A couple of chapters from Not Exactly Allies:
46 – BERTIN GOES SEARCHING FOR CLUES
A few days later, Bertin Nason decided he was tired of sitting around hoping someone came up with information on the Arab boy’s murder, or on undercover communists of a latter-day mutant variety, or on the ambusher Jean Blondet, or any of a half dozen other matters nibbling away at his thoughts and his sanity and his sense of duty.
Bertin didn’t have much training in investigating, but he had a notion that information could be teased out of the sorts of people who relaxed in bars during the afternoon, when more respectable persons were at work. Unfortunately for this theory, he couldn’t be sure of having any of his afternoons free for the next month or so. So he took his theory a step further. If persons who lolled about of an afternoon were disreputable enough to know about horrible things, surely the folks who got started on their drinking before noon would be even more sunken and useful, especially if he caught them before they had drunk too much.
Complicating matters, he wanted a place with smoke in it. Obeying an impulse that had seemingly come from nowhere, but that had struck him as a good idea, he was trying to quit smoking. He’d borne his withdrawal woes manfully, but his resolve was wavering. To go somewhere with secondhand smoke would be a good compromise, perhaps, at least during the crisis of the first days, he reasoned. It wasn’t as good as making a clean break, but the agonies of quitting were proving worse than he’d imagined, and he was willing to bow to necessity, if a fellow wanted to look at it that way. Unfortunately, anti-smoking zealots had gone before him in the part of town in which he wished to nose around. He found himself searching, and searching, for a suitable place.
He stopped in front of an establishment that had one name painted on the window, another posted over the door. He grinned at the incongruity. It brought back memories.
He’d had an uncle who bought a hotel/restaurant in a third-rate resort area. The uncle had renamed the place, but never quite got around to removing the sign bolted above the front door. He’d said it helped business, since the locals would call it by the old name anyway and would likely make their referrals to tourists accordingly. And, besides, there were any number of outdated tourism books floating about, which would recommend the old place. And so on, and so on. Bertin laughed. The old sign had stayed because, in his uncle’s view of the world, to remove it was too much work. The new sign was a placard in the window because it was cheap.
The locals hadn’t used the old name or the new. By unspoken law, the place was called what it had been dubbed two generations back by the citizenry: Malbouffe’s. The word no longer meant bad food so much as merely fast food, but still, the name rankled. It was one of the hazards of buying a historic building, Bertin supposed. Sometimes it came with an insufferable nickname, if not a bad reputation.
Bertin’s father, who had laughed as hard as anyone at the Malbouffe moniker, had finally taken pity on his brother and commissioned a brass plaque explaining the long history of the building, and making reference to the valued artifact above the door, lovingly kept in place by the heritage-conscious new owners (or so the sign said). Overnight, Bertin’s uncle became a hero amongst history buffs who wandered through on tours. The neighbors had snickered and sneered. They could see nothing valuable in an effort to commemorate second-class efforts of second-rate dead people but, well, if it pleased the silly tourists, that only confirmed their opinion of silly tourists.
The uncle had a couple years of prosperity after that, before being wiped out by a flood. Life was like that, Bertin’s father had told him.
So, all these years later, in Paris, Bertin looked at mismatched signs outside what amounted to a French pub and they tugged at his heart. He looked at the establishment that belonged to the signs, and, overall, found it strangely appealing. He thought that he might not mind too much if persons who mistook individuality-crushing legislation for progress had beaten its spirit into the earth, and therefore the management did not allow smoking. It would almost be enough that the place made him think of his now-dead uncle.
He got a whiff of tobacco smoke. That decided it. This place deserved his business. Obviously. One must support holdouts standing up against the bulldozers of conformity. The future of France depended on its spirit, after all.
Bertin decided to get a feel for the place before he began his questions about likely murderers or bad blood between natives and immigrants. He pretended to be someone who was simply in need of a bite to eat and a coffee.
He stood at the bar instead of going to a table, putting himself close to a couple of likely looking down-on-their-luck types. He bought a cigarette off the man next to him, deciding that, after all, he wouldn’t settle for secondhand smoke, not now that he had decided that to smoke in public was a worthy act of defiance.
He was so obviously hungry for nicotine that it drew the bartender’s sympathy. “Wife doesn’t let you smoke at home, does she?” the man ventured.
“No, I’ve just been trying to quit, and haven’t made it yet. That’s all.”
“Whatever you say.”
“No, really. I’m not married, even.”
The bartender smiled. “New girlfriend, eh?” He raised his eyebrows playfully.
