The Prince Of St. Germain
By Tom Brennan
Tom Brennan lives on the coast in Liverpool with his wife Sylvia and many cats. He writes mysteries and SF, and his short stories have appeared in Writers of the Future, Crimewave, StoryHouse and other magazines in the US, UK and Canada. His first mystery novel, The Debt, will be out in January.
Where the Rue De Grenelle crossed the Rue Des Saintes Peres and entered the Sixth Arrondissement, Marc slipped into a side alley and left the St-Germain-des-Prés tourist crowds behind. Ahead of him, the bar’s windows splashed greasy yellow light onto the pavement. Marc paused in the doorway and shook rain from his leather jacket before slipping inside.
“Coffee,” Marc told David, the barman, after their handshake. “And a cognac.”
“Business is good?”
Marc grinned. “Very good.”
And David smiled too, expecting a rare tip.
Marc sat at the zinc bar. He tapped out a cigarette from a blue packet and blew smoke up to the brown ceiling. When he crossed his legs, adjusting the creases in his trousers, his gold rings caught the light.
For a man whose work revolved around expensive Paris brasseries, Marc’s choice of the Bar Tabac Montparnasse as his favourite haunt seemed unlikely. The shabby bar had long since faded into a ruin of tattered chairs, tarnished mirrors, and sallow customers.
High in the corner, a television relayed ghosting images of a soccer match. An old man sat beneath it, sipping red wine and counting coins. An unshaven taxi driver scanned the sporting papers, his chewed pencil stabbing at horses’ names.
But Marc liked to relax here before an evening’s work. Not that he had to work, not tonight: he’d made enough money to give himself a few days’ rest. But it was a Thursday night and he didn’t like to break his routine. Like most men who trusted their fortunes to luck, Marc believed in ritual and habit.
“Coffee. Cognac.” The barman slid the drinks across the zinc counter. Light glinted off his bald head as he leaned forward. “So, tell me about it.”
Marc sniffed the cognac and smiled. “Twenty-one, blonde, with long, tanned legs, figure like a Playboy model. Big, heavy tits...”
David closed his eyes, seeing the girl. “American?”
“Dutch. I found her outside the Musée D’Orsay.” Marc grinned again. “Her first trip alone to Paris.”
“So you gave her the guided tour?”
“Sure: the Tower, Notre Dame, Sacré Coeur, same as always.” That was one down side to his job: the repetition. Marc had his fill of the city’s museums and attractions, but he had to appear enthusiastic, give the same performance again and again. Marc believed he earned his money.
“She had her own room?”
Marc mentioned a four-star hotel off the Rue De Rivoli.
David whistled. “You’re going up in the world.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll come back here to see how the little people are doing.” Marc gave a regal wave.
David staged a mock bow. “Sire.”
Marc retrieved a woman’s gold watch from his pocket; he had taken the watch, plus six hundred euros and two credit cards, while the Dutch girl had been in the shower. He’d sold the cards on within minutes, but still had the money and watch.
David held the stolen jewellery beneath the counter. “Good stuff, but you shouldn’t be carrying it around.” “I’m taking it over to Deynard’s now, see what the thieving bastard will give me.” Marc checked his temporary watch. “Time for work.”
“Looks like work has found you.” David nodded towards the front window.
The girl beyond the glass looked about twenty-five, with long, dark hair and ivory skin; she wore new, well-cut clothes straight out of the magazines. She studied the guidebook, frowning.
Marc hesitated. He should get rid of the watch, and a few other trophies, before he started out for the night. And he didn’t want to use the Bar Tabac for his work; what if she returned the next day with the police? As his dad had always said: you don’t piss in your own back yard.
But this girl was a gift - she might as well carry a sign asking people to rob her. It seemed too easy.
The girl decided for Marc by pushing the door.
“Good morning. Excuse me,” she started, in halting French. “I search for...for Saint Sulpice?”
David glanced at Marc.
“You’re quite close,” Marc said in slightly accented English. “It is only ten minutes’ walk. But it is closed for the day.”
“It is?” The girl switched to English. Her shoulders slumped. “It’s taken me all afternoon to find... Oh, well, thanks anyway.”
