Rain slashed the taxi as it pulled in front of Maxim’s. The doorman waiting there looked like a hit man, Willi thought. Or perhaps it was only shadows. Perhaps that crooked smile as he helped them from the cab didn’t really conceal a merciless cutthroat. In the right light, half this town looked ready to knife you. Under the wildly flapping awning Willi clutched his two young sons by the shoulders, wanting them near. As the white glove ushered them past, Willi got a whiff of the muskiest cologne he was certain he’d ever smelled around Paris, an almost overbearing scent.
Inside the art nouveau temple Bette Gottman inhaled as if entering nirvana. “They haven’t changed a thing.” Her eyes roamed the soft-lit paradise of colored glass. “It’s like coming home.”
Her husband, Max, taking off his trench coat, didn’t miss the irony. “Something like that. I’m just grateful we all made it.”
From what they knew of those still in Germany of course, he was right. Refugees though they were, they were the lucky ones. If only Willi didn’t feel as if he were one of the walking wounded.
It had been six weeks since he’d fled Berlin, slipped across the border with barely his life. But the euphoria of freedom and family reunion had faded to dark uncertainty. The trauma of his violent uprooting refused to fade. Though he tried to conceal it, from his sons especially, he felt something vital, irreplaceable had drained from his being.
The rest of them had been in Paris six months already and had had more time to adjust, as Ava’d pointed out. “You’ll revive,” she’d promised. But Willi was less certain. He felt too much had been cut away—his past, all he’d worked so hard to achieve, all his dreams for the future. Glad though he was to recapture even a hint of the old world tonight, he understood it was only that—a semblance. They were stateless exiles around this table at Maxim’s, with no prospects of returning home.
Across from him Max Gottman, the family patriarch, normally so levelheaded, was growing irritable by his inability to differentiate between Sole Albert and Timbale de soles Joinville. His wife Bette, certain timbale was some sort of mold, didn’t want him sick again and insisted he bypass it despite the waiter’s assurances the mold was not an organism but a baking dish. Willi couldn’t stifle the impression that although they’d slipped past the Nazis with their wealth mostly intact, his in-laws, with only a slightly better grip, were hanging on by their fingertips too. Should they apply for citizenship in France or try their luck in Amsterdam? Should Max rebuild Gottman Lingerie? He was fifty-five. There was opportunity in South Africa, they’d heard, but whom did they know there? For all the money, their bewilderment and isolation went unmitigated.
“I remember the night Leopold II dined here with the Maharaja of Kapurthala.” Bette’s older sister Hedda gazed about through opera glasses. Having married a Frenchman and been in Paris since before the war, she functioned now as a sort of oblivious hostess, as if the German side of the family had arrived on some prolonged holiday. “Or was it the Aga Khan? How much more elegant everything was back then. It’s gotten rather tawdry, I must say.”
Willi stared at the menu, unable to keep the beaux arts lettering from appearing to drip toward his lap. From the moment the Nazis took over in Germany he felt as if he were having a nightmare from which he couldn’t awaken. Now, dispossessed, lost and adrift, it seemed he’d surfaced in one of those bizarre surrealist paintings so popular in Paris these days: everything in a familiar world misplaced or melting.
How wrong he’d been about so much. The republic. The Germans. The triumph of justice. Until his family photos came crashing to the pavement along with the rest of his belongings—courtesy of the brownshirts—he would never have believed a gang of criminals could become the law. And that he, his country’s most famous detective, would have to flee like a thief in the night. In Germany, a mere flash of his badge had been enough to command respect. Now he had nothing. Not even a driver’s license.
Off the death list thankfully, he was anything but free, burdened instead with all he’d lugged along from Berlin: the grief and despair, the fear and outrage. Images that wouldn’t quit haunting him. Three years at the Western Front hadn’t seemed as bad as three months under Hitler. And yet, how he missed the flashing lights along the Ku-damm. The rattle of the S-Bahn. The frantic whirl of Potsdamer Platz. His heart burned to go back home, though his head knew there was no home to go to.
