© 2006 Mark Zero. All rights reserved.


Le Marais

People shoot at me all the time, but it’s nothing personal. I’m a photojournalist—a war photographer, to be precise. I risk my neck so that you can calmly survey scenes of violence half a world away as you sip your morning coffee. I’ve been attacked with rocket-propelled grenades in the jungles of Côte d’Ivoire, held at knife-point in a collapsed mosque in Fallujah, hit by a jeep during a firefight outside of Medellin. The chance of death is both the price and the perverse attraction of the job, and it’s compensated by a freedom that most people rarely enjoy—as an experienced freelancer, I work when and if I want, travel to the most exotic places imaginable, and require only the hatred of man for his fellow man to keep my creditors at bay.
Bullets have been whizzing past my ears for so long that I don’t usually tell stories about them any more, but in this case an exception is in order: the bullet that ricocheted off the stones of the Pont Neuf a few inches from my head was different from the others. No war was raging in downtown Paris that night, no revolutionaries were trying to capture the Île de la Cité. That bullet was meant for me, personally, and when I jumped off the bridge into the Seine, the bullets that followed me into the river were meant for me as well. Fortunately, the shooter was as unfamiliar with guns as I was with fine art, and he was probably just as surprised to be shooting at me as I was to have his priceless painting, a masterpiece by the Post-Impressionist Maximilien Luce.
How I came to have the painting is a relatively simple tale; what happened after I got it is a little more complicated, so it may be best to begin at the beginning, on a warm summer evening in the section of Paris’s Right Bank known as the Marais.

* * * * *

Marais means swamp in French and the name couldn’t be more apt. Originally an actual swamp before the land was drained in the thirteenth century, the Marais is now a metropolitan muck and muddle, dirty, rich and teeming with life. The streets are narrow, the buildings high and grimy, and though the prospect of a chivalrous death is now remote, the architecture still suggests The Three Musketeers. Kings and counts built palaces here; the palaces still stand, but they’ve been sectioned up and are now occupied by haute couture boutiques fighting for space with tobacco shops and seedy pawnbrokers. On a given day in the Marais, you can see fashion models elbowing street hustlers for room on the tiny slivers of sidewalks, both heading for the same centuries-old but newly trendy cafe.
I moved into the Marais ten years ago, when I needed a European home base while working for the New York Times. The fallen grandeur and grungy beauty suit me. There are always crowds on the street, day and night, and the anonymity of such a constant press of people soothes my soul. After weeks in Central African villages, it’s a relief to see only casual disdain in others’ eyes, rather than suspicion or pure hatred. There is rarely any real violence here, just constant uproar, yelling and theatrical bickering, accompanied by the smell of fresh-baked baguettes wafting from every corner bakery.
The evening I became an international art thief, the electricity in my apartment had cut out, thanks to some incompetent carpenters who were remodeling a shop in the next building. This meant that my tiny window fan could no longer offer its meager defense against the sweltering July heat, so I walked down the five flights to the street. The sun was still high at seven in the evening and the people on the street looked drained and sullen, their hair and clothes limp with sweat and humidity. I glared at the hapless carpenters, who were too busy yelling at each other to notice me.
I strolled around the corner to the little fruit market on rue des Tournelles. Plump cherries, peaches and watermelons spilled artfully across the wooden tables that blocked the sidewalk on either side of the door. I called in to Etienne, the owner.
“Salut, Luke,” Etienne said, stepping out onto the street, wiping his big, hairy-knuckled hands on his apron. Etienne’s family had owned this fruit market for three generations, since they had moved here from Algiers, but his son had married a Swiss woman and moved to Zurich and his daughter was studying to be a lawyer: no one would carry on the tradition, and when Etienne retired this little space would become a fashionable hair salon or a designer lingerie boutique. Like all the old immigrant markets in the Marais, Etienne’s fruiterie would eventually become a high-end bauble shop.
I bought an apricot. “You see the protest at the Place des Vosges this morning?”
Just around the corner from Etienne’s market, Louis XIII had once hosted jousting tournaments at the Place des Vosges. Now buskers sang for coins there and souvenir stands offered tourists gaudy little pieces of Paris.
Etienne dismissed the protest with a wave of his hand. “Stupid students! Who cares if they make a national identity card? The government knows all it wants to know about us already. That’s what governments do, they keep track of you. You can’t hide from the government.”