As she turned to leave, Marc said, “Wait - why not stay and have a drink? I could show you the way, so you could try again tomorrow.”
“I don’t know...” The girl stared at the bar’s worn interior, then at Marc.
He wore his work clothes: expensive grey slacks, polished shoes, new black leather jacket that grazed his thighs. Tight curls of dark hair sprang from the top two buttons of his silk shirt. He smiled at the girl and tilted his head a little to one side.
“Well, I could stay for one drink.” The girl smiled and sat beside Marc. “I’m Julie.”
“Enchanté, mademoiselle. I am Marc. What would you like to drink?”
“It’s early for me, but...red wine.”
“A glass of the decent stuff,” Marc told David, in rapid French, “not the usual shit.”
David reached for a new bottle.
“So, you are en vacance?” Marc asked Julie.
“On vacation, yes. I fly back home on Saturday.”
“And where is home?”
“Ah, yes. I would like to see America, one day. A beautiful country, I think.” Marc’s routine varied little from one night to the next, a mixture of flattery and sly interrogation. “You are here with family? Friends?”
“No, just me. I decided to treat myself to a holiday, now that I can use my fund.” Julie accepted the glass of wine from David. “Merci.”
“Mademoiselle.” David winked at Marc and disappeared through the bead curtain separating the bar from the back room.
“This is the first time I’ve been on the Left Bank,” Julie said. “I keep getting lost in these tiny streets.”
Marc was still thinking about the word ‘fund,’ as in ‘trust fund.’ “The city can be confusing.”
“Even for you?” Julie asked.
“Well, I grew up here; I take it for granted. But often I see lost tourists. It’s a pleasure to help them; you in particular.”
Julie blushed and sipped her wine.
“What is your favourite part of Paris?”
“It was the Tuileries,” Julie said, looking down. “But I’m starting to like the Left Bank more.”
Marc smiled and felt the glow of expectation. He forgot about taking the stolen watch to the fence, and concentrated instead on the girl’s almond shaped face and wide, green eyes. Automatically, he checked out the jewellery she wore, mentally adding up the street value.
This was going to be a good night.
Since Marc had worked the Right Bank the night before, and didn’t want to run into the Dutch girl, he took Julie on a tour of Left Bank ‘Bohemian’ Paris, showing her bars and restaurants once used by Joyce, Hemingway, Sartre and Camus. Where the original bars had disappeared, Marc selected a nearby substitute and lied fluently and convincingly.
Years before, Marc had discovered that self-confidence meant everything.
Over drinks and an early meal, Marc listened to Julie’s life story, from her secure childhood, with her father in aerospace, her mother in teaching, through high school and college. Marc smiled in all the right places and imagined following the curve of that neck with his lips.
When Julie asked Mark about his background, he repeated the usual story: father a successful businessman, mother a musician, his brother a doctor in the army. For Marc, study at the Sorbonne, a vague literature course that had started five years before and showed no signs of concluding yet.
Marc always described the life he would have liked, a kind of wish fulfilment. In fact, he lived in a single room in a bleak St-Denis council apartment block, sharing an infested kitchen and bathroom, sleeping on a bare mattress while his expensive clothes hung on the walls.
“So, you like this restaurant?”
“I do.” Julie looked at the bare walls, the sanded floorboards and white linen cloths. “It seems so French.”
“The owner, a friend of mine, is very proud of it.”
Marc knew the owner from home back in the Czech Republic, and the waiters came from Italy, Spain, and Russia. But the restaurant felt French. And Marc knew that, just as with him, only a true Parisienne could spot the fake.
“I suppose you bring a lot of girls here,” Julie said.
“Not at all.” That was true, anyway: Marc saved this place for well-dressed prospects like Julie. He looked into her eyes. “Only those I really like.”
Julie blushed, sending a wave of pink down her throat.
Marc’s pulse quickened but he guessed that the hesitant approach would work best. “Would you consider spending tomorrow with me? I would be happy to show you the city.”
“I’d like that, but what about the rest of tonight? I’m enjoying myself.”
“So am I.” The corners of Marc’s eyes crumpled together when he smiled, like a lizard in the hot sun. “Perhaps we could find a bar and have another drink?”
