By T. Peer
Squeezing the darkness from the night, the glow of Le Bistro Parisien lures the loners and losers to a confluence of deprivation and despair, like flying insects to a fleeting light. The convenience of two entrances, whereby one needn’t go the way they came, provides all who emerge from the shadows an unobstructed view of nothing new. Authentic vintage Paris, the beat-to-shit bar remains unchanged following three revolutions, four wars, and five republics.
Somewhere between the ramp-up and let-down of meeting a woman who, if she shows, won’t stay, I fall through the door. The barman nods my existence and pours me the cheapest Beaujolais Nouveau I can’t afford. Empty, except for a lone patron at a corner table, the place reeks of stale smoke and 220 years of neglect. I stumble over and join her.
Sauge, a plainclothes investigator, leans back and eyes my drenched coat that matches my sodden face. “A few warm-ups before the farewell tour or just the usual binge tonight?”
“While it doesn’t start that way, it ends the same.”
“You’re supposed to quit when you’re ahead—might you ever get there.”
Moving on to something more promising than my upward mobility, I sober up enough and reorient to the moment. “Did I miss the End of the World? Where is everybody?”
“The rain keeps them away. Not that there aren’t other reasons.”
“I’m not so reality challenged that I don’t believe in umbrellas. And besides, where else can one be more lost and not found?”
I spin round and take inventory of three faceless bodies who stumble in. A good fit, collectively the humans in ruin meet that lost and still-looking criteria. A curious sight, they all show up at once before they disperse to the bar an equidistance apart.
As our naked table strikes an awkward split between us, I ask, “What are you drinking?”
She hesitates to say, “I’m not. I’m working.”
“Working?” I snap back.
After a pause, she confides, “You recall that unfortunate fellow who ran into a knife six times?”
I close my eyes. “About a week ago. On the métro was it?”
“The Châtelet-Les Halles station.”
I remembered something of a random hit. The victim, an international student, hung on for a few days before he succumbed to his injuries. The city’s Police Nationale appealed for any leads, then poof. “You’re staking this place out, are you?”
Again, a pause precedes her answer. “We call it fronting a suspect.”
“So, you have a suspect?”
Her lower lip protrudes into the question. “Not yet. We’re trying a new tactic.”
“A new tactic?”
She waves it away as if to say why bother, then explains, “It’s quite simple, really. The police solicit the help of the public, then leak to the street that a witness stepped up. In turn, the police offer a cover but bungle the protection and again leak to the street her description and whereabouts.” She winks. “My description and whereabouts.”
“You? Here? Tonight?”
She smiles. “The three who followed you in? They’ve now triangulated themselves into a firing position should something go down.”
My arms raise with my voice. “Like an ambush!”
“Preferably, an apprehension. You’ll also observe the barman has taken leave, and I’ve chosen a table away from the windows.”
“What about me?”
She thinks a bit before she leans into her words. “Play along, will you?”
I gulp the remains of my wine and push back my chair. “Gotta go.”
The entrance creaks open ahead of a figure in a broad-brim hat, a turned-up collar, and a copy of Le Monde across his face. When he takes a table next to ours, I hear my heart beating.
A voice whispers behind me, “Ask him for a match.” Thinking it’s a signal to commence firing, I keep low. “Excuse me. Might you have a match?”
A coarse voice grunts behind the newspaper, “Don’t smoke.”
“Pity, the lady here would like a cigarette.”
He throws the paper down. “Would she now?” Getting up, he walks over to our table and grabs her by the arm. “I’d like a word with you—outside.”
Awaiting the backup, I stall him by mentioning, “It’s raining, you know,” Yet, oblivious to our predicament, the three at the bar sit stiff still. When he lets her go, he pulls me up by the collar.
“Nothing that concerns you. Bugger off.”
As the threesome spring from the bar, he flashes a blade of double-edged steel hard against my neck. My collar in one hand and my life in the other, he threatens, “Do something clever, and I do something stupid.” He then steers me to the closest escape, the entrance opposite the entrance we came in, and swings me into the glass. “Open it!” Keeping our main attraction in range, I pretend the door doesn’t budge.
“It’s locked!” Then, onto my next invention, “the key, I believe, is up on the lintel.”
“Find it!” my captor orders. “And be quick about it.” I fake an attempt just out of my reach.
“Can you loosen your grip a bit?” He lets me go, turns around, and slams his weight into my back. His position freezes the police, which per design, allows me to fling open the door and give him the slip.
On the street and in the rain, I envisioned four pistols drawn and aimed at a foregone conclusion. Yet, no sooner have I put that behind me when a woman with an umbrella and some respectable appeal approached to ask, “Le Bistro Parisien, it’s near here, yes?”
“Are you on your way to meet a gentleman there?”
“Why yes, I am.”
Slipping under her umbrella, I offer an arm.
“I’m getting there, and after what I’ve been through, much to my benefit.”
No matter, she’s gone, and I’m back to the night chasing whatever light drives the darkness from that uncompromising truth of wherever I’m going—I’ll never get there.