Flash of the Sun
NEW YORK, RALEIGH, LONDON, AMSTERDAM
PUBLISHED BY TISI BOOKS
New York, spring 1958
Renault's "princess"—the 1956 Renault Dauphine—made René Roccard proud of his native land, a feeling he shared with millions of his French compatriots. So, when he bought a Dauphine sedan from the first consignment of the model that the auto manufacturer shipped to the United States of America, his co-workers were not surprised at all. However, people started raising their eyebrows when he made it a point of honking or intoning stanzas of the La Marseillaise, the national anthem of France, whenever he drove past a Renault Dauphine.
The fact that the Frenchman regarded the car as testament to France’s recovery after the country’s humiliating four-year occupation by Germany during the Second World War, said a lot about his patriotism.
Even so, René did not feel proud or concerned about the automobile that afternoon as he drove through the streets of New York. The expression of grim determination on his face relaxed a little as he left East 48th Street behind him and joined the crawl of traffic through Broadway, completely oblivious of the skyscrapers on both sides of the road. His mind was on his self-assigned mission. The preoccupation almost made him hit the blue Ford Fairlane right in front of his car had he not reacted to the impending impact by stepping hard on the brake pedal, thereby forcing the Renault Daphne to jerk to a stop. Then he hit the steering wheel repeatedly for no apparent reason.
“Merde…merde, les salopards!” he cursed and didn’t cease until the sound of cars hooting from his rear alerted him that he was lagging behind the flow of traffic.
René moved the car forward, in rhythm with the other vehicles ahead of him, and then looked at his left palm made damp by perspiration. The irony of his nervousness brought a sigh out of his lips at the same time that the skin over the median part of his eyes folded. However, the contorted expression on his face eased a little as he gritted and drove into 1st Avenue/United Nations Plaza, steering the vehicle through a variety of residential neighborhoods.
“Cette circulation est agaçante,” he hissed under his breath.
True René hadn’t anticipated heavy traffic at that hour of the day and never imagined the temperature could hit ninety-seven degrees Fahrenheit. He did not like the implication, afraid it might mess up his plans. He parked the car in the Turtle Bay neighborhood, got out, opened the trunk, and then pulled out a guitar case with hardly recognizable rifle parts inside. He shut the trunk with a bang, locked the driver door and pocketed the key.
“You have a nice baby there,” a voice sounded from behind René, sending a chill up his spine.
He froze for a moment, turned around with a half-angry and half-surprised look on his face.“What did you say?” he asked with lips slightly corrupted by a sneer he could not shake off.
“It is a beautiful piece of machinery. Oh yes! As a matter of fact, my wife is buying one tonight,” the smiling American with a Boston accent replied, and then ran his hand on the hood as if caressing it.
“Thank you, Sir. Believe me; your wife will love it,” René said and regarded the man for a moment with narrowed eye-lids, “Excuse me, Sir; I must leave now,” he added as he turned around, making no effort to disguise his thick Gallic accent. He did not even look at the man as he waved goodbye and hurried away.
He walked across the park with quick steps in the direction of the Tudor City apartments, conscious of the dampness on the back of his shirt.
“Ignore it,” he said in an effort to shake off the mild feeling of irritation.
René increased his pace as he approached the apartment block situated directly opposite the United Nations Headquarters, right across First Avenue. He even covered the remaining twenty yards to the apartment door with half-running steps.
“What am I doing to myself?” he mumbled, mindful of his panting and the slight trembling of his hands.
He pulled out the bunch of keys from his back pocket, picked out an inconspicuous silver key, inserted it into the keyhole, and then unlocked the entrance door. He pushed it open with heightened anxiety, muttering a torrent of curses under his breath as he stepped inside Giuseppe Matteotti’s two bedroom apartment. Then he locked the door behind him and hurried to the casement window.
It was just a month ago that he made the Italian painter’s acquaintance in a bar, got his invitation to his apartment to see his paintings and decided to copy his key after the painter told him he would be away in his old country for half a year.
