Brief Candle

by Robert Arion

17. Crazy

In the early hours of Sunday morning, Chief Inspector Hébert realized that he had sent two of his operatives on a holiday to Algeria. Whether or not Martin and Fazoud turned up any useful information on the Matsouf brothers, they would make no contribution to the Malard affair. Hébert knew now that there was nothing sinister about Yuko Takishima's disappearance shortly before Guy Malard's murder. The Japanese had merely left town quietly for a confidential business meeting.
   Sitting in a dimly lit Martyr's Hill night club, surrounded by tourists, who were paying through the nose for the illusion of an adventure, Hébert paid an informant for his time and watched him leave in a comically furtive manner. At the back of the long room, at the other end from the stage, it was impossible to recognize a person sitting at the next table. Any danger came solely from the informant's imagination.
   Bibbi had overheard a Spanish gangster called Ento tell another visiting gangster that he had done a very well-paid job on a Jap and sent him for a swim. Bibbi was known to have done several tours of Europe unloading forged dollar bills. He could pose as a New Yorker, his accent and his manner were totally convincing, and he could speak five languages. Hébert was sure that his information was accurate.
   Taking a sip from his vastly overpriced splash of Scotch whisky, he now felt able to reconstruct the events on the last day of Yuko Takishima's life. The Japanese had sneaked back to town on the Monday after his business meeting, too late for his appointment with Malard, and he had gone to Trevolin's office to see if Malard had left a message for him. Someone had been looking out for him.
   Ento, the Spanish gangster, had grabbed him at the office building. The evidence suggested that Takishima had been killed and cremated in his car that same evening. After the fire, Ento had put his car on a transporter, driven it several miles to the lake where it had been found and just dumped it. The killer was just a contract man. Hébert was willing to bet that Ento had no idea who had hired him. He would have done the job for some cash up front and a pay-off afterwards. Now, he was probably back in Spain spending his payment.
   Eliminating the Matsoufs from the picture left Hébert with as much blank space as before, but it was a positive step. The evidence continue to suggest that whoever had killed Malard had also killed Takishima. The investigation seemed to be holding together. Solving any one part of his mystery would take him closer to the whole solution.
   Now that Takishima was a dead end, his killer safely out of the country and requiring international co-operation to track him down, Hébert was left with the death of Guy Malard as his main active line of investigation. Georges Trevolin was looking his best source of further information but Hébert wanted him to feel co-operative rather than coerced.

