'Christmas Presents' - a Simon Ellice story by Rod Humphris
16 December 2020
It doesn’t snow often enough in Paris. Perhaps it doesn't snow often enough anywhere now, but in Paris on Christmas Eve, it should be snowing. I looked at the hazy flare of one of the street lights and imagined I could see particles of precipitation falling past it, but it didn’t work. It was cold enough though; cold enough for snow and cold enough for hanging about outside in thin-soled shoes to be a second best option.
The lights of the Café Belles Nuits on the other side of the Boulevard St Germaine from the tree I was standing under were white, blue and red, like the flag, and it looked like a haven of many good things. I made myself wait another thirty seconds and then I took my phone from my pocket and checked the time. It was time.
I let a taxi pass and then trotted across and arrived at the gap in the plastic screens that shielded the section of pavement under the wide red awning from the cold and the hoi polloi. A uniformed functionary was hovering with the intention of intercepting me and directing me to a table, but I looked past him, appeared to recognise whom I was seeking, nodded to him perfunctorily, and passed inside.
It was a lot warmer and the air was swarming with the smells of good tobacco, the kind of food that would rather live well than die old, and French people and the scent worn by French people. I cut through the swell of diners and conversation, regretfully bypassed the bar, and went through the swing doors to the kitchen as if I owned the place.
The palace of stainless steel and focused culinary warfare was as intensely busy as I expected. A waiter passed me bearing three plates and a cry of “Bourges!” Everyone was moving, talking or shouting except one man, the man standing calmly by the door between the walk-in fridge and the sinks watching me. He wasn’t that big, but then he wasn’t that small, and his face hadn’t got that way through a lifetime of playing with kittens.
“Perdu?” he said, raising his chin and looking at me as if at an insect.
“Le patron,” I said, and looked at the door behind him.
“Putain, idiot,” he said, smiling. “Fuck off, English.”
“Partington,” I said, smiling at him. “Part-ing-ton. Got it?”
“Part-ing-ton. Dis 'Part-ing-ton' au patron. Vite, s’il vous plaît.”
“Uhhu.” He grunted and unclipped the radio on his belt.
A commendably brief time later I found myself in the presence of the patron. He looked quite a lot like his photo. His hair was dark, except at the temples, but he hadn’t shaved and his stubble was grey. He ignored me and looked at the contents of my pockets which were on the red leather desk. My hotel key-card, my phone, my knife and my wallet.
Two of the three men who’d brought me up the backstairs, along the corridor and through the high olive-painted wooden doors into the fine, high-ceilinged room, stood one either side of me and the one with the face went to stand behind him.
The man I’d come to see, went through my wallet, which didn’t tell him anything and then took my knife in his fingers, opened it and tested the edge of the blade. Then he shut it and looked at me. “What do you want, Mr Ellice?” His voice was tired and regretful, as if all this was an unnecessary waste of his time. He sat more upright and used his left hand to pull first one side, and then the other, of his fine blue wool suit over the waistcoat that was buttoned tight across his slim body.
“I represent someone,” I said. “Someone who would like to buy Partington.”
“Oh, Partington. What is Partington, Mr Ellice?” His left hand stopped moving and pressed against his body, as if to comfort him.
“No idea,” I said. “Partington B, apparently. Not C or D, but B. Partington B. Does that mean anything to you?”
“Non.” His shoulders dropped a little and he put both hands on the desk, fingers touching.
“Oh, that’s a shame. I will just have to tell M Dulac that he was mistaken.”
“Oui, Dulac. M Honore Dulac. Citizen Privé de Paris.”
“Citizen Privé…” clearly the thought had struck a cord.
“Mon oncle,” I said. “By marriage.”
“I see. Allez-vous-en,” he said, looking at my guards. “Have a seat, Monsieur Ellice.”
I pulled up one of the velvet upholstered painted wooden chairs and sat.
“You would like a drink, perhaps?”
“Thank you. That would be kind. Uncle Honore says that you have a little of the Hine?”
“D’accord. The Hine. Henri,”
The man behind him unclipped his radio.
“The 29, I think he said,” I said.
“The 1929 Hine Cognac?” the man looked at me as if I’d just crapped on his carpet.
“But, not if you are saving it.” I shrugged.
“Of course.” The man waved a hand at his thug, who spoke in rapid French into his radio. “Now, tell me, Mr Ellice, how does someone like the Citizen Privé come to believe that I might have this Partington thing?”
“Oh, that’s easy. I asked him who in Paris would have it and he said, you.”
“You asked him? And you are…?”
“Me? I work for the ministry,” I said. “Naval intelligence is the label on the tin.”
“Asked me to pop over and have a chat. You give it back and we don’t take it personally, that’s the general idea.”
“Non. If I had such a thing, or knew of its whereabouts…” his hands took hold of each side of his jacket again and pulled them together, as if to keep him warm, “…there would be expenses…”
“To assure your discretion, you mean?” I said.
“Discretion can be valuable,” he said.
