The cafe girl, p.1

The Cafe Girl, page 1

 

The Cafe Girl
 


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The Cafe Girl


  THE CAFÉ GIRL

  By Ian Loome

  Copyright 2017 J.I. Loome. This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, please purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

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  1…

  When the end came for the family of Bernard and Marguerite Distin, just after eight o'clock on August Thirty-First, Nineteen Forty-One, it was in the form of a loud and terrible spectacle, shocking everyone in the community.

  It was most unexpected. From the pavement, the Distins' two-story stone house with blue shutters on Rue des Gravilliers was elegant and stately, but unadorned enough to be passed unnoticed. Everyone in the neighborhood knew it well, and the family that lived behind the black front door with the gold knocker.

  There had never been trouble in the home, or the slightest incivility, and the tiny front yard was always immaculate. Behind its wrought-iron front gate, a short paving-stone path was flanked by a handful of topiaries in bulbous, abstract shapes. In the first few hours after darkness fell, a single lamp shone through the living room window and confirmed that it was still occupied.

  Since the beginning of the war, the family had been reclusive, inconspicuous in the neighborhood, though they still attended Mass every Sunday. Times had been hard for them; and when the worm turns, people talk. But to the best of anyone's knowledge, they remained a respectable staple of Paris' Tenth Arrondissement.

  The day passed quietly across the city, a day without protests or arrests, and storm clouds drizzled rain in an overcast pall of early evening grey. Inside, the home was warm and cheerful, and they held back the approaching curfew by gathering together in the familiar comfort of the living room. Its furniture was old, with dark green fabric and a formal pattern that stood starkly against multi-hued throw rugs on the hardwood floor and splashes of color from the oil paintings on each wall. The home's owners, the recently retired Bernard and wife, Marguerite, relaxed with their son Kristof, a thin man with a wispy beard, while daughter-in-law Claire -- a tall, pale woman with honey-brown hair -- put five-year-old granddaughter Genevieve to bed in the spare room.

  The youngster was exhausted after a morning of home study and an afternoon berry picking in the country, followed by pie and tea with grandma. She yawned and stretched as her mother finished tucking her in. But Genevieve still insisted on a bedtime story and she held raggedy little Hercules the Bear tight, a look of doubt on her face as her mother recounted the stuffed animal's latest amazing adventure.

  In a world less governed by pragmatism, Hercules might have had a sunnier backstory, one more in keeping with childhood. It might have been something about toy bear picnics, with fairies and leprechauns along for good measure. Or it might've been something about a land where little girls are always princesses and stuffed animals come to life as their best friends.

  Instead, Hercules the Bear bravely battled the forces of evil every night between seven and seven-thirty, always saving his friend Lena, the Giraffe, and always victorious.

  Hercules represented everything Claire and Kristof loved about life in Paris before the war. It had been Claire's idea after Genevieve began to ask about the blackout curtains. As far as the little one knew, Hercules guarded her at night; when Hercules needed to embark on an adventure and help someone else, the curtains kept out the darkness and let them sleep safely until he returned, always before sun up. The family turned out the lights at nine o'clock each night, in anticipation of the power going out, before drawing the impenetrable shades over every window. They relied on candles if anyone needed to see. Life was like that now, a near-endless series of compromises and explanations, in order to shroud a child from reality.

  'And was Hercules laughing?' Genevieve asked, holding the top of her blankets tight as he mother stroked her fine brown hair. 'How could he... how could he hear when she was talking when... when her mouth is so high?'

  'Well, bears are like most animals in that they have exceptional hearing,' Claire said. 'So they can walk side-by-side and still hear each other very well, even though Lena is so tall.'

  'But...'

  'Now that's enough for tonight, little one. We shall continue this tomorrow. Goodnight my love.' She kissed her daughter on the forehead and pulled the cover up higher. 'Sleep tight.'

  'Goodnight mummy,' Genevieve said.

  Claire rose and began to walk to the door.

  'Mummy...'

  'It's bed time, Genevieve...'

  'Mummy, why does everyone hate the Germans?'

  The young former teacher cursed inwardly but maintained her radiant composure. 'It's best if you don't think about such things.'

  'But...'

  'No buts! It is a worry for grownups, not little girls with wonderful days ahead of them. My mother had a saying she liked. She would say, 'We need to let the world go the way it goes.'

  'What does that mean, mummy?'

  'It means that things always change, given time, if we are patient. Now go to sleep.'

  She closed her daughter's door and headed down the corridor to the living room. At the doorway, she paused to watch her husband and in-laws quietly reading. She stood with one arm folded over the other and a vaguely satisfied look on her face. For all of the year prior's challenges, they were together. And that was what mattered most.

  As with most families in Occupied Paris, the Distins had neither the resources nor the inclination to venture out after the work day. They had been a family of substance once, before politics and the shifting tide of war in Europe relegated Bernard to unemployment, forcing his son-in-law to move in and support him. The patriarch had learned the importance of shifting goals, and the humility to find satisfaction in the day-to-day, such as spending time with their grandchild.