“Not exactly,” Bertin hedged.
“Hey, you’re not one of those unnatural men who doesn’t have girlfriends, are you?” a drunk down the bar asked.
“I like girls well enough, and I’ve had my share,” Bertin said, embarrassed, and implying that he’d been more active than he had been. “I just haven’t got one devoted to me at the moment, thanks. As if it’s your business.”
The men within earshot laughed at him.
“In other words, you’ve got your eye on one, and she doesn’t like smoking,” one put in.
“She hasn’t said she doesn’t like smoking, exactly,” Bertin said, before he caught himself. He ground out his cigarette angrily.
A well-dressed man with clear, intelligent, friendly eyes came from a table and stood next to Bertin. “I’d say that no woman is worth it, but some of them are, as it happens,” the man said. “Here. Try eating lots of salty food. That helped me when I quit. Not much. Nothing helps much, sad to say, until a few weeks have gone by.”
“Oh, you’re encouraging,” Bertin said.
“Lies won’t help in the long run, will they?” the man said, still sympathetically. His phone rang and he eased away to answer it. When he rang off, he grinned. “Man alive, I love telecommuting,” he said.
“Here! Here!” other patrons said.
Bertin suddenly realized that although he’d planted himself at the bar with some sad losers, the rest of the place was crawling with people who were working at least after a fashion. His face betrayed his surprise.
His new friend took pity on him. “Welcome to The Office. Those of us who live by our phones and computers come here, when we need to get away from the kids or the neighbors, or anyone else who can’t get it through his thick skull that people like us actually work for a living and need to put our hours in somehow. In case you haven’t picked up on it, there are unwritten rules on when we have to remain silent as mice. The signals aren’t that hard to pick up, but we’ll thank you to obey them, since it could cost someone to have the wrong noises in the background at the wrong time.”
A phone rang. The businessman who was being called read the caller ID, pursed his lips, and seemed to be furiously thinking. The place fell silent. Bertin nodded, to show that he’d noticed. His friend went back to a table with two other men and three notebook computers.
When the call ended, here and there a quiet chat sprang up, but mostly, men quietly typed away, or read.
Bertin was ready to write off his excursion as enjoyable but pointless, when three men swaggered in. One pulled a sawed-off shotgun from under his bulky black coat and swung it toward the telecommuter section.
Bertin automatically countered with a handgun to the man’s face. “Police,” he said, loud enough for everyone in the terror-silenced room to hear.
“I told you they were on to us,” one of the gunman’s fellows said, his hands in the air while he looked around for Bertin’s backup.
“Don’t make my colleagues blow their cover. They won’t like it,” Bertin said, madly winging it, but sounding surprisingly sure of himself. “All three of you, down on the floor, until the uniformed fellows can get here. Flat. On your stomachs. Don’t do anything cute with your hands. You, with the gun, slide it out of your reach.”
Bertin adjusted his distance, to keep a draw on all three. The robbers got on the floor, nervously eyeing the patrons in the bar, clearly hating it that so far they hadn’t been able to pick out the plainclothes cops from the civilians.
“Bartender, call the local cops. We haven’t got time for this lot,” Bertin said, trying to sound as if he were the sort of cop who was bored with small fish like those he now had in his net.
He wanted the rest of his team there – usually, there were a half dozen or more sets of eyes, and several weapons, and someone else to call the orders and swallow the consequences.
He reminded himself that wishing could be fatal in an emergency. For the moment, like it or not, he must act like everything was under control – there were lives at stake here.
Remembering that the bartender and patrons had no other visible line of defense calmed him admirably. It was his job to defend innocent lives, especially those that had little or no hope without himself and his gun (although, to be sure, he usually held a marvelously accurate rifle instead of a pathetically short-barreled handgun).
The circumstances were odd, but one dealt with all sorts of circumstances in his line, and he was nothing if not adaptable to whatever reality might present itself (and really, the handgun was better suited to this situation, if you wanted to look at it from a professional point of view).
And so it went. Doubts kept popping up, and he kept telling them to go away until he had time to deal with them. He hadn’t the least idea what else he could do, given the circumstances.
One captive kept looking up at him, like he wanted to say something. Finally he said, “Hey, aren’t you investigating that Arab boy’s murder? Maybe we could trade some info on that for time off for this?”
“That depends on how good the information is, maybe,” Bertin said.
“Personally, I’d rather just get paid for what I know, and go to jail the regular amount of time,” another of the robbers said. “It just seems to work out better that way for me.”
A telecommuter’s phone rang.
“Could we all be quiet until he is off his phone, please?” Bertin asked.