“I’ll have Coeur de filet de Charolais Renaissance,” he heard himself trying to sound alive. “And for the boys, Crêpes veuve joyeuse, s’il vous plaît.”
He’d arrived without papers, passport, money. His French luckily was decent enough, although there was no mistaking his accent. And even luckier, he had a well-to-do ex-father-in-law. The day he’d shown up at their apartment in the swank sixteenth arrondissement, after many hugs and kisses from his sons and his sister-in-law, Ava, and her mother, Bette, he was pulled aside by Max. “If it hadn’t been for you, we’d be paupers now, Willi. So don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. And stay with us as long as you want. There’s plenty of room.”
The first ten days he’d had no choice. He was too deeply in shock to make any decisions. He’d spent half the day in bed. The boys loved having him around. Sometimes Stefan would climb under the blankets with him. But the strain of putting on a smile for everybody was too much. He was up to his neck in despair and not a good enough actor to fake it. As deeply as he loathed having to abandon his sons again, he had to find his own place, he knew, at least for now. They had a better life with his in-laws than anything he could offer.
“I understand, Willi.” Max nodded. “You’re a proud man. My wife and daughter think too proud perhaps. But I admire you.”
The kids had other feelings. “Why can’t we live with you?” Stefan, the younger, whined unashamedly. Erich, the older, had kept his eyes down.
Willi explained as best he could. Before he could take care of them, he had to be able to take care of himself. Establish his legal status. Earn a living. He didn’t mention regain his sense of worth or trust in humankind. They’d lived apart in Berlin since Mom died he said, so they’d have to stick it out a bit longer. They were comfortable at Grandpa’s, weren’t they? Aunt Ava was like a mom … even nicer sometimes, right? They were doing well at school. Making friends.
“It’s all I want,” he reassured them, taking Erich’s chin and making him look up. “For us to be a family again.”
This wish alone got him out of bed each morning because rebuilding his life felt otherwise impossible; he didn’t even want to try. He feared the boys were too young to understand how badly injured he was having been thrown out of his homeland, and that the longer they stayed apart, the harder it would be to bring them together. So he mustered whatever strength he had and put a first foot forward.
Clothes. He’d arrived with only what he was wearing, and a useless Berlin police badge in his pocket. Ava insisted he had to look good in Paris, French not German, so she dragged him to the finest shops, arguing with him always to get more. Then she helped him hunt down a furnished room. He was fine with the first one they saw, near the Porte Saint-Denis.
“A five-flight walk-up?” She’d frowned unhappily. “And so small. Willi, you don’t have to sink this low. You heard what Dad said.”
But low was exactly how Willi felt, and the dark apartment overlooking one of the ancient gates of Paris was as good a place as any to crawl into. Accepting only what he needed from Max to pay the first month’s rent, he moved in with two full suitcases and flopped onto the mattress to try to figure out what the hell to do next.
Stranger in a strange land.
Like all refugees he was required to register with the police, fill out endless forms regarding finances, work history, political activity. In ten to fifteen weeks if all went well, he’d receive a short-term work permit, at which point he could apply for the Right of Domicile. Unlike Germany, France based her citizenship on residency not race. The land of liberté, égalité, and fraternité had room for all who wanted to come—so long as there was a labor shortage. To tide him over until he could legally work, officials suggested he try HEAL, the Hebraic Emergency Assistance League.
Established by his Parisian coreligionists alarmed at the sudden influx of what had been Europe’s most assimilated Jews, the league offered not only financial assistance but much needed job referrals to refugees of Nazi Germany. The thought of having to make use of such a charity made Willi want to jump in the Seine but he couldn’t just sit around waiting for official permits.
“I’ll check and see if there’s anything in your field.” He was interviewed by a redheaded fellow with sympathetic brown eyes, Levy. “Unfortunately you’d never be hired by Paris police unless you were a citizen. Tragic I realize, considering your credentials. But if you’re desperate for something right away…” Levy’s voice lowered. Making it clear this was off-the-record, he’d slipped Willi an address.