Small sales could be a test of his endurance, Trevolin knew from experience. People came to look, drink his coffee, nibble the snacks and then decide that nothing on offer quite suited their needs. They treated what was supposed to be the serious business of making money for Trevolin as an excuse for a chat with others on the network.
   That Monday morning's sale was going at just above the average speed. The ratio of buyers to time-wasters and grazers was a little better than one to one. Trevolin expected to complete the final knock-down bargains in the early afternoon. The presence of just Hugo as a lone bodyguard reflected the low-key nature of the event.
   Trevolin had just turned down a ridiculously low offer from one of the vultures when Ron Arnoux strolled into the warehouse. Trevolin had not told him about the sale but he had feared that Arnoux would find out about it anyway. His fear had become reality. Arnoux made for the hi-fi gear, following his homing instinct to search out the new, the cutting edge, the essential possession that would identify him as a pace-maker and a trend-setter. "Lovely piece of kit, Georges," he called to Trevolin as he was admiring one of the multiple CD-players. "How many CDs do they take?"
   "Six," said Trevolin. "That's four to seven hours' continuous output, depending on the length of the CD," he added for the benefit of any other buyers in the vicinity. "And they're programmable to play any sequence of up to fifty tracks from all six CDs."
   "That sounds just what I'm looking for," beamed Arnoux.
   He launched into a long tale about combining input from a PC, video and audio sources as a means of creating multi-media presentations. Trevolin listened with half an ear then took an opportunity to mention that he was owed quite a lot of cash by Tractage Rapide. He had more rehearsed about not being in the business of giving interest-free loans but he knew that he would never use it. Arnoux would give it about as much attention as Trevolin had given to the tale about multi-media presentations.
   "Haven't you had the cheque?" frowned Arnoux. "I made a special effort for you and got one out last week."
   "No sign of it," said Trevolin, not quite calling him a liar.
   "Okay, if it hasn't arrived tomorrow, ring me and I'll get out a replacement sent out. But it should have arrived by now."
   "Okay, we'll give it another day," Trevolin said lightly, reluctant to press the matter and risk damaging relations with Antonia Storr.
   "I like this video machine." Arnoux returned to the pursuit of the latest technology. "I was reading about them in MultiMedia Today. They said you get professional quality editing and dubbing facilities without having to fill an entire editing suite with gadgets. Digitized transfer and sampling, giving the highest professional quality sound. Plus all sorts of gadgets to clean up inputs. This is desk-top video in the same way you can do worthwhile desk-top publishing with a PC."
   I know, Ron, thought Trevolin, who had also glanced through the instruction manual and the promotional literature.
   "We could really turn out quality work with one of these," added Arnoux.
   Trevolin just smiled politely. He knew that Arnoux had a big appetite for modern technology but no appetite at all for reading the bulky instruction manuals that go with new gadgets and software. Arnoux seemed to believe that if he could switch something on, or load a new program onto his PC, then its operation would be obvious. He had a naïve, intuitive approach to such things, which generally left him frustrated and certain that the product was defective if he couldn't make it work.
   "Wow! What's that lovely piece of kit?" Arnoux looked past Trevolin at his Sesquire PC.
   "Something I'm trying out," said Trevolin casually. He was using the new, super-duper PC to see if he could access his records faster using a multiple interface that ran very slowly on his other portable. His impression of the Sesquire Concept was that it did indeed do things at least one and a half times faster and better than an ordinary PC.
   He had found some encrypted files on the hard disk of the Sesquire while installing the interface program, which proved that it was a genuine second-hand machine that someone had used successfully, not an untried prototype. He had dumped the files off onto floppies and then transferred his accounting and word-processing software and data files. He had a vague memory of seeing an advertisement for a program that would unlock such mystery files but he wasn't feeling nosy enough to afford it.
   "That's what I call a portable." Arnoux made to pick up the computer to test its weight.
   "Don't do that, Ron," said Trevolin quickly. "You're not supposed to move them while they're working."
   "You can with a portable, though, surely."
   "Not with that one, you can't. I've got a semi-solid deal on it and it's worth a whole lot of money."
   "Pity. This could be just the machine for me."
   "I can put you next on the list, if you want?"
   "Definitely. Look at the colours on the screen! They make mine look like mud."
   "It just goes to show, anything you buy is obsolete in about six weeks. Unless you get a really advanced design like this. It's last year's model and there's still nothing to touch it."
   Trevolin was starting to feel quite possessive about the Sesquire, even though it might have to go in the mad scramble to raise cash for the Montespan estate. He doubted whether Arnoux would have much luck persuading Tractage Rapid's other directors to buy him such an advanced machine, but there was a distinct possibility that he might be able to sell his other laptop to Arnoux. It was faster than Arnoux's ancient portable, it had more memory and it was ideal for the presentation software that Ron knew how to use. But any sale would take place only after Arnoux had cleared his debts. Trevolin was determined to restrict Ron to his current credit limit.