René took less than three minutes to assemble the sniper rifle, and then set aside fifteen minutes to wait for his target while his high adrenaline level subsided. But the target didn’t show up until forty-three minutes later; and even when he exited the United Nations building, he did so with a crowd. And it turned out that the man never stayed for more than a second or two in the crosshairs of René’s rifle scope, a fact that caused his flow of adrenaline to start rising again.
Ruben Um Nyobé, the energetic six-foot leader of the Cameroonian Underground Organization fighting France in French Cameroun, appeared to be talking and gesturing to the five men and a lone woman around him with an air of self-confidence and a smile on his face that triggered a flow of bile up René’s throat. He swallowed it back and licked his lips.
René’s heart skipped a beat as the diplomats walked with the French Camerounian away from the building. His cardiac turmoil was followed by an ache in his stiffened trigger finger as he focused his aim and waited for the moment to deliver the shot that would avenge the death of his brother. But then, Ruben stopped, held the shoulder of one of the foreign diplomats, and then moved away, forcing René to gasp without intending to. Now, his target was hidden by the burly diplomat, a development that infuriated him even further, leaving his nerves more overwrought than before. The Frenchman bit his lip as he watched the other diplomats encircle Ruben and walk with him to the waiting car. Then the car drove away.
Rage swept over René, setting off a quivering fit. He buckled under the weight of his failure, slumped to the floor, and then rolled over. A series of grunts escaped his lips as he hit his thighs with both fists. Then he leaned backwards on the wall and closed his eyes, muttering barely audible curses as he banged the back of his head on the barrier.
René Roccard’s lip movement stopped for a moment, followed by a deep frown, an unconscious facial movement that created a look of extreme rage on his face. Without even opening his eyes, he nodded to himself several times as if acknowledging an inner voice. Yes, it was his inner voice all right. He would try again for the third time, and if the next attempt turned out to be unsuccessful too, then he would have to go to French Cameroun and finish the job there.
René closed his eyes again and tried to shake off the haunting Monday, January 6, 1958 headline in the New York Times, but it kept imposing itself in his mind.
France Sends Troops to Crush Red-Led Uprising in Cameroons; Acts to Prevent New 'Algeria' in African Territory Where Rebels Burned 60 Villages.
“Les idiots, les imbéciles!” he growled, paused for a moment with an expression of deep pain on his face.
The rebellion in our Cameroun isn’t different from the one in Algeria. That’s why Marc is dead. He quivered in an inaudible voice, and then closed his eyes. A moment of silence ensued before he buried his head in his hands and wept.
René went to work the next day feeling disheartened. But that emotion did not last for long because news from Paris reporting the return to power of General Charles De Gaulle reached the consulate hardly an hour after he got there and settled down behind his desk. The afternoon report brought a genuine smile to his face for the first time that week.
René Roccard barely had enough hours of sleep that night to keep him alert the next day after the French consulate in New York granted his request to travel to France. With his anxiety fuelled by his constant thoughts on French Cameroun, he had every reason to be anticipatory. There was much about the territory to keep abreast of—a lot to learn, personalities to know and strategies to devise.
He arrived in Paris that late spring without letting his friends, family and relatives know about it, and then reported the next day at the Ministry of Overseas territories for a meeting with the new minister. The appointment was set for Thursday.
René was in high spirits when he showed up at the former Hôtel Majestic in central Paris, once a massive luxury hotel that politicians decided to transform into a hub for diplomacy. He was even more effusive when a secretary ushered him into the minister’s office. But the meeting was a flop even before it ended, or so, he concluded prematurely. The new minister’s partial grasp of the situation in French Cameroun left René infuriated to the point where he almost called the man a moron, a concern he thought of informing his superiors about.
A faint expression of suppressed rage at the lack of substance of the meeting could be seen on his face as he rose to leave. But then André Colin rose too and extended his hand to him. René hesitated for a moment before he shook it, musing at the fact that he stood a head taller than the minister. But then, André Colin made him smile for the first time that afternoon as he walked him to the door.