“I am so empowered,” I said. “Within reason, of course.”
“Of course.” He picked up his slim gold pen and carefully wrote a figure on the pad in front of him and then turned it around.
“Euros?” I said.
“D’accord,” he said.
“Half that,” I said. “Half that and the other half for whoever sold it to you. Just a name, that’s all.”
There was a tap at the door.
A tallish blonde woman in the waitress’s uniform of the Café Belles Nuits came in with a silver tray bearing an old looking wax-sealed bottle and two medium balloon glasses.
“Monsieur?” she said, dipping a slight curtsy.
“Versez,” he said. He looked at her for a moment, as if he expected to recognise her, but didn’t.
“Monsieur.” She put the tray down and felt about in the pocket of her apron, apparently in vain.
“Use mine,” I said, looking at my pocket knife, which was still on the table.
“Merci, monsieur,” she turned to look at me and smiled, her grey eyes dancing with happiness.
“Quickly, girl,” the man said.
She opened the knife and began to carefully cut away the wax from the top of the bottle. When that was done, she picked up the bottle, turned to one side and blew across it, blowing away the crumbs of wax. We all watched her.
“It is quite pale,” I said, looking at the bottle.
“That is because it is old,” the man said, as if to a stupid Englishman.
She carefully pulled the cork and poured half an inch into each glass. She gave one to the patron and then one to me. I swished mine about a bit and then sniffed it while he watched me. It smelt like tobacco, spices and a touch of the muckheap steaming in the summer sun. I took a sip and found it finer than I expected; delicate and lingering.
“Magnifique,” I said.
“D’accord,” he said, as if I had spoken the obvious.
The girl had placed the bottle on the table and now she moved towards the thug with the face, still standing grimly behind his boss, and lowered her head as if to say something privately to him. He inclined his head in her direction to receive it.
Instead of words, he received the sharp end of my knife through his right carotid artery. She stepped back to avoid the spurting blood and he put his hand over the place, causing it to spray upwards and downwards, instead of straight out.
“Quoi…?” I went straight over the desk, knocking him and his chair over backwards. His hand was trying to catch the handle of the desk drawer, but missed.
When we landed, I was going to hit him, but he just lay there looking at me, so it didn’t seem worth it. I searched him and found only keys and two phones, one in a trouser pocket and one in his waistcoat pocket, and a wallet. I flipped him over and checked the small of his back and down by his ankles, but he was unarmed. I took a handful of his jacket and dragged him over to the wall and sat him against it. He didn’t seem inclined to do anything for himself.
“Fucking hell, Si,” Sam said. “Do you notice it’s always me who does all the work?” She had picked up one of the brandy glasses and was grinning at me.
“Yes, Sis,” I said, returning her grin. “But then you’re better at it.”
“Damn bloody right, I am. Get what you want?”
“Dunno.” I emptied out the man's wallet on the table. Everything in it was paper-flat and of no use. One of the phones looked like a phone. The other one, the one from his waistcoat pocket, looked like a phone, but didn’t have a camera lens. I poked it and it offered me a lock-screen. I held it up to the man’s face, but it didn’t unlock, so I started trying his fingers. When I tried his left index finger, lo and behold, it opened.
I swiped for a search box and typed, ‘Partington’. A folder appeared and inside that, several hundred files. Bingo.
“What is it?” Sam said, looking over my shoulder.
“No idea,” I said. “Don’t really care either.” I found settings and hunted about. The phone, if that was what it was, didn’t seem to have a sim-card in it, or any way to connect to wifi, or whatever.
I perched my bum on the desk, sitting so that I could see the man on the floor, and Sam leant against me and put her arms around me. I put my arms around her. She felt as strong and as familiar as she always had.
“Fucking hell, Si, it’s Christmas tomorrow,” she said.
“Happy Christmas, Sister,” I said and kissed her.
“What’re you going to do?” she said.
“Got to go,” I said.
“Sure. But I’ll be back.”
“Better fucking had.”
“Suppose I’d better tidy up around here.” She reached out a hand to open the desk drawer and extract a 9ml automatic. “Then perhaps we’ll have a little party.”
“Yes, I know. Say hello to him for me.” I thought about the square-jawed
Neapolitan I’d met in the Pyrenees. “Is he in the bar downstairs?”
“And several of the others. This is our place now.”
“Well, happy Christmas.”
“Thank you for the present.” She kissed me again.
“And thank you for mine.” I held up the not-a-phone. “Now, give me my knife back.”
It was time to make a move so I got up and went over to the man on the floor.
“Sorry about this,” I said. “But I’m going to need that finger.”
Outside, it was colder because of the warmth inside, or just because it was colder. But it still wasn’t snowing. I waited for a taxi and used my phone to text Bill, ‘got it’.
When a car answered my raised hand, I got in the back and said, “Orly.”
Because I’d turned my phone on, it rang. Mum.
“Darling. Where are you?”
“Coming, mum. I’ll be there.”
“Really. I’m coming now. And tell Dad, I’m bringing some nice brandy.”