   "We're doing a pitch to a firm of management consultants on Friday," said Arnoux. "I'm thinking what we could do with just the equipment you've got here. Our big problem is the client's requirements. They're so bloody vague. We've had two preliminary meetings with them and we're still none the wiser in some very important areas. What we really need is the flexibility to do a credentials presentation and then have it backed up with multi-media material on CD and video."
   "Sounds very high-powered," remarked Trevolin.
   "But achievable, Georges. This sort of equipment can put it at our fingertips. We can just load it all up and pre-program it. And then select exactly what we want by pushing a couple of buttons. If the prospect hasn't mentioned it in the briefing but someone says, 'Can you tell us something about so-and-so?' So we say, 'We can do better than that, this is what we did for client X, Y and Z.' And then we show them."
   As long as they like what they see, thought Trevolin. The warehouse telephone began to ring. "Excuse me, Ron," he said, escaping to answer the persistent chirps.
   Hugo moved closer to the Sesquire portable and included Arnoux in his general surveillance. Toffs in posh suits could be just as light-fingered as street urchins, in his experience.
   "Yo?" Trevolin said into the wall-mounted phone, assuming that the caller knew his identity.
   "Luc, Georges," said a familiar voice. "We like your prices and I want to order two helicopter gunships and four of the Gladiators. I'm not sure about the tanks but we might not need them. I think something a bit more manoeuvrable, like your armoured cars, will suit us better."
   "Two helicopters and four Gladiators," said Trevolin in confirmation. "Yes, if you're going to use them on ordinary roads, the armoured cars are better. Tanks chew everything up, especially roads. But they do have a presence that you can't get with an armoured car."
   "Yes, that's why we're still considering them."
   "When do you want delivery?"
   "By the end of the week?"
   "Shouldn't be a problem from stock. The choppers come with a full kit of spares, by the way. And some tools and manuals. In Russian."
   "Good. My chief engineer told me to mention spares. For the cars as well."
   "I'll see about that too. Where do you want delivery?"
   "I'll be in touch about that tomorrow evening. Will you be at home?"
   "There or on the other end of my mobile."
   "Talk to you then, Georges."
   "Okay, Luc."
   Trevolin replaced the receiver and returned to his new PC. Ron Arnoux had gone, hurrying back to his office to continue work on the presentation for CJN Management Consultants. The managing director of Tractage Rapide considered CJN to be their most important prospect of the year and he had asked for all-out effort. Arnoux was confident that they would have a winning pitch ready for Friday. There had been a few scrambles in the past, but he felt that this one was going to be extra good.
   Trevolin logged in the new orders and did a quick switch to his accounting program to drool over the commission that he could expect on Luc Gallard's order. He refused to be optimistic, however. He knew all about the perils of hubris. The Gods, he believed firmly, were standing, by ready to rain on his parade at the slightest opportunity.
   He sold a corner unit consisting of five seat units with a right-angle bend flanked by table cum cupboard units. When the buyer had loaded up and driven away, the warehouse was empty of people suddenly. Hugo rushed away to use the lavatory. Like the British royal family, he recognized the wisdom of grabbing a pee whenever the opportunity presented itself.
   Trevolin poured himself a glass of chilled white wine and lit a cigarette. The sale was going well and he had financed it entirely from his own resources, which meant that there would be no visit from Bardout looking for Toni Storr's cut. He could keep as much as the government left him after his skimmings; which amounted to nothing as any profits were going straight to the government to pay off the death duties owing on the Montespan estate. He was in a crazy sort of situation.
   "Hello, Georges, how's it going?" said a furtive character, who had sneaked up behind him.
   "Struggling on, Al. What are you drinking?"
   "Cider if you've got it."
   Trevolin whipped the top off a bottle and poured with a generous hand. He had known Alain for a long time and admired him secretly. Alain was another Fernand type, who ran a pirate radio station. There was nothing terribly subversive about what he put on the air but it was out of the government's control and therefore dangerous.
   "What's the deal on the CD-jukeboxes?" said Alain.
   "Great for all three." Trevolin realized that it would take just a couple of keystrokes to wipe Arnoux's order from his computer. Hugo was still on his pit stop. There were no witnesses, apart from Alain and he wouldn't know what was going on. Trevolin felt a rush of craziness coming on.
   "One to use and two spares for the next time we get busted?" grinned Alain, a thin, shadow of a man in his mid-thirties. "I've read about these VCRs. You could get into making decent pop promo videos with a couple of these."
   "And, by a strange coincidence, I just happen to have two left," said Trevolin.
   "Why, how many did you start with?"
   "Just the two."
   "Give me a price."
   "Twenty-eight thousand the lot, no haggling, and we'll even help you load your van."
   "Let's have another look at them."
   "Go on, you know what they can do. You've read all the reviews and you're drooling over them. And you'll pay fifty-two thousand, even with the best trade discount imaginable, if you go to anyone else. This is a one-off opportunity."
   "Yeah, but you should take your time spending that much cash, Georges."
   "What if they're snapped up while you've wasting my time?"
   "What, you mean by one of the dozens of others hanging about here?" Alain nodded hello to Hugo while looking round the otherwise uninhabited warehouse.
   "Buy them, you bastard," said Trevolin impatiently. "You can't take it with you when you go."
