when the door opened and then relaxed when she saw Willem and nodded us wordlessly toward some double doors. The doors gave a click when she reached beneath the table, and we went through into a hallway.
Inside, things were brighter and more antiseptic, but hardly less sumptuous. Willem felt my gaze on his cheek, or sensed my raised eyebrow, and saidâdid I imagine he was chuckling a little?â“Come along, you'll see,” and we caught an elevator up to the top floor, the floor you needed to use a key for the elevator to reach, which Willem produced from his key ring, and then he ushered me down another hallway into a small, book-lined conference study where a dozen or so men were milling about, eating little sandwiches and sipping coffee. As we entered, a quiet fell, and all of them simultaneously moved to put down their plates.
“Hello, gentlemen,” Willem said as we bustled in, and he steered me past the crowd to a man standing out of the light and modestly apart, and introduced us.
“Professor Anselm,” the man said to me, softly. “I'm honored.”
“Mr. Sahran,” I said back, hoping I'd caught the pronunciation right. He was a trim man in a quiet suit, shorter than me and maybe younger, late forties or so, aristocratic in his bearing and with an extraordinary limpid gentleness in his gaze, though it was the sort of gentleness you would never want to cross. I took him to be a consul or envoyâhe was one of those men tightly coiled within their composure whom you rarely run into anymore outside the foreign service, but what on earth (I reminded myself) did I know about the foreign service? I couldn't help feeling that if he was honored, I was obscurely in peril.
“We are very grateful that you are able to take this on,” he said, and his eyes probed mine for an exploratory second. “I trust you had a nice trip? Your accommodations are acceptable?” he asked, and when I answered the rhetorical pleasantry with a rhetorical nod, he answered my answer with a little smile. “Good,” he said, and it was understood that some contract had been efficiently negotiated and signed.
“Well, Dr. Madsen, I leave all this to you.” Sahran shook Willem's hand, and then mine again, with a slight, quick bow of the head, and left the room, and two other men in cheaper suits left with him.
The subsequent hour was a ritual, more or less standard, of putting together a surgical teamâthe wrinkle being that this team was so very disparate and each of us so very new to the others, except for a couple of the Pakistanis, I guess, who knew each other, and Willem and myself, of course. And of course there were the other anomalies, which were glaring, but I thought I would hold off asking about those until the ride home, when I would have Willem to myself again. Papers were handed out, and introductions were made, names and degrees, but without, I noticed, current affiliations. Willem asked some pathology and peri-care questions and addressed a few hematology concerns to the perfusionist, the man who would run the heart-lung bypass machine, and turned to me when we got to my role in things. Matilde Anselm, I told the group, and trotted out the insta-CV. No one had warned me to edit my history, so I let them have it, or the bones of it, at least, skipping over the unpleasant stuff, the Singleton business, starting with Bryn Mawr undergrad and continuing through post-D at Sloan-Kettering “with postâDoctor Madsen” (no smiles from the group), all the way to head of cardiothoracic anesthesiology at St. Anne's in New York until a few years ago. Teaching since (I didn't say
since the unpleasant Singleton stuff
). Currently on sabbatical.
Willem thanked me and cued up a couple final members and then gave us what amounted to marching orders. “As you see, you are among an exceptional group of professionals,” he said, “but what we're here to do is nothing more than a routine procedure, albeit in exemplary fashion. We have ten days minimum before the operation, and probably several weeks. But you should be as entirely prepared as if it were happening tomorrow. Whatever you need to do to familiarize yourself with this facility, do it immediately. Dr. Mahlev here is your coordinator. He has schedules for each of you to come in to checklist your equipment and go through your protocols. Whatever you need, ask him. Be thorough. Remember, there is no backup; it's all on you. This is the last time we will see one another
until we meet over the patient. You've each been given a telephone number. You must call that number twice a day, wherever you are, so that you'll know when you're neededâ”