“I don’t think you know about this, but Monsieur Pierre Messmer is eager to meet you. In fact, he asked me to schedule a rendezvous with you for Tuesday next week, right here in my office.”
“Messmer?” he exclaimed, dimming his eyes suspiciously.
“Oui, Roccard! Pierre Messmer himself.”
René smiled, shaking his head in acknowledgment.“I will be here next Thursday; that’s for sure. At what time is the rendezvous?”
The rendezvous was scheduled for three o’clock that Tuesday. But René was at the imperial building half an hour early. He was eager to meet his former commander again. Their last encounter was during Pierre Messmer’s first year as the Governor-General of French Cameroun. So, when five months ago the new government acknowledged Pierre Messmer’s impeccable grasp of the developments in French Africa by promoting him to the strategic post of High Commissioner of French Equatorial Africa, René Roccard was not surprised about it. His former commander was the right person to talk to.
He was ushered into the office a minute early to find Pierre Messmer at the window. André Colin was nowhere in sight.
“René, René Le formidable,” Pierre Messmer bellowed, opened his arms and approached René Roccard.
“Mon Commandant,” René muttered with a smile spread across his face.
“Look at you. You haven’t changed much,” Pierre Messmer chuckled.
The two men had little to say to one another for the next couple of seconds as they clung to each another in a bear hug.
“I feel extremely honored by the fact that you set aside some of your precious time to see me. Especially with the busy schedule you have to keep up with,” René said with a satisfied smile on his face.
“What are you talking about? If I can’t make time for someone like you, then who else is out there for me to accommodate with my worries about France.”
“There is much to talk about.”
“I am at your disposal. We have all the time in the world. Monsieur Colin made arrangements for some brandy to keep us going while we grapple with the problems haunting France.”
“Bien sûr que oui! Now, if my memory isn’t playing games with me, then I remember you as someone with a particular fondness for brandy. In fact, your taste buds for the drink were good back in the day. You might not have known about this, but you amazed me with your ability to distinguish the different qualities of brandy without blinking an eye.”
“What a drink!”
“Excellent! Mon Dieu; you and I loved brandy. Huh! Brandy was so scarce back then in Indochina,” Pierre Messmer offered.
René grinned at the mention of Indochina. Like Pierre Messmer, he too was sent to Indochina right after the Second World War to help restore complete French control in the colony after the departure of the Japanese invaders, and to eliminate the influence of Ho Chi Minh’s Marxist Vietminh forces. That was his first posting to Asia and there were few distractions in the jungle to make Indochina interesting. That is, until he developed an extreme fondness for oriental women and brandy. It was in Southeast Asia that he discovered his strong attraction for women with a high degree of pigmentation.
“Brandy is still my thing,” he said with a smile.
René Roccard listened to Pierre Messmer as he small-talked. He never took his eyes off his former boss as he picked up two glasses from the open cabinet and poured them both a drink. Then Pierre Messmer handed him a glass.
“Vive La France,” Pierre Messmer toasted.
“Vive La France,” René repeated and brought the glass to his lips.
“Merci!” he said after a gulp.
“It tastes better than the ones we had over there. You won’t believe it, but I experienced an unusual craving for brandy during those two months that I chaffed in Vietminh captivity.”
“I understand,” René said and nodded, locking eyes with Messmer’s in reaffirmation of their mutual trust.
“I know you understand because you also suffered the same indignity.”
“Five months,” René said and closed his eyes for a couple of seconds at the recollection.
“I take it you know what it meant for us who made it to glory in Paris. We went on to sweep through the rest of France in victory, chased the Nazis all the way to Germany, and then only to find ourselves years later in bamboo prisons controlled by swarthy dwarfish illiterates whose concept of war belongs to the dark ages. Hmm! and then to witness the loss of Indochina to the savages because our politicians lacked the will to fight.”
“I knew you would understand. We fought side by side in France, in Europe and in Indochina. We returned home after those wars only to find France gripped by chaos. Yes René! I took the diplomatic post to escape from the France I have always loved because of its squabbling politicians.”
