There is a light tapping at the door of your hotel room. You approach the door, somewhat hesitantly, and ask, “Yes, what is it?” No answer, just a scratching sound outside in the hallway. You open the door, carefully, and a man slumps into your room, almost across your feet. He looks up at you then, pain written in his face, says, “The pawn ticket is in my breast pocket. Don’t let them see you. Pick up the lamp, take it to Grunwald before Friday.” He sags to the carpet, face-first, dead. A quick search of his pockets turns up the pawn ticket, a pocket watch with “To Andre” inscribed on the back, and a strange key. What’s going on here?
Man at the Door
I looked down at the dead man, and remembered. I hadn’t recognized him at first; it had been too long. Andre and I had been on many missions together, from Algiers to South Africa, to Mozambique, even to the killing grounds of Argentina, and we had cheated Death. Now, Death had brought him to my door. Poor Andre, my friend, my helper, and yes, almost my brother. Why had he not called out to me from the hallway? Was he trying to protect me, at the last?
I looked again at the pawn ticket. I recognized the name of the street – it was near the wharves of Marseilles, in the bad, dark section of a bad, dark, international miasma of a city. I knew I had little time left to grant my friend’s last request, his last demand of me. I stepped into the hallway, carefully, and picked up the phone there. After a moment’s delay, I whispered into the mouthpiece. Someone would come for Andre’s body and see that it was tended to. He wouldn’t have wanted an elaborate sendoff; we gave up all those niceties when we chose the path for our lives. I hung up and stood there, listening. Had someone been listening? No matter, he wouldn’t learn anything of Andre nor I from that short phone exchange, and Andre was beyond caring.
I stepped out, into the dark Rue Michel Gachet, then moving carefully from shadow to shadow I made my way toward the jumble of old warehouses at the port. I knew that the pawn shop was likely to be open, even at this late hour. The seamen who wandered the streets there would need to be served at all hours for their needs. A drink, a lady for the evening? All required cash, no promissory notes taken.
I stood in a doorway, watching the entrance of the pawn shop. After half an hour I ventured quickly across the cobbled street and into the dim recesses of the store. Amazingly, old Auguste was still there, still cheating the sailors who hadn’t heard of his reputation.
Auguste eyed me suspiciously. I was too well-dressed to be here, in this place at this hour. I made the sign, discreetly, and his face relaxed. I stepped closer and silently placed the pawn ticket on the grimy counter. He put on his equally grimy glasses and peered at the number on the ticket. He came around the counter, squinted up at me and said, “So, you’re the one. I wondered who might come to claim it. Do you have the 2,000 francs? I cannot operate on charity, you know.”
I gripped his throat, one-handed, closing my fist, trying to make my fingers meet at his spine. He gasped, made strangling noises, and struggled, trying to get free. At the last possible moment, I turned him loose, watched him collapse to the floor. After a prolonged bout of coughing and wheezing, he gasped, “I am sorry, don’t do that again, I’ll go get it. Wait here.” I glared at him, then said, “I believe I’ll accompany you.” He nodded, with resignation.
I followed him to the rear of the dusty mausoleum where he kept his small treasures. He stopped, pointed up to the top shelf, said, “There it is. Either you reach it or I’ll have to get a stool.” I brought down the old lamp, wondering briefly about its intrinsic value. It couldn’t have commanded much of a price, but then again, it wasn’t really about the lamp itself, was it?
I nodded my head toward the front of the store, then followed the old man, making sure he didn’t have any little surprises arranged for me. If there had been a ruffian there, I’d likely have smelled him, but everything seemed alright.
We paused at the counter, where I grabbed up an old shawl there, his, probably, and wrapped the lamp. I fished out a few franc notes and threw them down. “Take these, and be happy I let you live. I may be back.” He drew back, as if he thought I might attack him again. Then, I made my way out, still with a wary eye on the deep shadows. These street lamps must have been installed a hundred years ago, and they put out little light.
Grunwald, yes, I remembered the name. He ran most of the waterfront, had his fingers in everything, squeezed the lenders, the pimps, even had leverage on the gendarmes in this arrondisement. Grunwald would not accept excuses, wouldn’t accept less than promised, and was merciless in his punishment for those who displeased or disappointed him. And, yes, I looked forward to confronting him again, after all these years. I quickened my pace; no need to delay the inevitable. It was Friday morning, almost time for someone to pay the piper. Time for someone to discover the purpose of the strange key I now had in my pocket.
* * *
Now, on this peaceful morning as I enjoyed my coffee and croissant, I idly watched the passers-by at Chez Madie les Galinettes. A perfect day, a perfect resolution to the problem of Grunwald. His men would never trace the messenger, the newspapers wouldn’t whisper anything of the affair because of fear of retribution by his replacement. I smiled as I envisioned the look he must have had on his face after I had delivered the lamp. The look he had, briefly, as, alone in his room, he turned the key, then heard the ominous click from within the lamp. Did he have any inkling of doom? I think not, he was just too greedy.
Perhaps another croissant. Yes, perfect.