“You don’t believe in the right to privacy?”
“Sure. I believe in the right to own cats on the moon, too. That doesn’t mean there are cats on the moon.”
I patted Etienne’s shoulder and wished him a bonne soirée. He continued this conversation with another customer.
I ate the apricot as I threaded my way through a crush of people toward L’Elephant Heureux, “the Happy Elephant.” That’s my neighborhood watering hole, where I spend almost every evening I’m in Paris. I usually show up close to midnight, but this seemed like a good day to start early on Pelforth blondes and armagnac.
When I arrived, Benoît was already there, the only customer, sitting at the end of the bar wearing the light green coveralls issued to him by the City of Paris. He was waving his arms, making animated declarations to the Elephant’s owner, Jean-Pierre. Jean-Pierre was, customarily, inhaling a Gitane. He blew gray smoke and nodded hello.
“If it’s in the river,” Benoît was saying, “then it’s part of the river. There’s no difference between the river and what’s in it.”
Jean-Pierre stroked his thick, curly gray beard philosophically. “A fish is not a river. A boat is not a river. If I throw a cigarette into the river, the butt is not the river.”
“You can’t talk about the spine and not mention the nerve endings,” Benoît countered. “You can’t separate the water from what it carries. It’s a system.” He said this as if it were a triumph of Socratic logic.
I sat down next to him and indicated the Pelforth tap with a nod and a glance. Jean-Pierre slid down the bar and poured me a beer.
I had known Jean-Pierre since his days as a board operator at Radio France. He had always dreamed of owning a bar, and after twenty years of hustle and headaches in broadcasting, he had finally saved enough money to open the Elephant. That was seven years ago, and his pace had slowed every year since. In fact, he had become like a happy elephant himself, moving deliberately, with a bulky, fluid grace that hid a slow and rarely aroused temper. He liked to say that opening the Elephant had finally given him time to smoke properly, and he attracted regulars who resembled him, in having a great capacity for industry but preferring indolence.
“Did you see Le Monde today?” Jean-Pierre asked as he set my beer in front of me.
“About the Seine?”
“What you have to question,” Benoît said, “is who asked for that study and why? Who will use it and for what reason?”
A new study about the noxious filth in the Seine had appeared in that morning’s paper, and Benoît was predictably offended. Benoît loved the river. As an unemployed garbage collector, he had lots of time on his hands, and he dedicated it to the Seine, though even he could not say why. He would only shrug his shoulders and say “Je l’aime.” He read books about the river, hitched rides up and down it on coal barges, drank by it, slept by it and threw up into its sludgy green waters. He had become so obsessed with the Seine that he threw himself off the Pont Marie every Friday night and then swam downstream, sometimes as far as the Eiffel Tower. It was a baptism and a communion at once, an almost religious offering of himself to the river. It was also a slow and phlegmatic way of committing suicide in the bacteriological stew of the water—and it would be a slow suicide only if a barge or tourist boat didn’t accidentally run him down one night.
“Quite an industrial cocktail,” I said. The study had found levels of mercury over 100 times higher than normal in the Seine, along with cadmium, lead, chromium and other toxic killers. “I’m surprised it hasn’t congealed into a neon green pudding.”
Benoît scoffed. “The studies are all correct, of course,” he said angrily, “but no one knows what they mean. No one can interpret them. You have to ask the river what they mean.”
I exchanged a look with Jean-Pierre, who took a long drag on his cigarette and squinted through the smoke. “What do you think they mean?”
Benoît thought for a moment. “The Seine is France’s digestive tract. It brings us our food and carries away our shit. If our digestive tract is toxic, then the disease is in us, not outside of us. We need to heal ourselves.”
He drained off his whiskey and set it down on the bar. Jean-Pierre refilled it and poured himself one as well. It looked like it was going to be just another Thursday at the Happy Elephant, and I took a deep drink of my beer, thinking it was about time I found another war to visit. That’s when Giselle’s red BMW Z8 came screaming to a stop on the street outside.