“I also did the same thing,” René interjected.
“Hmm! So you sought for peace of mind in America. Hmm! But it is obvious you never stopped worrying about our beloved France; you never stopped grappling with the challenges confronting this beautiful country.”
René Roccard shook his head in acknowledgement.“Certainement!” he mumbled.
“René Le Formidable! I’ll go ahead with the purpose of our meeting.”
“When I learned of your request to go to French Cameroun, I said to myself—‘Here is the man we need.’”
“I don’t want to recall the number of times I made that request.”
“René, René, René! Your kid brother was serving in French Cameroun! How much sacrifice could France demand from a single family at a given time?”
René shook his head but said nothing in reply.
“I am sorry about Marc.”
“He is dead and we have a job to do. Those bandits should not be allowed to succeed.”
“I am glad you are committed to the land your brother sacrificed his life for. The New France won’t be led to flee from French Cameroun or Algeria as the left-led France abandoned Indochina to Ho Chi Minh’s red bandits. Général Charles De Gaulle is back, and so too is our glory.”
“I like your language,” René said, sipped his brandy and licked his lips.
“You won’t believe it if I tell you that the native we put there as Prime Minister wants me to authorize the army to use Napalm on Um Nyobé’s people. He wants us to wipe the Bassa people out, as he puts it.”
“André-Marie Mbida is a moron. His utterances against Um Nyobé and the partisans he is leading make our campaign look bad.”
“Good you understand the liability we created. He certainly is a bad son of a bitch, but he is our son of a bitch for all I know. The Americans have a way of phrasing it better than we do.”
“My experiences in Cameroun taught me that Mbida’s ethnic group is not fond of the Bassa people. Getting rid of this Mbida guy is the right thing to do, but we must not ostracize the Beti people in the process. They are a strategic asset in our control of that land.”
“You are right about the Beti factor. I am glad we are on the same page on so many things. Hmm, René! We are about to enter a new era in our relationship with the colonies and territories. They have a sense of the direction they want to go. But where they actually head to depends on how we want our future ties with those lands we adopted to look like.”
“It shouldn’t be in the direction Indochina took. The communists are roaming all over Vietnam today,” René said tersely.
“I agree with you, René. Général De Gaulle is of the same opinion. We are at the doorsteps of a new age in our history as we embark on a strategy to loosen our grips on our overseas backyard. We will relax our control, but we won’t let our colonies and territories go like the British did in Asia and Africa. Yes, the British are turning their backs as if it is of no consequence, even as their former colonies go about embracing the Soviet Union and Marxism. India and Ghana are with the East, Nasser hates the West and U Nu is about to deliver Burma into the arms of the Russian bear.”
“Our politicians must have copied the British policy by letting Indochina go the way it did,” René said with a sigh.
“I agree with you. We risk being deprived of our colonies and territories in Africa too if we lose our nerve and allow France to be swept off its feet by the decolonization wave. It is a small wave now, but I see all the signs of a tidal wave developing there if we lose French Cameroun and Algeria. We have vital interests in Africa. There is no way we can defend those strategic interests after decolonization unless we completely defeat the Algerian and Kamerunian nationalists.”
“You are right,” René said with a nod, “I lived in America and learned something very important while there. The heartland of capitalism thrives on interest. Wealth, power and glory stem from the ability to procure, secure and defend your interests; and ultimate power lies with those who are most effective in guarding their spheres of interest. We have a huge interest in Africa, and losing or maintaining it is our decision alone to make. That decision should not be based on righteousness but on the wisdom to accept the fact that we have a collective destiny with the francophone territories because we are their mentors.”
Pierre Messmer nodded, a slight smile corrupting the sides of his mouth.“I agree with you, René.”
“Through the scheme of things beyond the understanding of our mortal minds, France was given a responsibility to be involved in the destiny of peoples it managed to bring into the fold of humanity, into modern civilization as we all know it. Shying away from those lands now is an option that would only haunt us tomorrow.”
“René, René! You said it beautifully. I like your philosophy,” Pierre Messmer said and raised his hands in the air.