It proved a ramshackle building in immigrant Belleville, a Jewish-owned firm that specialized in the manufacture of ladies’ fur-trimmed garments. They took Willi on as a “finisher,” no questions asked, and taught him the job in fifteen minutes: sewing glass eyeballs onto snouts that dangled from fox collars. All day, vacant gazes stared up at him. How similar they were to those he met each morning in the mirror. By the end of the first week it felt as if he’d been born with a needle and thread in his fingers. By the end of the third, it seemed he’d die with them too. He was used to being out in the field, meeting new people, doing different things every day. Working in an airless, gloomy workshop full of depressed refugees felt like a fate worse than death, live entombment.
Then ressurection, or so it seemed: a call from Levy at HEAL. A private investigator with an office near the Place de la République could use an extra hand, he said in a tone indicating what a stroke of mazel this was. Willi should see the man Friday, ten.
Right on time this morning he’d knocked at a door on the fourth floor of a building on boulevard Voltaire. Henri Gripois looked like a walrus on a crash diet, pants, face, mustache, everything drooping. His tiny office smelled of mustard. A framed license was on one wall, until a battered filing cabinet and old wooden desk, a small pile of papers and a framed photo of his wife on it, her features surprisingly fine. He was terribly happy to see Willi, he proclaimed, because he’d taken on more work than he could handle. Of course, he understood Willi was far too qualified for the job. Monsieur was a famous detective. Nevertheless, if he was willing to stoop a bit …
Willi wasn’t even sure he wanted to be a detective anymore. He sure as hell didn’t want to be buried alive in a factory the rest of his life sewing eyeballs onto fox snouts. But the conviction that used to drive him so hard each day, that everyone deserved justice in life, was in tatters.
This assignment, as Gripois explained it, shrugging his sunken shoulders, was not terribly glamorous. It was downright pedestrian after all Monsieur had done in Germany. It simply involved following a young man enrolled at the polytechnic institute, he said, taking out a photograph of Phillipe Junot, a typical-looking student if slightly pudgy faced: round tortoiseshell glasses, stringy hair, pink, heart-shaped lips that gave him a little cupidlike expression. His parents wanted to be certain he was doing what he ought to, not caught up in any distractions plaguing so many French students these days, politics and the like. Hardly cloak-and-dagger, the private eye chuckled ruefully.
And damned depressing, Willi’d thought. He’d risen to the top of his field in Berlin, had a staff of detectives working under him, cracked some of the most heinous cases on record there. Now, here he was being offered a junior detective job following some schoolkid. But according to Gripois, this family was well-placed and, if things went well, had friends in high positions who could be useful in expediting immigration, not only for him but his family. Willi took it. Whatever was necessary to enable them to stay, he would do.
Now, however, far from the mustard-smelling office, surrounded by his family and the opulence of Maxim’s restaurant, he was starting to feel foolish. What kind of parents had their son followed? And what kind of detective agency did this Gripois run?
* * *
“Could that be who I think it is?” Aunt Hedda fixed her glasses like a skilled bird-watcher. “What a sighting!”
Willi looked across the aisle, spotting the pair of glamorous patrons at a nearby table, a handsome man in an apricot necktie chatting with a long-legged woman in a backless cocktail dress. The bright-colored necktie should have looked ridiculous, Willi thought. It would have in Berlin. But this man wore it with real savoir faire.
“Adrienne and André Duval.” Hedda’s glasses plunged triumphantly. “Even better looking than in Paris-Soir.” She seemed compelled to take another peek.
After a pause to camouflage her excitement Bette Gottman asked who they were.
“Something to do with municipal bonds,” Hedda chirped through a mouthful of caviar. “Anyone able to scrape together a dime puts it with Duval.” She pecked at her fingertips. “It’s a positive mania!” Her eyes glittered at the deliciousness of it all.