   "Oh, well, if you put it like that," grinned Alain, "who could fail to be swayed by a sales pitch like that? Can I use your phone to whistle up the van?"
   "Want to borrow my pen to write the cheque, too?"
   "You should be giving out free pens for that, Georges."
   "Oh, sure! Giveaway prices and giveaway pens too?"
   Alain crossed to the telephone. It was the work of a moment to wipe out Arnoux's reservation on his computer and rebook the goods as sold to Alain. Trevolin helped Alain to box up his purchases, hoping that his van would show up quickly. He had to wait over twenty minutes before he could wave goodbye to the radio pirate.
   An 'ordinary' couple wandered in through the open door and strolled over to the remainders. They were in their early twenties and looked like a recently married couple on the hunt for cheap home furnishings. Hugo started toward them. Trevolin caught his eye and shook his head. They were not in the way and if they wanted to buy something, their money was as good as anyone else's.
   "Not much here, is there?" said the wife.
   "I opened up quite a long time ago," said Trevolin. "Most of it's usually gone by now."
   "What is it?" said the husband doubtfully? "Second hand?"
   "Bankrupt stock. All in the original packing with valid guarantees that you can send in."
   The husband frowned. He seemed to think that everything in the warehouse had come out of the back of a lorry while the driver had been waiting at a red light.
   "Look at the desk," said his wife. "That's just what you need instead of the dining table. Then you wouldn't be moaning all the time about having to shift your stuff."
   "Nice computer," said the husband.
   "Not for sale, though," said Trevolin.
   "How much is the desk?" said the wife.
   "Two-fifty for cash. If you only want the one."
   "We don't have room for more than one. I'll tell you what, Paul, I'll buy you the desk if you buy me a new cassette player. How much are they?"
   "Six-fifty for the single cassette models, seven-fifty for the double cassette ones for tape-to-tape recording. If you..."
   "I know, if I only want the one. What if it goes wrong?"
   "At these prices, you throw it away and buy another one. Unless it's still in the guarantee period. I can't replace it because I won't have any in stock after today. Everything goes on an as-is basis. It's your choice, madame."
   "Where does it come from?" said the husband.
   Trevolin thought about telling him to get lost, then he opened his briefcase. The catalogue from the auction at Cambrai was still there along with other assorted junk. If he could explain himself satisfactorily to a couple of suspicious punters, Trevolin told himself, it would be good practice for the next time a nosy copper bothered him; even if expecting more nosy coppers showed a dismally pessimistic attitude.
   "It came from this auction. I buy large quantities and sell in smaller units to the trade. I don't usually see end-consumers like yourselves. If you think my prices are too cheap to be true, that's because I'm quoting you wholesale rates. Normally, you'd be paying that plus a profit to the people who buy from me."
   "So that's why you keep saying 'if we only want the one"? said the wife.
   "Exactly. The more units of an item you buy, the bigger your discount. So? What do you reckon? It's a bargain you can't pass up? Or it's all knocked off and the police will be round to bust you for receiving stolen goods?"
   A van drove into the warehouse. Trevolin glanced at the driver and recognized one of the men used by Tractage Rapide when they needed equipment moved. Trevolin returned his attention to the prospective customers as the driver joined Hugo and poured himself a glass of wine.
   "I don't know about that desk," said the husband doubtfully. "How would we get it home?"
   "It would go on the roof of the car," said his wife.
   "It comes to bits, you know," said Trevolin. "You can unscrew the modesty panel and detach the two pillars units with the drawers. Which might help to get it into your house; easier to get through doors if you're not struggling with the weight of the whole thing."
   "How does it come to bits?" said the husband.
   "It's something like eight screws for the pillars and another four for the modesty panel."
   "Yes," said the wife. "We'll take it. And the cassette player. One of the double-cassette ones."
   "Do you take plastic?" said the husband.
   "Only money," smiled Trevolin. "But a deposit will reserve your items until you get back."
   The young couple managed to find the required 10%. They seemed quite surprised to be issued with a receipt. The van driver approached as the couple were heading home for their car via the bank. Trevolin raised his eyebrows in inquiry.
   "Order for M. Arnoux of TR," said the driver.
   "Right." Trevolin made a great show of hunting though that day's assignment file on his computer. Then he shook his head. "What was it you were supposed to collect?"
   "No idea, mate. All I was told was M. Arnoux's order."
   Trevolin scrolled up and down the file again. "I can't find anything here. You know what's happened, don't you? That sod Ron kept me talking for so long I never got round to booking his order in. And no one told you what it was?"
   "No, mate. I've got another pick-up to make. I'll go and do than and ask him what he wanted when I get back."
   After the driver had gone, Trevolin realized that someone with a little initiative would have asked to use his phone to call Arnoux. But Trevolin was not feeling particularly co-operative where Ron Arnoux was concerned and the driver seemed untroubled by the prospect of a second journey.
   Trevolin poured himself a glass of white wine and helped himself to the snacks, enjoying a warm glow of satisfaction. He had made less profit on the deal with Alain but he had avoided dived deeper into the swamp of debt that Arnoux was creating for him. There was a lot to be said for occasional craziness.