René nodded with a smile.“Thank you!”
“I want you by my side in French Cameroun,” Pierre Messmer began, cracked his knuckles, and then continued, “I need someone who can direct the wind while I am away as my duties expand to French West Africa. I see a lot of political developments taking place in Francophone Sub-Saharan Africa by the end of the year. Général Charles De Gaulle, you, I and a host of other like-minded patriots think we should have the right order and the right Africans in place before we allow the colonies and territories there to become members of the United Nations Organization.”
“You are right.”
“Our purpose should be for the new France,” Pierre Messmer intoned and rested his hand on René’s shoulder.
René nodded.“I agree with you.”
“That’s why I think you have a strong shoulder to lean on,” Pierre Messmer said, dropped his hand and caressed his chin, “I see your focus is on French Cameroun. I cannot count the number of times I told the buffoons who were in power that the war is winnable. The thing is that few of the leftist sissies in the past governments actually believed me.”
“I understand. Believe me, I do.”
“I have devised a strategy. We shall work together to perfect and implement it. We are being presented with an opportunity to practice all the theories of counter-revolutionary warfare that we devised in Vietnam.”
“How?” René asked without really meaning to.
“This is how it is going to work. We shall create pacification zones throughout our French Cameroun and separate the civilian population from the rebels in the bush. We shall relocate the civilians from their scattered villages and hamlets to roadside settlements in those pacification zones. The civilian population would be guarded by our troops and by those French Camerounians who accept our rule. That’s how we shall alienate the guerrillas from their support base. The zones I am talking about shouldn’t be more than two percent of the territory of French Cameroun. ”
“We must not lose again,” René whispered.
“I am choosing you for many reasons, but the most important one is your determination to see France win in French Cameroun. There is a divine scheme in our involvement in Africa. It goes beyond tradition, human comprehension and national conscience. It is based on a belief, René; it is based on a belief that cannot accommodate doubts.”
“I agree with you,” René said, picked up the bottle of brandy and refilled their glasses, “Vive La France,” he toasted, making it sound like a battle cry.
“Vive La France,” Pierre Messmer echoed.
René left the imperial building that evening with a smile on his face. When he left the United States of America, he was wondering whether the Overseas and Defense Ministries would transfer him to fight in French Cameroun. And just when he was becoming desperate about it, Pierre Messmer showed up and offered him a high-profile assignment in the French Trust territory. He never expected things to work out so well.
The month of May 1958 is remembered in the annals of French History as the month of the second and most important Algiers Putsch—an attempt to overthrow the reigning government in Paris, launched from the capital of French Algeria.
The plotted revolt was a culmination of years of political instability originating from the shortcomings of the parliamentary system of the French Fourth Republic. This was after the French populace grew tired of governments that were plagued by recurrent cabinet crises that in turn increased the misgivings of the army and the French settlers in the colonies, especially in Algeria. Following years of chafing at the incompetence of different French governments to quell the rebellions in Algeria and French Cameroun, the army became convinced that the current government was about to act from political expediency and order another precipitated pullout from the territories, just like it had done with French Indochina in 1954, thereby sacrificing French honor in the process.
From the balconies in Algiers in Algeria and Yaoundé in French Cameroun, to the corridors of power in France itself, patriotic voices disturbed the air, calling for the return to power of General Charles De Gaulle. The cry for the return of the towering French warrior and statesman carried with it a fervor that was close to religious zeal.
Charles De Gaulle had saved French honor during the four years of German occupation of France, but then surprised the nation by resigning from public office in 1946, decrying the weaknesses of the French Fourth Republic and its constitution. Now, he was vindicated.
Just like millions of discontented and despondent French citizens, René Roccard regarded the French legend as their only hope in rallying the French nation again. He was certain General Charles De Gaulle was the only one capable of giving a sense of direction to France’s relationship with its evolving territories and colonies, and with the rest of the changing world. But above all, René was convinced that France was entering a new era in its history, a phase that would allow patriots like him to accomplish their self-assigned missions and be acknowledged at the same time as French heroes.