Max made clear he knew all about the man: “A phenomenon for years. Jewish fellow.”
“Very handsome,” Bette added. “Isn’t he?”
Willi focused in on a gilded mirror to his left offering a full profile of the chap. Sparkling chandelier light seemed to cast a halo around him. From the alligator shoes to the emerald pinkie ring he looked quite the bon vivant. Thick waves of copper hair danced above a large nose and friendly gray eyes. His expansive gestures—smiles and hand motions, tosses of the head—would have been distasteful in Germany, signs of a need to impress. This Duval though seemed quite content in his skin. Willi found himself envying him. How assured he was. And affectionate with his wife. He hardly left her fingers alone long enough to let her eat. It was rather touching, Willi thought. Until in the mirror he caught sight of Ava, her sparkling eyes dark with criticism. What plumage these French manage to display, she seemed to be thinking. Everything to excess.
A shiver of bewilderment tore at his heart. The breach between them only seemed to widen, and he still wasn’t sure why. In the terrible times after Vicki’s death her younger sister was the closest he could get to the warmth of his cherished wife. When she took charge of Erich and Stefan, they all grew so near. Willi wanted to believe that they were destined to fall in love themselves and form a new little family.
After the Nazis seized power, though, he no longer felt like the same man. The faith he’d had in himself, in his perceptions and choices, even his own feelings, had been trampled. He had no idea anymore if what he’d felt those last months in Berlin was real or merely his trying to hold on to a world that was being torn away. No idea if he could provide for himself anymore, much less for anyone else. No confidence. So he withdrew. Every effort by Ava to bridge the gap only pushed him further away.
Sometimes he thought to just make a clean break. Let 1933 be Year Zero. Everything from here on in, new. But then he’d wonder, what about the boys? What would be best for them? And everything got hazy.
He glanced across the table. Stefan, nearly nine, napkin tucked eagerly into his collar, was narrating some epic to his grandfather about his day at school. Erich, eleven, was leafing through the wine list. For a moment he looked up, but as soon as he saw Willi, he turned back to the wine. He could be moody Willi knew—especially if the subject of Berlin came up. Erich had worried when he left he’d never see his home again, and Willi had chided him, saying it was only for a while. Now the boy seemed angry at him. For what? For not telling the truth about the Nazis? Or for not moving in with them when he’d arrived in Paris, taking his own room? Or maybe it was grief still for his dead mother. Three years wasn’t long. You never got over that sort of thing, did you? Then again, Willi thought, maybe Erich wasn’t even angry. Maybe Willi was projecting his own loss and despair onto his child.
“I think it’s time for a toast.” Ava finally brought up the occasion, throwing back a wave of chestnut hair. She looked lovely tonight, Willi observed. Her fine features and intelligent gaze glistened in the crystalline light, smart, regal eyes on the world. If only he could love her the way he had her sister. It would make life so much easier. The whole package so neatly wrapped. The kids fitting right inside.
“To my wonderful parents, Max and Bette Gottman.” All the champagne glasses rose. “On the occasion of their thirty-third anniversary.” Ava’s voice cracked with sudden emotion. As she looked around at them, her mother, father, Aunt Hedda, all began to tear up, the glasses in their hands trembling. When Ava’s eyes met Willi’s, he felt a little shock. An almost palpable glint of understanding seemed to reach across the table to him.
“Words can’t convey how much I love you all. Mom, Dad, may the rest of your years together bring the happiness you deserve.”
The glasses came together and clinked.
“That we all deserve!” Max insisted, then took a sip. “Come, give a kiss.” He leaned to Bette.
Tears were falling from everyone’s eyes now, even Willi’s, because it was beautiful to see Max and Bette kiss, and because they all missed Vicki so much.
“I thought we were supposed to be happy,” Stefan observed. “Why is everybody crying?”
“Never mind, darling.” His grandmother hugged him. “Adults can be such big babies.”
