Read The Stiff Upper Lip Online
Authors: Peter Israel
The Stiff Upper Lip
I didn't see her coming the first time.
It was one of those fluke-warm days Paris sometimes gets in the fall, when the jeans suits come back out of the closets and the yellowing leaves don't know which way to turn. By eleven in the morning the air was heavy with exhaust and the white sun stung your eyes even through your shades. I was headed for Le Drugstore on the Boulevard St. Germain, where they stocked my brand of pipe tobacco. I'd just bought the
at a kiosk and had turned to the Personals column on the back page when she came flying into me, full tilt.
Like I say, I didn't see her. One minute I was thinking about Bobby H.; the next I was full of hat, arms and legs, shopping bags. I did smell her, though. It was one of those expensive reeks only the alchemists at Paco Rabanne know the secret of. Then I was picking our debris off the sidewalk. One of her shopping bags said Charles Jourdan, another DorothÃ©e Bis. A third, a tote of soft black leather, had no name at all. She too was wearing the jeans outfit, but her pants were huggers stuffed into high-heeled black boots that came up past her knees. Some white lace frilled out of the jacket collar, and a black Spanish-cowboy hat that tied under the chin topped off the effect, which was pretty stylish, if you go for the style.
Je vous demande pardon
,” I said, chivalrous to the end.
She took her bags from me. Dimples formed vertically in her cheeks and her teeth flashed white.
“Do you do this very often?” she said.
Her English was impeccable except for the telltale
sound which got into the
. Her tone was amused, more come-on than put-down. Before I could come up with a rejoinder, though, she'd turned and set sail up the boulevard, shopping bags swinging, the black hat tacking and luffing in the crowd.
No, I didn't follow her. The thought only crossed my mind.
The ad in the Personals column of the
any information concerning Robert Harcourt Goldstein, 24, called “Bobby H.,” last known whereabouts London July. Amsterdam-Paris August, call collect Paris 322-44-63.
It had been running all that week, and not only in the
but the Rome
, The Athens
, and assorted other Old World message centers. The idea had been to blanket the continent, and if all it had produced so far were three collect calls, two of them crank and one from a Rome detective agency that offered to join the hunt, well, it was the only one that had brought any response whatsoever. The Paris sleuthery I'd subcontracted the job to had drawn a blank as well. Which was only understandable when the last known trace of Bobby H. was “Amsterdam-Paris August,” but Robert Richard Goldstein, called Bobby R. to differentiate him from his son, hadn't been in an understanding mood when I'd talked to him last, which was by transatlantic hotline. Bobby R. had wanted results on Bobby H., not explanations, and he'd wanted it for about a hundred dollars' worth of tirade. Maybe that's the way it is, being a father, when you suddenly wake up to the fact that your number-one son and heir went out to lunch a couple of months ago and never came back.
I filed the
in the slit of a trash bin and went into Le Drugstore, where I joined the queue at the tobacco counter.
“Euh-rhan-morh,” I said when I got to the head of the line, this being how you handle “Erinmore” in French. “
Deux, s'il vous plaÃ®t
The girl at the counter reached behind her for two fifty-gram tins. I also ordered up a carton of box matches. The girl at the counter did the addition and I reached into my jacket pocket for my wallet.
And came away empty-handed.
I checked the rest of my pockets. Nothing. I checked the morning in my mind: bath, shave, dressing, breakfast in the hotel garden. In between
, I remembered picking the wallet up, plus car keys, loose change, fresh handkerchief. The keys, change, and handkerchief were still there. But not the wallet. God damn.
Je vous demande pardon
,” I said, for the second time that morning. The girl behind the counter flashed me a short but contemptuous look, then put her hand out over the tobacco tins and turned to the next customer.
“May I, Mr. Cage?” A long jean-sleeved hand reached elegantly in front of me, a hundred-franc note folded between the index and middle fingers.
I caught a gust of Paco Rabanne.
Undoubtedly the hundred francs belonged to me too, because she was holding out my wallet in her other hand.
“Do you do this very often?” I said. “I mean, picking pockets?”
This was across the boulevard at the CafÃ© Flore. We'd gone inside to escape the pollution on the terrace. It was cool and empty inside except for a few regulars reading the newspapers over their coffees, and she ordered a kir, which to my mind is a hell of a way to treat white wine, and I my usual Glenfiddich.
“Whenever I need to,” she replied.
“For pin money?” I said, gesturing at her outfit.
“No, not for the money. Only when I need to impress someone.”
“Well, if you ask me, it's a hell of a strange way to impress people.”
“Perhaps that depends on whom you're trying to impress, Mr. Cage.”