Clement Coulther slept through most of the transatlantic flight to Paris, but happened to be half-awake when the air hostess announced that the plane was about to land. Clement opened his eyes, yawned and stretched his body. At least, I feel better now, he thought. He sat up in a lackluster manner, turned around, and then smiled at the elderly English lady by his side.
"You have slept very well. Do you feel refreshed?" she said and smiled back.
“I feel great! I am glad I’m up just in time.”
“Did you say just in time? Oh, you mean for the landing?”
“Yes, Mrs. Moore. I can’t think of a sight better than a view of Paris from the air.”
“It is marvelous.”
“The more reason why I wouldn’t miss the opportunity of catching one for the sake of all the treasures in this world,” he muttered and smiled wider at an approaching flight attendant with a mischievous glint in his eyes this time around, “Even for that woman who could break my heart,” he added in a conspiratorial whisper.
“Hasn’t it been broken already?”
“Huh! Never! What are you talking about?”
“I heard you mutter her name in your sleep.”
Silence reigned between the two for a moment before the English lady said in a forthcoming tone, “You actually repeated her name a couple of times. It could have been Helen or Elaine or something similar.”
“What else did I say besides a name?”
“I am hazy about it, but this one stuck out,” she said with a flush, and then put her hand over her mouth.
“It is okay, Mrs. Moore! Go ahead and tell me?” he urged with a smile.
“You said her name and something like ‘lost treasure’ afterwards. There were other things in-between.”
“Uh-huh! There was more.”
“What else did I say?”
“Did you kiss and embrace others in front of her?”
“You must be in love with her.”
“Uh-huh!” Clement said and sighed, “I still think of her even as I kiss and embrace other women. Perhaps that’s what I was trying to say in my sleep.”
“I am sorry.”
“Huh!” Clement grunted, turned his face away from the old lady and frowned.
“Forgive me for poking my nose. I couldn’t help listening.”
He nodded but did not turn around. Instead, he dropped back in his seat and shut his eyes.“I was tired. I was truly tired,” he said, more to himself than to the lady by his side.
Clement placed the source of his listlessness with the disorientation that started haunting him a couple of months ago. It was sapping him of energy and the will to carry on with life like before. But he was determined to overcome that—first by getting over the bitterness of his divorce with Helen, and then by dispelling the haunting memory of the loss of his son.
Even though some of his friend marveled at his newfound freedom and thought he had so much to look forward to, he alone knew the turmoil in his soul. The return to a life of full time bachelorhood quickly lost its appeal as he became a jaded womanizer who even feared being there for the woman expecting his child. His image in that regard was not helped by the parties, nightclubs and one-night stands. That is, until the phone call less than forty-eight hours ago sent him packing his bags for Paris.
“See how beautiful Paris looks from above,” he mumbled to his neighbor.
“I love it,” she replied.
“I can’t wait to walk its streets,” he half-whispered.
The lady said something in reply, but Clement did not pay attention to her words. His mind had drifted again, back to a yesterday that held so many fun memories.
The last head-wrecking drama began at a party organized by his friend Peter Miller in a suburb in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He had consumed more than his fair share of drinks; he had danced with more blondes, brunettes and redheads than he could care to remember; and he had not closed his eyes long enough afterwards, thanks to the effort of an energetic twenty-three-year old that made him doubt his vigor for the first time.
Fate appeared to have been on his side the next morning when his host told him that Jason Montgomery, his pal from the News Syndicate, wanted him on the phone.
“Tell him I will call back,” he had responded, and then went about nursing his hangover with the blonde nibbling his ear.
Peter Miller had returned a couple of minutes after with a smile on his face.
“Jason said you will like this one. The assignment involves Paris.”
“What the hell,” he had wheezed.
“He said it has something to do with Charles De Gaulle and ‘The French Rooster.”
“Yeah!” he had added and continued kissing the blonde’s hand in a disinterested manner.
“He said the French Rooster has already left New York and returned to Paris.”