“Absolutely, so long as you have the gun,” one captive said. The others nodded agreement.
The telecommuter answered, but only to say that he’d have to call back later. He apparently had a good survival instinct, one that told him he needed his wits all in one place for a little while yet.
“That was very good of you,” Bertin said to his captives, “to let him take his phone call.”
“Oh, we’re nice chaps and trustworthy, really,” one of them said.
Two uniformed cops showed up, a familiar pair: Sandre and his older partner. After the suspects were handcuffed, Bertin sent the insufferable Sandre to take statements from the bartender and patrons. The older cop he pulled aside. “They say they’ve got information on young Hamid’s murder, and want to deal,” Bertin said. “Perhaps I could check back with you later to see if you’ve pulled anything out of them?” He handed his credentials over for inspection, being as discreet as he could manage.
The old cop grinned, enjoying Bertin’s fuss and worry. He handed Bertin’s identification back along with a card giving his name and how to reach him. “Get out of here,” the old cop said. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Bertin got sheepish. “Not that I don’t think you can’t handle it without me,” he muttered. “I’m sure you can, you know.”
“Well, to be honest, I am going to call your partner Durand first with anything. I promised him I would. Us older guys have to stick together, you know. Don’t tell Sandre.” The old cop winked.
Bertin wasn’t sure what Durand had said or admitted to, or what he had set up since. In short, he wasn’t sure if the cop was playing him for a sucker or not.
The old cop laughed, delighted that he had a younger cop guessing. He put his hand on Bertin’s shoulder and pointed him toward the door to hurry things along.
“I haven’t paid up yet,” Bertin said, sliding out of the man’s grasp and heading to the bar.
“Oh, it’s on the house,” the bartender said.
“Thank you, but no. I’m the sort doesn’t take gifts from anybody,” Bertin said. “It’s nothing personal. I just don’t.” He pulled out his money, and laid it down.
Sandre eyed him suspiciously. “Impersonating a police officer is a serious offense,” he said.
“Of course, and quite right, too,” Bertin said.
“This bartender says that you identified yourself as a policeman,” Sandre said, his voice rising, and carrying into all corners of the bar.
“Sandre, go find a microphone, why don’t you? Just because he got promoted ahead of you is no excuse to try to feed him to the fishes when he is trying to keep a low profile for undercover work. Another word from you, and it goes on your record,” the old cop said, loud enough for the civilians to be in on it.
Sandre looked stung and worried. He shut up.
A nervous tittering came from several patrons. Others relaxed noticeably, for the first time since the ordeal started.
“Thanks,” Bertin said, to the old cop. “I’m sorry for the trouble, but, well, I had the choice of keeping my cover or stopping a shooting. What could I do?”
He swallowed hard. He hadn’t meant to run the ‘undercover cop’ business quite this far. How was it that every time he opened his mouth he seemed to be getting in deeper? How did an honest sniper get into such messes, anyway?
And yet it didn’t seem a good idea to start explaining to everyone that he was an honest sniper, all above-board and certified and out in the open, and this snooping around was only semi-official; when it wasn’t totally unofficial, that is. Likely he was going to get himself fired, if he wasn’t careful. All in all, it seemed a good time to close his mouth and keep it closed for now.
The old cop patted him on the back, reassuringly. “Here, now, I’ll explain to everyone that they needn’t mention any off-duty police being involved. Just a fast-thinking citizen, eh? One we didn’t get a name on, sad to say.” The old cop looked askance at Bertin, to see if they were on the same page.
“Leave me out, if you can, and if you think it is all right. Let Sandre be a hero, if you like. I don’t care,” Bertin said.
The old cop grinned. “I just might do that, thank you.”
Sandre looked worried. This sounded too much like a conspiracy to suit him, and yet it didn’t seem quite right to object to what on the surface seemed a generous gesture.
“Now go, will you?” the old cop said to Bertin. “I can’t chat with you and handle three thugs at the same time, even befuddled ones. Call me an old man, but I can’t help it. Shoo.”
Bertin left, avoiding eye contact with the people he had just helped.
Behind him, the lead robber looked at the old cop. “Oh, sure. Like you want us to believe that he wasn’t in here waiting for us? What do you take us for?”
47 – BERTIN FRETS AND SWEATS
Bertin sat in his car and trembled. He wished he could just erase the last few hours, everything from the ridiculous walking for miles to find secondhand smoke, to his temporary desertion of Christian principles when accused of being an unnatural man (why was it easier to pretend to be a tomcat, than to admit that you held women and Christ and holy matrimony in too high a regard to sleep around?), to his crazy pretense of being an undercover cop who found armed robbers a passing bother who got in the way of real work.