Across the aisle Willi noticed the maître d’ leaning over and whispering something to the man in the apricot necktie. The guy’s eyebrows rose, and as he looked up for an instant, his merry gaze collided with Willi’s, offering a flicker of what seemed real happiness.
* * *
In the men’s room before they left, Willi got a surprise when the same apricot necktie addressed him at the urinal. “Do pardon me. You’re Willi Kraus, the famous Berlin detective.”
“Yes,” Willi said, wondering if the guy expected him to shake hands while peeing. Such odd behavior, as so many things here were. Not that it felt bad to be recognized. It used to happen all the time in Berlin, but this was a first in France. Except Orsini. Which didn’t exactly count.
Two days after he’d registered for asylum he’d received a summons commanding him to room 602, Palace of Justice. He’d sweated bullets all night knowing that this was where the Paris police were headquartered. But was it a good summons or a bad? The next day he was amazed to discover room 602 was the commissioner of police.
Victoir Orsini was one of the most powerful men in Paris, his office a kingly suite overlooking Notre Dame. Behind a massive Louis XIV desk he sat surrounded by medieval tapestries depicting characters from the Old Testament, including, Willi noticed, one of the great Jewish queen Esther, radiantly beaming at her coronation. A porcelain clock on the desk chimed as Willi took a seat, its painted figurines commencing a waltz.
A short, barrel-chested man with a great hooked nose, the police commissioner was famous for his three-inch elevator shoes. “Herr Inspektor-Detektiv!” Willi’d been touched by the use of his former title, although he couldn’t exactly tell if it was a putdown. “Don’t think we’re unaware of you. We’re all terribly concerned about events across the border. More exiles arrive each day. Of course our economy’s not impervious to the worldwide crisis so it might not be possible for all to stay—but you are exactly the kind of refugee we like! A man whose talents could be very useful.”
Orsini had smiled in a way that made Willi feel he was about to be offered some plum position with La Crim, the criminal police. But a man with a tripod camera arrived instead and, in a blast of phosphorescence, took their photo together. It appeared in several late-edition newspapers that day with captions such as TOP GERMAN DETECTIVE FLEEING NAZIS EMBRACED BY ORSINI. Embraced, or manipulated? Willi wondered, furious when he saw it. Here he’d been trying to keep a low profile, and because of this egomaniac everyone in Paris knew he was here, including the Gestapo.
“You’re far too good a man to waste.” The commissioner had patted Willi’s back, guiding him to the door. “Don’t worry; you’ll be hearing from us soon enough.”
But that had been weeks ago, and Willi had a growing suspicion the interview was only a publicity stunt. Nothing got him more upset than being taken advantage of, and in darker moments he thought he might expect as much. As a schoolboy he’d been inculcated with all kinds of racial slurs against their neighbors across the Rhine, that French were liars, braggarts, hypocrites. As an educated adult he’d rejected such cultural stereotypes. Now though, living here and at their mercy … he wasn’t so sure.
“I’m a huge fan.” The man in the apricot necktie remained next to him at the urinal. “I’ve read everything about you in French. I’m a hopeless addict of crime magazines. It drives my wife insane. Everyone knows Berlin’s Kripo is the best in Europe, except for Scotland Yard. Here it’s all rather different; the police aren’t exactly up-and-up.” The man zipped his pants and joined Willi at the sink. “Might I invite you for a drink sometime?” His face gleamed with boyish anticipation. “You’ve no idea the thrill it would be to hear about your exploits.”
Willi wasn’t the type to enjoy being fawned over, but his parched ego stirred at this dose of nourishment. Besides, he told himself, accepting a towel from the chamber attendant, he wouldn’t mind gleaning what insight he could about the French police. And he couldn’t quite figure out why—he had a strangely fraternal feeling toward this fellow.
“Why not. Let’s have a drink.”
“Très bon!” The financier stuck out a hand. “My name’s André Duval.”
Copyright © 2014 by Paul Grossman