Chief Inspector Hébert had managed to get a tap authorized for the phone in Georges Trevolin's warehouse as a routine precaution. He was amused to receive an excited call from one of the monitoring team at around lunchtime. If Trevolin was ordering helicopter gunships and armoured cars for some mysterious Luc, it had to be something to do with the film business.
   Hébert allowed himself to wonder if the whole film story could be a cover for a military coup. He let himself imagine an army of supposed extras with undeactivated Kalashnikovs storming the presidential palace with armoured support while helicopter gunships attacked selected targets around the city. The result of any coup, he concluded, would be to exchange one set of brain-dead scroungers for another. There was nothing like a spell on the Anti-Corruption Squad, he told himself, for building contempt for his fellow man and woman.

The expected frantic call from Ron Arnoux never materialized. Arnoux, Trevolin concluded, had withdrawn into his shell and the driver had been unable to contact him. Not returning calls was something that Arnoux did when he was feeling guilty about a job that he should be doing but wasn't.
   Trevolin cleared his warehouse, knocking his price down to rock bottom to a pair of vultures to get rid of a set of stacking chairs, then he paid Hugo off after a trip to the bank to deposit his takings. He had just a little more business to take care off before he called it a day.
   Albert Piraud gave him a cigar when he called in at the ex-Legionnaire's office to order four of his armoured cars plus spares. Trevolin gained the impression that Piraud had not been expecting to hear anything more from him. Piraud had considered the armoured cars to be out of Trevolin's league.
   Encouraged, he collected his car and drove out to Wolf Rimmendorf's farm to order the helicopters. His reward was a heart-stopping, low-level test flight in a gunship stripped of its armour. A movie helicopter, he realized, would have to perform much more spectacular stunts than its military counterpart.
   Driving back to the city was a strange experience. Even when he was over the speed limit, he seemed to be travelling incredibly slowly. He managed to regain his garage without being arrested for speeding. Coming back to earth, he remembered that he had shopping to do. He should have done it on Saturday but he had awarded himself the weekend off.
   He was on his way home with two full carrier bags when an almighty bang brought a busy street to a momentary standstill. Trevolin saw a pillar of black smoke rising about twenty metres ahead. He turned into the first side street and headed around the scene of the explosion. He had no intention of letting curiosity get the better of him when some crazy fool was planting bombs on the main streets.
   He switched on his radio when he got home. A news flash told him that someone had put a small bomb in one of the antique pissoirs that still decorated some of the main streets. The reporter seemed to think that the outrage was an anti-male protest by a fringe feminist group rather than Arab militants at it again.
   The bomb, the police believed, had been more powerful than the feminists had expected. Instead of making just a loud noise, it had injured over thirty people and an elderly nun had died in hospital. Trevolin wondered if the bomb might not have been aimed at him because he stood up to Ron Arnoux for once. It was a crazy sort of notion for a crazy day.

18. Battleground

Ron Arnoux had an uncomfortable meeting with his father first thing on Tuesday morning. Giles Arnoux had retained many lines of communication from his relatively brief spell as a member of parliament and his even briefer tour of duty as a junior minister. One of his contacts had warned him that his son's cleaning woman had once been arrested as an industrial spy. Ron had been forced just to accept the parental ticking off for being stupid enough to employ such a person and for putting Tractage Rapide's secrets at risk. Ron knew that he had hired Kitty Farge through a respectable agency, and he had never seen her doing anything suspicious, but that was no excuse.
   Going straight into another strategy meeting for the CJN presentation did not improve his mood. After putting up with another round of circular discussions, Arnoux found an endless procession of people marching in and out of his office and stopping him from getting anything done. His defence was to go out, saying he wanted to visit the library. He actually drove past the city's main public library on his way home.
   After making himself a chicken sandwich and pouring a glass of the good wine to go with his lunch, he switched on his computer. His first stop was his list of enemies and candidates for the car-crapper. Seeing George Trevolin's name reminded him of the garbled message that his secretary had passed on to him the previous evening.
   There had been some sort of problem about picking up the CD-player and the video-editor that he had ordered. Arnoux added fixing the problem to a list of things to do in his organizer file. Often, marking something for action cleared it off his conscience and became a substitute for doing it. Getting authorization to pay for the new gadgets, he knew, would be a serious problem but TR would have their use in the meantime. Arnoux had awarded Trevolin a part-payment, believing that it would keep him quiet for a while. Acting on impulse, he dialled the number of his carriers and asked to speak to Bert.
   "Bert here," said a voice through a mouthful of lunch.
   "Ron Arnoux, Bert. I got a message about yesterday's pick-up. There was some sort of problem?"
   "Yeah, the bloke couldn't find it on his computer. I tried to get in touch with you yesterday to find out what you wanted. Your secretary said she'd pass on the message."
   "Not on his computer?" said Arnoux. "What are you telling me, Bert? You didn't get the CD-player and the VCR?"
   "He reckoned you two got talking and he never logged it."
   "Shit!"
   "There wasn't much I could do after I left the message with your secretary," said Bert.
   "Shit! We needed that stuff."
   "You want me to go back today?"
   "No, it won't be there now. Okay, forget it, Bert."
   Arnoux slammed his receiver down and fumed. Everything was going wrong for him. He wanted to edit together sections of several videos as his master back-up to cover surprise questions. Even though he had no idea how the new videorecorder worked, he had been confident that he would be able to operate it. His video had been the centrepiece of his strategy. He was back to square one again.
   It was all Trevolin's fault. Arnoux sat down and stared at his computer. He was in totally the wrong frame of mind for working on the presentation to CJN Management Consultants. His clear plan had been reduced to a scramble to make something of the latest ramblings at that morning's strategy meeting. He had been sabotaged.
   Arnoux wondered again if Trevolin could be behind the car-crapping episode. He was not convinced that Trevolin would ever dare to do something so extreme, despite his constant bellyaching about unpaid invoices, but Arnoux had just been taught that he could never know what was going on under the surface. Finding that he had employed an industrial spy as his cleaner proved that. Eventually, he decided to give Trevolin some sort of shock treatment. Even if Trevolin had not attacked his car, he deserved a good fright anyway for being such a dozy bugger over the lost order. Arnoux reached for his telephone again and hit the redial button.