  And so as she slept, they enjoyed each other's company silently, with Bernard -- a large man with a large head and grey-silver hair -- in his favorite plush armchair by the fireplace, while Marguerite knitted in her corner wingback, and their son and his wife read books quietly, side by side on the sofa. The only sounds were the rustling of turning pages and the monotone ticking of the mantle clock, which sat not above the fireplace, as one might expect, but at end of a book shelf along the back wall.

  Occasionally, Bernard would glance over at his wife, a subconscious procedure, checking to see if she was all right. And of course, she always was. Her hair had turned silver-grey but it still cascaded down in curls the way he'
d always loved. The grey stood out against the dark eyeglass frames, making her seem more serious than when she was younger. Marguerite had been their rock in the year past, which had seen Bernard dismissed from the bank due to fraternizing with socialists; coupled with his family's history of left-wing politics it had been made clear that he was no longer welcome. But none of it had given her so much as a moment's pause in expressing her love and support. He felt confidence in the small smile that rested on her lips as she worked the knitting needles. She was so resilient; she'd lost her parents and her brother in the Great War, and had had to take care of her siblings. Perhaps that was it.

  After the firing, he'd questioned his own decisions, his adherence to principle. He'd wondered if diplomacy would have been the sounder course of action on matters of public trust; if he had looked the other way...

  But that was the past. The bank and his executive life had been forcibly retired, and it had been through no fault of his own, save perhaps for his perspective on what constituted decency.

  Any time he'd fallen to doubt, any time he'd begun to lose hope or a reason to fight through the changes brought by the Occupation, Marguerite had been there to help him marshal the necessary courage.

  He smiled and thought about how things had improved in the months since Kristof and Claire moved in, how Genevieve's presence warmed all of their hearts. It was not enough, he knew; he needed to find a job eventually, even at his advanced age, something that wouldn't break his back but would still contribute; and he had no illusions that it would be easy. But for the moment, it was calming to think of them all there together, happy and healthy. Sitting there, with the newspaper spread between his hands, it felt almost as if the war did not exist.

  There was a hammering on the door, three wood-shaking pounds of a fist. They looked at each other, instantly sharing the same notion: that it sounded urgent, like police or soldiers, or someone in need of immediate aid. 'Bernard...' Marguerite began to say.

  'I shall handle this, don't worry.' Distin's family roots in Paris went back to the time of Charlemagne. They had been bankers, politicians, statesmen and poets. He was a man of stoic gravity when required, a serious man. He lifted his aging bulk from the chair and with slippered feet made his way to the front hallway. Distin did not consider himself an important person -- any such delusion could be dispelled by current circumstance-- and he couldn't fathom why anyone would need to see him on ...

  The door shattered inwards, showering the entryway and Distin with splinters of wood. The dark-grey clad soldiers burst in, screaming in German and French, yelling for everyone to get down, 'Unten auf dem boden! Schnell! Rester a meme le sol!'

  Distin did as he was told and lay face down as the soldiers streamed into his home, their boots thudding upon the hardwood floor. In the other room they repeated the command and Marguerite quickly complied. But her son and daughter-in-law were panicked, frightened, looking for another way out. Claire was frail and nervous, and her terror was pronounced. A soldier thrust his MP40 submachine gun into Kristof's face, the young academic flinching backwards. 'Unten auf dem boden! Sofort!' Get onto the ground, immediately!

  They both dropped to their knees and put their hands behind their heads.

  The officer entered the room last. He wore the familiar dark grey and patent leather black hat of the Waffen SS, with the death's head pin its central feature. He was a small man, no more than five-feet four inches, with a pencil-thin black moustache and blue, beady eyes behind wireless spectacles. He approached Claire. 'Stand up,' he ordered.

  She complied and he stared up at the former teacher, who was at least five inches taller. Then he reached out and grasped her chin between his thumb and forefinger, tilting her head in either direction as if inspecting her for damage. She pulled away.

  ' You are Claire Distin, born Claire Gemmel, September the Nineteenth, Nineteen Thirteen?'

  'Yes?'

  Kristof rose and stood in front of her, his arms splayed to each side to block them from her. He looked every bit the graduate student or teacher, with his brown wavy hair pulled back in a small ponytail. 'What do you want?' he demanded.

  'Step aside, monsieur. Claire Gemmel, you are under arrest in accordance with naturalization commission regulations for the management of undesirables. Your family records reveal that you are a Jew and, as such, an undesirable. As an undesirable, you were required to wear the identifying marker, a yellow Star of David. You have chosen to not do so. It is the decision of the government that you shall be confined until further notice at a labor camp within the vicinity of Paris. Do you have anything to say with regard to the charge?' Then he repeated to the young man, 'Step aside, I say!'

  'But... I am not Jewish!' she declared. 'I am a Catholic, as was my father, and his father. I am not... I swear it!'