He had thought about that last piece of information for a moment, and then sat up abruptly. The blonde was startled when he tossed her hand off his thigh as if she were an itchy blanket, and then jumped out of bed and hurried to the phone.
Jason had to be right. Something was brewing in France. Charles De Gaulle was back in the political scene and René Roccard, alias “The French Rooster”, had hurriedly packed his bag and returned home. The New York Times needed a correspondent in the field right away, and his bosses thought he might want to do the job.
Of course he wanted to do the job. Paris was the one place on earth that never failed to pull him from the down side of life into making a fresh start, like a phoenix rising from its funeral pyre. He had made his debut there as a journalist working for the Air Force magazine, using the print media to report the excesses of the Free French Forces against the former supporters of Marshall Petain and his Vichy regime whom they accused of collaborating with the German military during the years that Nazi Germany occupied France.
He thought it was ironic that the first time he met René Roccard was on his first day in Paris. The French capital became his favorite city in Europe and inspired him to return home and finish his journalism program at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.
The drive to New York was a long one, but he stopped only twice to relieve his bladder and get something to eat and to drink. Coffee and Coca Cola kept him awake throughout the drive and sandwiches did a great job of keeping his digestive juices at bay. He reported upon arrival at the New York Times building on 42nd Street when dusk was in the horizon. The process went faster than anticipated. He even signed his contract with a smile on his face, and then picked up his plane ticket and left the building.
Clement looked out of the airplane window and spotted the shining River Seine snaking its way through the city. His eye lids narrowed a little as he marveled at the rows upon rows of classic buildings that swept past. The beckoning Palace of Versailles and its beautiful fountains rolled from his view to reveal moments later the imposing Eiffel tower.
He took a deep breath as he prepared to disembark.
“What else do you have in there,” the customs officer asked pointedly, never taking his gaze off Coulther’s eyes as he rested a hand on his luggage.
“Nothing! Nothing to spoil my first night in Paris in two years and nothing to stop me from having a bite of one of your famous Parisian croissants,” he beamed.
The official let him through without a fuss. He had no difficulties finding a taxi to the centre of the city, so that he was en-route to the St Petersburg hotel fifteen minutes after he went through inspection. He felt tired, yet excited.
He often wondered why the city stirred his instincts, accelerated his impulses and warmed his blood so much, filling him with ideas and memories of a past he seemed to love and hate. Yet, the answer was simple. Paris epitomized the essence of beauty, freedom, liberty and hope. Paris was the place that provided him with so many answers to some of life’s deep questions since the first day he walked its streets following the liberation of the city in August 1944. It was in the French capital that he first unleashed his passion for publishing and broadcasting the war, first as an amateur military journalist and later as a professional who covered Europe, Asia and Africa—reporting on war, terrorism, revolution, uprisings and coups. The city also made it possible for him to meet all sorts of fanciful women.
The exhausted Clement heaved a sigh of relief when the taxi stopped in front of the hotel. He stepped out of the car, stretched his body, and then pulled out his wallet and paid the fare. The driver helped him to take out his luggage, but did not follow him inside.
He felt a pleasing sense of change when he finally settled into the comfort of his hotel room. There was so much to do, so many people to get back in touch with and so many places to visit. But first, he needed water on his body.
The shower had its desired effect. It calmed him down. Clement walked out of the bathroom and flung his tired body onto the bed. He dozed off right away and did not wake up until after darkness had fully engulfed the city.
He left the hotel at 19:53 hours for the Cafe Zinc district and chose to settle in Jacques Melac’s famous Bistrot Melac. To some of the diners there, he looked like the average American exploring the city’s cuisine. He ordered a Southern French menu with the air of confidence of someone who knew exactly what he was leaving out. He even gave an acknowledging nod when the waiter told him that it came from Jacques Melac’s native Aveyron. Clement ate quietly, absorbing everything around him—from the staff to the customers and even the scenes outside. A glass of wine from Jacques Melac’s stockade off Rue de Charonne spurred him on his feet again.