He remembered the older cop saying he’d promised to call Durand. Old men must stick together, he’d said. Perhaps he was bluffing. But probably not, Bertin decided. It would be better to get his own oar in the water first, perhaps. Not sure of his voice (and of course he didn’t want to interrupt Durand if he were busy), Bertin sent a text message. It took a while to decide what message to send. Written messages seemed so indelible: just the sort of thing to be printed out and waved in your face when you were seventy and thought you had outlived your humiliations. At last, he opted for “Developments. At your convenience. Nason.” That seemed to open doors, without being the sort of thing that would be waved in your face later. It also avoided using text abbreviations Durand might not know.
A text message came back almost immediately. It featured abbreviations, but read as “Before or after lunch? I am heading home now. Meet me there?”
Bertin didn’t want to meet Durand at his home, but to say so would probably look cowardly. He felt he was probably already being cowardly by using vague text messages. He could always hint that he didn’t wish to have danger trail him to Durand’s home, but, as it happened, he didn’t think he had anyone trailing him. He hated to add deceit to cowardice.
Bertin paused long enough to prompt a phone call from Durand.
“Are you all right?” Durand said, by way of hello.
“I am embarrassed out of my mortal mind. I tried to snoop, and wound up in the middle of an armed robbery, wherein I made a high-profile ass of myself, I think,” Bertin said, his reticence flying out the window.
“But you are all right?”
“There are no physical hurts to deflect attention away from my stupidity, I am sad to say,” Bertin said, not altogether joking.
“I am glad you are all right. How urgent are these developments you contacted me about?”
“Try turtle speed, if that. Perhaps dead on arrival. The robbers recognized me, or at least one of them did, and offered to trade information on Hamid’s murder in exchange for leniency. Your friend Poincare – you remember Poincare, he is tied to the charming Sandre – is hauling them away and will be in touch with you. Probably it is nothing, likely it is just bluffing on the part of habitual thieves and liars. Except that now roughly two dozen agitated persons with unimaginable connections have me pegged for an undercover police officer who cannot stay undercover – and our politically sensitive friend of the other day, Sandre, thinks I have it in for him personally. Other than that, I am pleased to report that I do not know of anything else that I have messed up today. But of course it is early yet.”
“Meet me at my home,” Durand said. There was a pause. “No one else will be there, if that makes any difference.”
“I hate to say so, but it does. I am in no mood to be fussed over,” Bertin said.
“Obviously. Meet me there. That’s an order. Goodbye.”
Bertin rang off, and sat still, mulling. Really, he hadn’t done all that atrociously in there, regarding the robbers. Still, he felt like someone had drained half his blood out. It was like after the botched rescue his second week on the job: while he was still half-trying to get into a workable position to take on the bad guy, his partner had shot a baby by accident. His dawdling then had cost others dearly, and he had been filled with shame and remorse and uncertainty and had felt as if he were fighting an infection. Why he should feel that way now, he had no idea.
Well, he had made an ass of himself, front to finish. Perhaps that was it. All the men in his family felt horrible after being a donkey in a crisis. Perhaps that was why nine out of ten men in his family knew to a science the best ways to avoid being anywhere near a potential crisis. Perhaps it was why the other one in ten were firemen or soldiers or ambulance drivers or something of the sort. Overdoing it in either case, one way or another. “Avoid trouble or tempt fate, pick your poison” could be the Nason family motto, he thought, with a surprising amount of ill temper.
By the time he got halfway to Durand’s, Bertin was fuming. Durand, he decided, should not be giving him orders. Durand had no right to give him orders. Besides, Durand hadn’t waited to hear how long it should take him to get there. What sort of logistical coordination was that?
To make himself feel better, Bertin drove three times around a block to waste time and then stopped for a cup of coffee. Dawdling and drinking coffee made him feel like he’d taken charge of things. But as soon as he was on his way again, he felt like a five year old whose tantrums were being ignored.
Before long he was sweating. He was horribly annoyed with himself for letting a trip to Durand’s put him in a sweat.
For that matter, his head hurt and his muscles seemed to be tying themselves into knots. It was ridiculous. It was humiliating. He vowed to ignore the symptoms until they gave up and went away.
Perhaps it was only nicotine withdrawal. He fumbled for a cigarette. His hands were weak and unsteady.
Bertin wondered if he’d been poisoned while he was at the bar. He could not focus on the thought. He could not focus…