Giselle is an antique dealer, with a high-ticket shop that she inherited from her mother. She has short blonde hair, icy blue eyes, and a brusque, offhanded manner, and she knows the value of things in eight different currencies. She usually moves like a metronome, with precise steps and compact gestures, which was why it surprised me to see her fishtail her tiny sports car to a stop in the middle of rue des Tournelles, fling herself out the driver’s door and lurch toward the Happy Elephant. Her ankle-length skirt bunched unattractively as she fought against it for speed. Then I realized it wasn’t the skirt that was making her stumble along so awkwardly: she was limping, as if she had sprained an ankle. Her car was blocking traffic, and honking horns and angry shouts followed her into the bar.
Her eyes darted from Jean-Pierre to Benoît before settling on me. “Luke, thank God you’re here.” She hobbled quickly toward the back of the room. “Follow me,” she called over her shoulder, and then she disappeared into the bathroom.
I hesitated.
“Luke!” Giselle screamed, sticking her head out of the water closet. “Now!”
Jean-Pierre ushered me toward her with both hands, a look of confusion and urgency in his eyes. I jumped up and ran.
Like many small bars in Paris, the Elephant has just one tiny restroom for both men and women, and though I knew Giselle well, she had never invited me to go to the toilet with her. I hesitated again at the bathroom door and glanced outside, where a crowd was beginning to clot the street around Giselle’s car.
Giselle grabbed me by the shirt and pulled me in after her. I nearly toppled into the toilet bowl. She spun around to face me and I grabbed onto her shoulders to regain my balance.
Her shirt was soaked through with sweat, and I could smell panic and perfume mixing on her neck and arms. Her eyes were wide and determined, and as I opened my mouth to ask what on earth was going on, she began unfastening her belt.
“Listen to me,” she said, slipping out of her skirt. “I’m going to give you something, and you have to promise you’ll keep it for me, just for tonight.” She quickly and carefully turned her skirt inside out, and I saw why it had looked so strange, why she had run so awkwardly into the bar: she had used hairpins to clip a canvas to the underneath side. She unclipped it, turned the painted side of the canvas toward me and shoved it into my hands. “I stole this—but it’s all right, it doesn’t belong to the people I stole it from. I’ll explain later. Just stay here at the Elephant until closing time, then find some way to get it home without anyone seeing you. I’ll call you at your apartment just after two o’clock.”
“You stole this?”
She stepped back into her skirt. “If anyone follows me here, I had to use the bathroom, I used the bathroom, then I ran out again, all right? You didn’t follow me into the toilet, there was no painting, that’s all you know. I ran in, I ran out. And for God’s sake, keep the painting hidden!”
“I can count on you, can’t I?” She buckled her belt and then kissed me on the cheek. “Thanks a million, Luke.” She turned and unlocked the bathroom door all in one blurry motion and bolted out. “It’s not how it looks,” she called, as she ran for the Elephant’s front door.
I peeked out of the bathroom to see Giselle fighting her way through the crowd of onlookers to her BMW. Cursing from the cars stranded behind her serenaded her into the driver’s seat, and I took the opportunity, while everyone outside focused on Giselle’s sudden reappearance, to slip out of the toilet with the painting and dart behind the bar. Giselle slammed her car door, hit the gas and raced off down the street.
I squeezed around Jean-Pierre and knelt to open the trap door into his wine cellar. “Be careful,” Jean-Pierre said quietly. “Lightswitch is on your left at the bottom.” This was an extraordinary concession, since the one cardinal rule of the Elephant was that no one but Jean-Pierre was allowed behind the bar, much less in the cellar.
I struggled down the metal steps, felt around for the lightswitch, and found myself staring into a bare bulb that hung just at eye level. I blinked hard into the cellar until the shapes of boxes and wine racks fixed themselves all around me. Calling this space a cellar, it turned out, was overstating the matter considerably: I was in a six-by-four room, barely tall enough for me to stand upright, crammed floor to ceiling with cases of alcohol.
The canvas Giselle had given me was about three feet long and two feet tall, a rectangle too big to fit neatly inside a wine case. I scooted some boxes of bordeaux away from the wall, slipped the painting behind them to the floor, and then pushed the boxes back against it.
Satisfied, I wiped my hands and turned to climb back up the ladder, when I heard Jean-Pierre hiss, “Turn out the light.” He slammed the trap door in my face and I heard the latch click shut from the outside. I turned out the light.
Beads of sweat appeared on my upper lip. When I found that I was unconsciously panting, I held my breath. I was trapped in a tiny wine cellar with a stolen painting, and something unpleasant was going on in the bar above me.
It would not be just another Thursday at the Happy Elephant.