Julie thought for a moment, as if weighing her choices. Then, “My hotel has a bar...”
Marc let his fingers brush the back of Julie’s arm. “That’s an excellent idea.”
Despite Julie’s offer to go half, Marc paid the restaurant bill and for the taxi to her hotel. He saw it as an investment - he could smell money on Julie, a subtle scent that drove him on. They entered the hotel bar from the street door at the side of the lobby, and found a booth.
“I prefer privacy,” Marc told Julie. “Photographers, you understand...”
“You’re famous?” Julie’s eyes widened.
“My family has a long and eventful history. We’re lucky to have survived at all, after the Revolution...”
“You’re not connected to royalty?”
Marc waved his hand. “Oh, very distantly.”
“You’re, like, a prince?”
Marc just smiled.
“Wow.” Julie sat back in the booth. “I’ve never met royalty before.”
As they drank their cocktails, Marc tried to take it easy, and not lay the story on too thickly. He’d have to concentrate, soon, but the alcohol warmed his body.
“Are you in college tomorrow?” Julie asked, running a finger around her glass to produce a low, resonant hum.
“No, my time is my own.”
“Well, then...this bar is getting noisy, and we could have a drink in my room...”
“I’d like that.”
Julie smiled. “Follow me in ten minutes. Four-ten.”
Marc watched her walk through the doors leading to the hotel. Even with his years of experience, he was surprised sometimes by how easy it could be. Reaching for money to settle the bill, he found the Dutch girl’s watch; he’d have to get rid of that. First thing in the morning.
On the fourth floor, a short walk along the deserted corridor brought Marc to Julie’s room. He saw a tag hanging from the door handle, requesting two continental breakfasts for the next morning. He smiled.
As Marc went to knock, he saw the door already ajar. The room beyond looked clean and expensive, with corporate artwork on the walls, heavy carpets and drapes. In Marc’s experience, hotel rooms were interchangeable, but the bed in this one was large, and firm to the touch. Julie’s clothes had been draped over the top cover.
From behind the bathroom door, Julie’s voice cut through the shower: “I’ll be two minutes.”
On impulse, Marc went to join her in the shower, but decided to check out her belongings instead. He opened the closet doors to reveal two leather suitcases and a rack of women’s clothes. The squat metal cube of the safe clung to the closet wall; Marc would have to persuade Julie to open the safe, later, and to leave it open.
Maybe he could store the Dutch girl’s watch in there? He could say it was a gift for his...mother. He smiled. He liked using the stolen watch as leverage.
He shut the closet doors when the shower’s hiss faded.
Julie came out of the bathroom with one towel around her body and another around her head. Her left arm supported the towel across her breasts as she kissed Marc.
Marc started to undo her towel but she stepped away. “Why don’t you shower? I’ll warm the bed up for us.”
“I’ll soon do that.”
Julie ran a finger down Marc’s throat. “I like the feel of clean, soft skin...”
“Whatever you say.” Marc grinned and took off his watch and chains, setting them on the table. He removed everything except his silk boxer shorts.
“Take your time.” Julie stretched out on the bed.
In the shower, Marc relaxed beneath needle-sharp water. His hair and skin absorbed the hotel’s courtesy soaps and lotions. He laughed when he remembered the slimy shared bathroom in his apartment block.
After the shower, he towelled his body, enjoying the feel of the clean cotton and the anticipation that rippled through him. He wiped condensation from the mirror, smiled and winked at his reflection, then opened the bathroom door.
Although the room’s lights were off, streetlight slid between the drapes. Marc, arms outstretched, shuffled across the room until his shin found the bed’s hard edge. He stifled a curse and pulled the covers aside. “I thought you were warming the bed?”
Marc groped across the bed but found only cold sheets. He searched for the light switch and saw his discarded clothes hurled across the floor. His watch and chain had disappeared from the bedside table.
He jumped and from the bed and snatched up his clothes. He tore at his pockets.
She had taken everything. Marc’s own jewellery, the Dutch girl’s wristwatch, money, everything. Refusing to believe the truth, Marc emptied his clothes, upside down, but only dust drifted down.