Georges Trevolin was at home making a serious study of an auction catalogue when a call came through to his mobile phone from Antonia Storr.
   "Where are you?" said Storr, coming straight to the point.
   "Er, Location Five." Trevolin had to struggle to remember the number of his apartment in Storr's code sequence.
   "Can we meet at Location Zero in about two hours?"
   "Okay." Trevolin translated the message as a meeting at his office in twenty minutes.
   "That job we talked about is on. See you then."
   Trevolin put his catalogue away and prepared to go out in a hurry. It was Tuesday and the auction in Compiègne was not until Thursday. He had plenty of time for his preparations.
   He reached the office building with five minutes to spare. Fernand was climbing the stairs from the printers in the basement as he entered the lobby.
   "Are you moonlighting for them?" grinned Trevolin. "You seem to spend half your life at Lebeque's."
   "Cop for this, Comrade." Fernand handed him a leaflet.
   "What, another one?" Trevolin glanced at the leaflet, noting that it was a letter of some sort before he tucked it away in his jacket pocket for future reference. "You've sorted out all the problems with the last one, then?"
   "Just about. I think we've convinced a bunch of pig-thick coppers we had nothing to do with that letter."
   Trevolin had a sudden flash of inspiration. "As a committed revolutionary, do you know anything about police ID cards?"
   "What about them?" frowned Fernand. "Hello!"
   A woman had passed them, heading for the stairs. She gave Fernand a friendly smile and said, "Hello, Fernand. Up the revolution." Antonia Storr ignored Trevolin.
   "Someone you know?" said Trevolin when Storr reached the first landing, depriving Fernand of a view of her legs.
   "I see her in Lebeque's from time to time, collecting odd printing jobs. What was it you wanted to know?"
   "Police identity cards. Do you know anything about the coloured stripes on them?"
   "What about them?"
   "Which outfit have green stipes?"
   "OTTRAN," Fernand said with the confidence of someone who didn't know what he was talking about. "The Security Service: anti-terrorism. You don't want to get mixed up with that lot, Comrade. Why?"
   "Just something I saw on the box." Trevolin hid his dismay quite well. "Talking about that - the terrorist bomb in that pissoir wasn't part of your campaign, was it?"
   Fernand grinned broadly. "It was probably the city council. They're embarrassed by the pissoirs but they can't get rid of them because they're tourist landmarks and protected by the heritage industry."
   "You know, that sounds daft enough to be true," Trevolin realized. He had a mental image of Charles de Mirelle hunting down and sandbagging militant feminists for destroying landmarks of the city's male heritage.
   "See you around," said Fernand. "I've got these buggers to distribute." He hefted a parcel containing about a ream of leaflets and headed for the street door.
   Storr had let herself in to his office and the kettle was coming to the boil. Trevolin made coffee for two.
   "You know Pierre Rouxget, don't you?" said Storr.
   "Yes," said Trevolin cautiously.
   "Can you invite him to lunch with my Czechs?"
   "When?"
   "Today."
   "I can see if he's free. What's this deal about?"
   "They're looking for film makers who would be interested in using their country for location work. They're impressed by Rouxget's work and they want an introduction."
   "And?"
   "And what?" frowned Storr.
   "You're making it sound like a normal business deal."
   "Well, it is." Storr laughed at him. "No, Georges, there's no sneaking around, no spies this time. They want to fix up a legitimate business arrangement. I admit, I was just as surprised as you are when they explained it. But it's intended as some sort of government-to-government deal. International co-operation."
   "And everyone dipping their bread in the taxpayers' gravy?"
   "Something like that. Well, can you do it?"
   Trevolin took out his mobile phone and contacted Pierre Rouxget's office. His name was a passport to a conversation with the man himself. Rouxget was interested in a free lunch that held the prospect of enhancing his reputation internationally. Storr gave detailed instructions on where to meet her Czechs and how to recognize them. Then she slipped away leaving Trevolin with two mugs to wash.
   He lit a cigarette and took the leaflet out of his pocket. It offered another approach to the problem of late payers. It seemed particularly tame in comparison to the previous advice. Trevolin wondered if the campaign was starting to run out of steam after the shock of being infiltrated by one of Ron Arnoux's victims.
   There was no covering note with the sample letter but the use was obvious. Trevolin put it into the middle drawer of his filing cabinet. He labelled the binder Good Ideas That Aren't Likely To Work. In the case of Tractage Rapide, it was his experience that the managing director was a pleasant enough chap but he had no control over the resident loose cannon called Ron Arnoux.
   Thinking evil thoughts about Arnoux, Trevolin inspected the neat stack of mail, which Storr had put on a corner of his desk. There was a catalogue for an auction in the city in a fortnight's time, which saved on travelling expense. The rest of his mail looked like routine circulars with unmissable offers. Trevolin was just about to file it in the alley when he noticed a business letter. He stared at the Tractage Rapide logo in the top right corner of the letter. He almost fell off his chair when he found the cheque folded up with a payment advice from TR.