“Oh,” I said.
Our drinks came and she watched me over the rim of her glass while she sipped. I watched her back. She'd pushed the hat back onto her neck, revealing a goodly mass of light-brown hair, all of which was upswept except for two ringlets which descended by her ears, as if by accident. Only the ringlets weren't an accident. I don't suppose anything about her was. She was made up in that careful no-make-up way, except for the slash of red across her mouth and some subtler fancywork around the eyes. And younger than I'd have thought, now that I had a good look. And, much as I dislike the distinction, there was something markedly upper-crust about her, in the voice tone, the firm set of her chin, and that general pardon-my-glove confidence that comes only from generations of looking down at the rest of us mortals.
“O.K.,” I conceded. “Say I'm impressed. Now what can I do for you?”
“You can hire me.”
?” I said. It had come out perfectly matter-of-fact, like she was asking me for a match.
“That's right. Hire me. I'm looking for a job.”
“Well, Miss â¦ Miss â¦”
“Well, Miss Merchadier, I'm sorry, but I've got no room on my staff for another pickpocket.”
She laughed at that, complete with the vertical slit-dimples and the white rows of teeth.
“Oh,” she said then, smiling at me quickly, “I have other talents too.”
“I'm sure you do, Miss Merchadier, but â¦”
“ValÃ©rie,” she said. “My friends call me Val.”
“All right, ValÃ©rie. But there are dozens of outfits in my business in Paris. Why me?”
“Because I picked you.”
“If you did, then you got some wrong information about me. As far as my operation's concerned, two's a crowd.”
This was true enough. For better or worse, the closest I'd ever come to employing anybody was an answering service, and that was several seasons back in Santa Monica, California. It turned out she knew all about Santa Monica, California. She also knew about a lot of things since, some of them none too savory. I didn't like that overly. In fact, it annoyed me no end: the idea of somebody doing that complete a job on me without my spotting him. All right: without my spotting
“That's where you're wrong, Mr. Cage. Maybe it made sense in America to operate on your own. Though I wonder. But in Paris it's outmoded and foolish. You need organization in Paris, organization and connections. With them, you can accomplish wonders. Without them â¦? Look at it this way: even the Lone Ranger had â¦ had â¦ what was his name, the Indian?”
“Tonto,” I said.
I didn't like, either, listening to people telling me what was wrong with my
“I'm sorry,” I said, “but I'm not the Lone Ranger and I don't need a Tonto. I'm happy with things the way they are.”
“Sure,” she said mockingly, “running a lost-and-found service for overfed Americans.”
I'd never laid eyes on my latest client myself. Maybe Robert Richard Goldstein had a weight problem at that Else she was talking about Americans generically.
She reached down into her black leather tote and pullled out a copy of the
. It was folded down to the classifieds on the back page, and one of them was circled in black ink. She dropped the paper onto the table.
“Once upon a time,” she said, “you would have found him in your lunch hour. Now you're reduced to running advertisements and splitting your fee with other people. This is Paris, Mr. Cage, over here you're like a fish out of water. What's more, the police have their hooks into you, and, as I understand it, if you're not a good boy they're perfectly capable of throwing you back where you came from.”
This too was true enough, as far as it went, but it was scarcely common knowledge. I liked to think I had a hook back into the French Law, that it was a stand-off, but it was also true that the scrape she'd referred to had been an ugly one, and that I'd come out of it with only my skin. And true, finally, that ever since, my bank account and my
had been on something of a collision course.
None of which I enjoyed being reminded of.
“Just supposing,” I said, semi-curious, “that things are as tough as you say they are. What makes you think I could pay you a living wage?”
“I told you,” she retorted, “I don't need the money.”
“Then why â¦?”
She slit her dimples at me again, then drained the last of her concoction.
“For the same reason as you, Mr. Cage. The kicks. For the money too, when it's there. But the kicks.”
“You mean you'd do it for free if need be?”
“I didn't say that. Not at all. But I'd work for a percentage.”
“A percentage of what?”
“Of our profits.”
A part of me hated to disappoint the lady, but only a small part. I scraped my chair back.
“I've a feeling you've got a pretty wrong idea of what my line involves,” I began. “But in any case, I've no need of â¦”
What she did then, though, stopped me in mid-sentence. There wasn't much to itâshe just narrowed her eyes a little, fixing me with them, and at the same time licked her tongue across her upper lipâbut there was no mistaking her meaning.
“As I said,” she added with a slight husk to her voice, “I have other talents.”
“I'm sure you do,” I said, repeating myself too. “But I'm not interested.”