  'You are a Jew.'

  'You are mistaken, sir.' She shook her head, distraught.

  'Your mother's parents were Jews. Your grandfather was an Ashkenazi Jew from Kitzheim, and a diamond merchant in Paris, as well as a teacher of Yiddish to young students. That your mother converted does not matter under the regulation.' He nodded to his soldiers. 'Take her away.'

  Two of the guards moved to grab her by the arms. Kristof would have none of it. 'No!' he screamed, shoving the nearest soldier back, then another. 'Leave her alone, you bastards!'; The third began to raise his rifle, but before he could bring it to eye level, there was a pistol retort, a loud crack that made the prone Marguerite flinch.

  The officer slowly lowered the still-smoking Luger. The bullet hole was perfectly round, a scarlet dot just above Kristof's eyeglasses, and blood immediately began to pour from the wound. The young man's eyes lolled upwards in a moment of final shock and despair, and he stumbled forward, his arm reaching out and grasping for air as he fell, finding the small amethyst broach on his wife's lapel, the pin giving away with his weight as he collapsed to the ground, the broach tumbling to the ground beside him.

  'Noooooo!' Claire screamed, dropping down next to her husband's prone body, trying to cradle him with her lithe frame; Bernard watched from his prostrate position as the soldier yanked her from his son's body with one hand, then threw her roughly onto the sofa. A colleague held her while they handcuffed the lithe woman. They pulled her to her feet, then dragged the bereft, weeping figure out of the small home and to the street as she kicked and fought and screamed to be with her dead husband.

  Marguerite's breath was shallow, ragged; her right cheek rested on the cold wood floor, her eyes scanning the room on its side; she saw her son's body, his gaze vacant, the pool of blood growing. She remembered him in that instant as a small boy, just three years old, in his first long shorts, playing with his teddy, his smile wider than the sky. Her heart broke, and she realized she would never talk to him again, never hug him. She began to sob gently.

  Bernard and Marguerite did not move as the soldiers finished their work and left, with the front door in pieces and their family destroyed.

  Before either could rise, their granddaughter emerged from the back room, her teddy bear in one hand as she rubbed her eyes, looking around for her mother.

  Marguerite felt her heart begin to break all over again.

  2....

  Damien Giraud felt foolish.

  He was, after all, a Parisian of some fourteen years. As a police deputy divisional superintendent, he knew the city well. Not as well as when he was a patrolman. But he still felt at home in most districts.

  And yet his bicycle was not where it was supposed to be.

  He'd been unsure about leaving it chained up in the heart of the city. But it was clearly marked as a police vehicle. He assumed that no one would touch it. It was not, however, chained to the bus stop sign pole as he'd expected. He was certain he'd been in the Fourth Arrondissement when he spotted the sneak thief. He gave chase on foot, knowing he would not have time to unchain his ride. But the man was fit and resourceful. The pursuit went on for blocks. A helpful resident tripped the th
ief with a carefully placed foot as the man ran by. Then a squad car passed, and a call in clarified that the man was wanted on multiple warrants at the Eighth Arrondissement prefecture. They rode up together. It made sense, given that Giraud would have to help write the arrest report.

  As paperwork tends to do, it took several hours. He gratefully accepted a ride home to his apartment in the Tenth, intent on returning to Rue Rivoli the next day to retrieve his bicycle.

  A handsome man with thick black hair, an angular, bony face and a long Gallic nose that was obviously once broken, Giraud was neither tall nor strong but was always well dressed -- his black leather shoes shined to reflection, his navy blue cape unwrinkled, his navy policeman's uniform pressed crisply, his circular-topped Kepi hat free from even a speck of dirt or dust. Like his late stepfather, he maintained a small, thin, neatly trimmed moustache. He felt himself a cautious man, and prone to exactitude.

  But apparently, he was either incorrect, or it had been stolen. He had to admit to himself that he wasn't certain he had the correct street. He'd been daydreaming when he'd locked it up, with two glasses of lunchtime wine in his stomach. He'd wandered over to the beautiful garden square, Place Des Vosges in Le Marais, a well-heeled neighborhood. He'd smelled the flowers then strolled a few short blocks to a cafe for a beer. Then, while sitting on the patio, he'd seen the sneak thief snatch a shopping bag and the chase was on.

  Now the bike was gone. His two options were simple: he could report the theft, and suffer the requisite embarrassment, or he could assume he'd simply misplaced it and hope it was actually true. If so, a foot search of the area would turn it up.

  Eventually, the search had turned to wandering. It was, after all, his day off. And Giraud loved to wander; he loved to discover new kiosks and merchants; he loved to try new coffee shops to see if they had the real thing. And most of all, he liked to watch the faces of the other people and to try to guess their story.

  And for the most part, the residents of Paris in the fall of Nineteen Forty-One appeared as they had before the war: full of joy and heartache, and well-lived lives.

 
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