Your Company Letterhead

The Managing Director,
Latepaying Bastards et Cie.
666 r. de la Bête
Gomorra 75000.
Today's Date.

Re: Overdue Unpaid Invoices

Dear [Recipient's name],

I am becoming increasingly concerned by the way invoices and statements sent to your company, and telephone reminders that they remain unpaid, are met with fugitive promises to pay.

Indeed, the normally automatic process of payment seems to occur only after [late-paying company] has been shamed sufficiently, which is usually a long, long time after the due date.

In such circumstances, it is customary to write to the person at the top in the hope that they will apply a managing directorial sink plunder to the blockage. I trust that you will do so promptly to prevent further damage to the reputation of [late-paying company].
 

Yours sincerely,

 
 

[Your name].
 

encl: a statement with invoice dates, numbers and amounts outstanding.

 

This standard document © Lebeque-Barre et Cie, propriétaires-éditeurs, 07-96.

A rough calculation, made without the benefit of the detail available in his computer, told him that he had been paid up to about Arnoux's last two pillages. Trevolin realized that he had done his good pal Ron an injustice; the cheque really had been in the post. But having been told so many lies and half truths in the past, he felt no inclination to ring Arnoux to apologize, especially as he had not been paid the full amount owing. Arnoux was still playing games with him.
   Trevolin was a little disturbed by an event that seemed so against nature. He wondered if Toni Storr has been having a quiet word with Ron after all the hints that Trevolin had dropped. He had not dared to share the debt with Storr. He had always given her a full cut from their sales. Sticking her with a share of their bad debts had seemed a crazy act; about as crazy as getting money out of Ron Arnoux.

Setting priorities, Trevolin rushed the cheque to the bank and paid through the nose for express clearance. He knew that Arnoux would not appreciate the loss of his order the day before and Trevolin wanted to get his hands on some of the money that he was owed before Arnoux realized that he could get his revenge by cancelling the cheque.
   His next stop was his apartment to change into something light but smart for a luncheon meeting at a posh restaurant. The Czechs were staying at the Hotel Magneta, which had three and a half stars. Fortunately, all three visitors spoke fluent French. Trevolin piloted them further round Friedland Square to Chez Louise, which was the most fashionable of the local restaurants. Pierre Rouxget would know it as the most expensive and be suitably impressed.
   Trevolin's mobile phone started to chirp at about the moment when he had eaten his fill and he was starting to feel surplus to requirements. He was not sure quite how he was going to make a profit out of the deal, unless the Czechs had paid Storr for her services and she was going to give him a cut. It was ironic that she was doing the sort of job that Tractage Rapide handled, seeing that Trevolin was making about as much profit as he made from Ron Arnoux in the short term.
   His telephone call was from Albert Piraud - someone else to whom he was reluctant to say no. Piraud wanted to deliver his armoured cars right away. Nobody seemed to sorry to see him go as Trevolin rushed off to his warehouse. He consoled himself with the thought that there was no way that he was going to be stuck with the bill for the free lunch.
   The first of four vans was there waiting for him. Trevolin opened the door and watched an armoured car drive in and park tidily at the side of the warehouse opposite the security cage. The large van drove away to be replaced by an identical one. Trevolin noticed that a small crowd of people with nothing better to do had gathered at the door. He began to worry about attracting the attention of a nosy cop.
   He knew that he had a perfectly good tale to tell but he was not looking forward to wasting the rest of the afternoon proving that he had a perfect right to store as many armoured cars as he wanted in his warehouse.
   Albert Piraud arrived with the last van. Showing off his military skills, he insisted on driving the last armoured car into the warehouse. Trevolin closed the outer door immediately, cutting off the view to the spectators. He was prepared to endure mild carbon monoxide poisoning until the fumes dispersed.
   "I hope you don't expect to get paid for these right now, Albert," Trevolin told the former Legionnaire.
   "I thought you'd have a suitcase waiting, Georges," grinned Piraud. "Just like for Wolf Rimmendorf."
   "Our deal was you'd wait until I've been paid."
   "I know. But it's in everyone's interests for the deal to be seen to go through today. If that's okay with you?"
   "Well, okay." Trevolin realized that he had no choice in the matter. "I suppose we can't leave them in a public car park, can we? Do I get any paperwork to go with this?"
   "Tons."
   An assistant brought Piraud's briefcase over. Trevolin set up his folding furniture to create an improvised office. He worked through the paperwork methodically, making absolutely sure that it was all in order, and typed relevant details into the accounting program on his portable computer.
   "What's this receipt?" he frowned eventually. "I told you, I can't pay you off right now. And my client's going to want to inspect them before he closes his end of the deal."
   "The way the deal works, it has to be completed today. So I'm going to give you a receipt for the full price."
   "You mean you're going to trust me, Albert?"
   "We're going to trust each other. And you're good for the money, aren't you, Georges?"
   "As long as my buyer is. Sorting the VAT out is going to be a bit tricky. Okay, whatever you say, Albert."
   Trevolin put his signature on the contract in the places indicated and accepted his copy and the receipt. Piraud shook his hand and returned to the van. Saving the batteries in his mobile, Trevolin used the telephone in the warehouse to put a call through to Luc Gallard.
   "M. Gallard's office?" said an efficient voice with an very educated accent.
   "I'd like to speak to Luc," said Trevolin.
   "Who's calling, please?"
   "Georges Trevolin."
   "One moment, please, I'll have him paged. Can you tell me what it's in connection with?"
   "Armoured cars."
   "Armoured cars?" The receptionist sounded unimpressed.
   "Four of them, yes." Trevolin kept his tone equally casual, as if he sold armoured cars by the dozen every day.
   "Hello, Georges?" said Gallard's voice about thirty seconds later. "Problems?"
   "Only if you don't want them. I've got your armoured cars in my warehouse right now."
   "You've got them?"
   "My supplier just brought them." Trevolin tried to sound like a second-hand car dealer taking delivery of new stock.
   "Great! Can you get one over to me?"
   "I don't know if my driving licence covers armoured cars, Luc. Or that they're licensed for public roads. I suppose you could send a van over. That's how they got here."
   "How big are they?"
   "I haven't run a tape measure over them yet."
   "Pace out a length and width, and then estimate a height compared to how tall you are. Initiative, Georges. That's what you have to show to get on in the film business."
   "Hang on." Trevolin made his estimates and passed on the information to Gallard.
   "I was just saying, we could really do with one for a set-up tomorrow," said Gallard. "What I'd like to do is pick one up right away and collect the others tomorrow afternoon."
   "Okay. They haven't got guns on them. You knew that?"
   "That's okay, we've had some mock-ups made. If we can get one tried out today, we'll get a full day ahead of schedule."
   "And you don't need to tell me how important that is to the accountants," said Trevolin.
   "Quite. How's Marie?"
   "About a week behind with Emil going spare, the last I heard. Are you going to pay me tomorrow too?"
   "You mean, you want paying for them?"
   "Don't even think about winding me up about that, Luc. What about the gunships?"
   "Can you deliver those to my location?"
   "If you can pay cash on delivery."
   "Okay, I'll kidnap the accounts manager's favourite concubine. And I'll get a cheque to you tomorrow. Can you hang on for about half an hour until my van arrives?"
   "Make sure your driver has a proper authority to collect it."
   "Why, how many people do you expect to turn up at your door asking for armoured cars?" laughed Gallard. "Okay, I'll get my secretary right on it. Your computer's still working, by the way. And I keep getting all sorts of people admiring the quality of the colour screen."
   "I only sell quality," said Trevolin. "Half an hour, then?"
   "If that. Cheers, Georges."