He cursed fluently in Czech, then tore open the closet, grabbed a suitcase and threw it on the bed. Inside, the nametag said Herr Frederick Heine. Marc ripped handfuls of clothes from the open case. A man’s clothes, in shades of expensive black and gray. German labels.
The second case, Fraulein Heine’s, was empty, since the woman’s clothes were hanging in the closet. Julie must have had just enough time to stuff the man’s clothes into his case, knowing that Marc would check the closet and expect to see dresses and blouses. But where did she get the key to the Heine’s room?
Then Marc realized he stood naked in a strange couple’s room, with their belongings strewn across the floor. With his record, that meant two years inside, minimum.
He thrust his arms and legs into his creased clothes. Using a towel, he wiped everywhere he remembered touching. For a moment, he thought about going through the Heine’s belongings, to salvage something from the night. There wasn’t enough time. Besides, he knew that ‘Julie’ would have beaten him to it.
Marc reached for the door handle. He froze when he heard voices in the corridor; a man’s harsh syllables.
Even before the key slid into the lock, Marc dropped the towel, crossed the room and slid behind the drapes. Behind him, windows opened onto a narrow balcony. When he opened the windows, Marc a cold wind carried the sounds of Paris traffic that never stopped. Four floors below him, lights glittered on the hard, slick road and sidewalk.
To Marc’s left and right, the adjacent rooms’ balconies jutted out over the drop. When he leaned over at full stretch, his fingers just grazed the wet, smooth metal of the next balcony. Still hesitating, he heard yelling from the German couple inside the room.
He threw his legs over the waist-high metal rail and jumped out into space. For a moment, he hung suspended over the void, a hand on each rail, his feet scrabbling for grip.
He hurled his body over to the next balcony, clinging onto the cold metal and scrambling to safety. He knelt, gasping, on the concrete shelf like a climber on a rock face.
Beyond the glass doors and open drapes, a dark, empty room. The German couple would be right behind him. Marc searched for a way in. The glass was flush, with no handles on the outside.
Marc bunched his thick leather coat around his fist and punched a jagged hole through the glass. He reached inside and turned the handle. He stumbled through the unoccupied room in darkness and Marc listened at the door.
The corridor beyond seemed quiet above the hammering of his heart. He opened the door a fraction and looked out, then smoothed his hair and stepped into the light. The ten-second walk to the emergency stairs felt like hours.
As he slammed the fire door shut behind him, Marc heard the elevator open. A man shouted.
Marc took the bare concrete stairs three at a time, his scuffed shoes skidding. Ready to slam through anybody that got in his way, Marc plunged down the staircase. Suddenly, with shouts echoing above him, he found an emergency exit next to the loading bay.
Without any pause, he kicked the horizontal release bar and heard the fire alarm wail into life. He dived through the open doors, out into the dark, garbage-strewn alleyway. With the fire alarm howling behind him, Marc disappeared into the night.
When Marc walked in to the Bar Tabac Montparnasse, David looked up from behind the zinc counter. “Haven’t seen you for a while. What’s it been? A month?”
Marc shrugged. “Things have been slow. Coffee.”
David reached for a cup. “And a cognac?”
“Just the coffee.”
David nodded, realizing there wouldn’t be any tip today. “Not much out there?”
Marc shook his head.
“I thought this was your busiest time of year?” David slid the coffee across the counter.
Marc wrapped his numb hands around the cup. “Like I said, things are slow.”
As Marc gulped coffee, David said, “Michel saw you down the market, helping out on the stalls.”
Marc looked away. “It was just to earn a few euros, while things are quiet. It’ll pick up, soon.”
“Maybe it’s picking up already,” David said, pointing discreetly through the bar’s front window.
Through the glass, Marc saw a young girl in her early twenties. The open guidebook gave her away as a tourist, but the nervous, hesitant expression helped.
Marc looked at her for a moment before turning back to his coffee. “Maybe next time.”
David knew that voice. He’d heard it from trembling, punch-drunk boxers, from actors and actresses turned hookers, but only temporarily, of course: ‘until something turns up.’
As the girl walked away from the Bar Tabac Montparnasse, David smiled at Marc and topped up his coffee, free of charge. “Sure. Maybe next time.”
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