Reb, the driver commissioned by Ron Arnoux to do Trevolin a bad turn, had been lurking at the warehouse for most of the day. It was his only point of contact with the intended victim, and he was being paid whether or not Trevolin turned up.
   Concerned about being recognized, Reb had changed his appearance as much as possible. He normally worked in baggy jeans and a sweatshirt. He had chosen a counterfeit designer tracksuit as his mugging outfit and added a pair of sunglasses on an elasticated band, which would prevent them from falling off when he ran. His shoes, an essential part of his plan, were of comfortable, well worn-in leather.
   The arrival of a succession of vans just after lunchtime persuaded him to stay on. He had parked his car in the wide open spaces in front of an unoccupied warehouse further down the road and he had been chipping off rust and applying primer to the ancient vehicle to while away the time.
   When the last of the vans left, Reb changed from a paint-splattered overall into his mugging gear in the back of the car. He had to wait a further hour before Trevolin appeared. Arnoux had told him to grab Trevolin's portable computer. Arnoux had taken a fancy to the Sesquire. He was working on a cover story to explain where he had bought it. Phone calls to technical contacts had told him that there were a few in circulation at highly inflated prices. It was the classic case of a great deal of demand for a severely limited quantity of a prestige product.
   Reb stayed on his side of the road when Trevolin left his warehouse, shortly after yet another van had visited him. Reb's plan was to kick hell out of Trevolin's Achilles tendon in a crowd, a popular way of disabling football players, and leg it with the briefcase containing the computer while Trevolin was rolling about in agony on the pavement.
   Not knowing how far Trevolin was going, Reb nerved himself for the assault and moved in. He decided to attack the next time Trevolin stopped in a crowd to cross the road at traffic lights. Gaze fixed firmly on his intended victim, Reb closed to within a couple of metres of his target.
   Trevolin approached a crossing. The light turned from red to green just before he arrived. There was a department store on the corner. Reb was planning to duck in there with the briefcase. Running off down the street carrying something would make him look too conspicuous. Then he would circle quickly in side streets to his car and complete his getaway.
   Reb moved in for the snatch. But as he swung his foot, he found himself off balance suddenly and he missed his aim.. Something had thumped against his thigh hard enough to give him 'dead-leg' for a couple of seconds. A wreck of a woman with long, greasy hair, a huge tackle bag and a carrier bag glared at him before taking a swipe at him with the carrier bag. Tired plastic gave way, enveloping Reb in stale garments.
   A crowd began to gather to watch the piece of street theatre. Reb knew that he had become too conspicuous to carry on with his mugging and switched to his escape plan. Shedding female bits and pieces, he hopped away from the crowd and into the department store. He limped along an aisle and lost himself among people who had not seen his humiliation. Two minutes later, he was out on another street and getting away.
   "He was after you, you know." The woman dropped her tackle bag at Trevolin's feet and began to gather up scattered property. "He's been watching you right along here. He was after your briefcase."
   Trevolin, clutching his left calf and leaning against a traffic light, looked around for the mugger. The man had gone. He spotted a policeman inspecting parked cars further along the road. He decided not to trouble him. The woman extracted another carrier bag from her tackle bag and crushed clothing into it. Trevolin picked up her tackle bag and handed it to his saviour. His left leg seemed able to support him now.
   "Buy me a drink and we'll call it quits," she said to him.
   Trevolin glanced at his watch automatically, knowing that he had plenty of time to waste because he was only going home. He could indulge in more eccentric behaviour.
   "Okay, why not?" he said. "Thanks for your help."
   The lights had changed twice. Trevolin and his bodyguard crossed over and headed for a bar lost in the long line of department stores. He was relieved, when she moved closer to him, to find that the bag lady didn't smell like a sewage farm. She was short, on the red side of auburn, dressed in threadbare clothes and she carried a tackle bag that looked big enough to hold the contents of a shopping trolley. In fact, she looked too healthy to be a starving, drink-sodden citizen of the streets.
   The odd couple attracted curious stares when they claimed a table in darkest corner of the bar. Trevolin ordered two glasses of cognac and lit a cigarette. He was starting to feel a little shaken. He was reminded of the current news media outrage over motorbike muggers armed with knives and even hand guns operating during the day on the Champs-Elysées.
   They were snatching handbags, necklaces and bracelets, briefcases and carrier bags with designer labels. The Minister of the Interior was out of the country, enjoying himself on holiday. He seemed unwilling to return to face a constant barrage of criticism from MPs anxious for a mention in the media and the usual gang of loudmouths. Trevolin was willing to bet that the late Guy Malard had made his contribution to the debate before his skull had been crushed.
   As usual, the police were in trouble for doing nothing more than handing out parking tickets when they should have been protecting the public. 682 pickpockets and muggers had been arrested in the city centre the year before. One of Trevolin's business contacts had pointed out that this apparently impressive statistic amounted to just two arrests per day. The cynic had asked how many of those 682 arrests were the same criminals being picked up repeatedly and released after a few hours. Travel agents were warning foreign clients to be extra careful after 9 p.m. Violent muggers seemed to be seeping out of the suburbs and into the city centre. There was lots of indignation in the press about the disgrace to national honour of this despoiling of the City of Light.
   "Good health," smiled the woman, raising her glass. "It seems quite a fitting toast."
   "Cheers," smiled Trevolin, letting his train of thought go.
   "I'm Arina."
   "Georges."
   "Anything valuable in your briefcase?"
   "A computer. And my mobile phone. Maybe I should get one of those things with a handcuff to chain it to my wrist."
   "It's safer to have a chain that goes up your sleeve and fastens round your body, Georges. I heard about one poor man who had his arm cut off by thieves to get a handcuff off."
   "Oh, great!" Trevolin gulped brandy. "Another?"
   "Why not?" smiled Arina. "It's nice to sit down."
   Trevolin waved a summons to the waiter.
   "Are you on your way to a meeting?" said Arina.
   "No, I was going home, actually. I'm practically there."
   "You live in the city?"
   "Saves a lot of travelling."
   "That's something I've been doing a lot of."
   Trevolin tapped ash from his cigarette, checked that his briefcase was still on the seat beside him and settled back to let Arina tell him her life story. She told him that she was from Morocco and she was looking for her husband, who had disappeared with their savings, which explained why she looked a bit of a mess.
   Trevolin gathered that she was a modern woman, who had rejected the confines of a male-dominated Islamic society. She seemed tough and capable, and well able to sort out her thief of a husband when she caught up with him. During the third brandy, he agreed to put her up for a couple of days to let her sort herself out and chase down a couple of addresses in the northern suburbs.
   They travelled to his apartment by taxi after another drink. His large lunch had served to delay the effects of the alcohol but he no longer felt like walking. Arina had made it clear that they were not on a sleeping-together basis. She was a totally respectable, married woman and even though her husband was a rotten thief, she respected their vows.
   Trevolin did not encourage visitors but there was a camp bed for emergencies. Arina had a shower and disappeared off to the nearby launderette, so she said, giving Trevolin a chance to lock his computer away and do a quick check round the apartment for compromising items.
   Arina changed into a pair fluffy, green slippers when she returned. She had made a quick trip to her flat and a brief report by phone to Chief Inspector Hébert, who had seemed quite amused to hear that his plan to put someone closer to Georges Trevolin had succeeded in putting one of his team into Trevolin's apartment.
   As he sobered up, Trevolin began to wonder how long his attack of craziness would last. On the positive side, Arina would be the perfect discourager if Val Sanjac turned up again. On the negative side, he had no idea what he would say if Marie phoned and Arina answered.
   His guest seemed to be quite domesticated. After investigating the kitchen and finding real food in it, as opposed to the prepackaged, supermarket convenience products that she had been expecting, she volunteered to make dinner. Trevolin laid the table for two and decanted a bottle of the decent red to let it breathe. He put an Alan Stivell CD into the player for background music. He had nothing much in the way of ethnic music that his guest might enjoy. Breton folk-rock from the Seventies was the nearest he could get to a minority culture.
   Moving around aimlessly, looking for things to tidy, he kicked a shoe that was poking out from under an armchair. He was moving it back to rejoin its mate when he noticed something in it. The pad of thin leather inside the shoe at the heel was loose. In fact, it was stuck down only at the edges to form a pocket. Something was poking out of the pocket.
   Trevolin pulled the plastic-sealed document out until he could see what it was. He stared in horror at the police identity card. It had green stripes, like Chief Inspector Hébert's. A man with a whole lot on his conscience had been infiltrated. Unfortunately, he had no idea which of his illegal activities Chief Inspector Hébert had chosen to follow up.

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Created for Romiley Literary Circle by HTSP Web Division, 10/12 SK6 4EG, Romiley, UK.
The original story 1996, AriDorn Enterprises. This version AriDorn Enterprises, 2003