Clement intended his next stop to be Grand Boulevards where he sang a ballad at a popular bar during his previous visit to Paris, but he found himself at Boulevard des Italiens instead. He wanted to walk a little, put his subconscious mind to work for tomorrow and the days after because he would have to get on René Roccard’s trail, get into the recess of plots by men of the former Free French Movement who were bent on creating a new French Republic. He was determined to be on top in reporting Europe’s next big story.
He acted out of an impulse and made a left turn, into Rue Louis Le Grand. The street, though quiet and less crowded than Boulevard des Italiens, was picturesque in its own right.
Less than a hundred yards of walking brought him a couple feet away from the door to the apartment of Emilie Villiers, his ex-Franco-Cambodian girlfriend. He stopped for a moment, but then steeled himself from knocking on it. His recollection of their first encounter on her twenty-fourth birthday made him wince a little. Emilie found the door into his life at a time that she was still reeling from the stigma of being the former mistress of a Vichy minister and for having had an affair with a German soldier.
He smiled without intending to as he recalled some of the games they played with each other’s hearts. His affair with Emilie had boosted her self esteem to overcome her humiliation, but he didn’t think he had much of a future with a woman who drank champagne almost every day, glowed in the presence of the rich and the famous, and who seemed to enjoy her frequent mood swings. He wondered about her as he walked past her door, six years after he slipped out of her life, and five years after her childhood friend Marie Rocheteau updated him on her unstable life.
A half-oriental herself, Marie suffered a similar humiliation when a Parisian mob shaved her head and paraded her half-naked in the streets with other women accused of sleeping with German soldiers. Marie’s older full-blooded Vietnamese half-sister, Christelle Nguyen was dating René Roccard back in 1953.
Clement was about to turn right at the next intersection onto Place D’Opera when a figure jumped in front of him, brandishing a knife.
“Ton portefeuille ….ton wallet….Vites, vites, vites...” the intruder said rapidly and approached Clement with a menacing look on his face.
Clement disarmed him even before he said the last words. Quick karate kicks knocked the knife from the mugger’s right hand to the point where the man had no idea of what was coming when Clement twisted his arm hard and flipped him crashing down on the cobble stones.
“Watch out who you run into,” Clement warned as he kicked him in the abdomen, forcing the guy to curl over. Then he spat on the groaning figure, turned around and started walking away without even looking back, but conscious of the fact that the mugger got up and ran away in the opposite direction.
He felt irked by the incident. He figured me out as a foreigner, probably because of this Levi jeans and flannel shirt. Hmm, I need new clothes tomorrow to fit into the Parisian crowd, he thought.
But his attacker never imagined he was confronting a decorated ex-soldier and a winner of black belts in judo and Isshin-ryū karate.
With the surge of adrenaline subsiding, Clement sank gradually into a pensive mood, unconscious of the reduced pace of his strides. He stopped suddenly in front of the gigantic Second Empire Style Paris Opera building for no apparent reason, and then shook his head as if pondering a puzzling phenomenon. Then he peered at the building with an enigmatic expression to his face. The structure always seemed to be revealing something new and exciting each time he visited.
The avid brightness of his eyes made it plain that he was seeking a deeper meaning in the green cupola and the winged groups of sculptured figures. What did the architects and builders have in mind when they created them? He wondered.
“Exultation, exaltation, uplifting flight of the spirit to the highest pinnacles of joy and happiness?” he mumbled to himself.
Clement stuck his hands deep into his pockets, but did not take his eyes off the building, oblivious of those by his side or those walking past, as he sank into his memories. It was in this building that he watched his first opera and fell in love with Charlotte Aglionby, one of the opera’s divas who opened his eyes to the world of classical music and made him appreciate Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” and Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” to the level of a connoisseur. A rueful smile caressed his lips at the thought of Charlotte.
Charlotte, Charlotte, the vivacious diva who strove to live her life like Violetta Valery, the heroine in the opera “La Traviata”. She must have fancied him to be her eternally loyal and understanding lover like Violetta’s Alberto because she brought more men into her life than he could stomach, and made him weep several times in jealousy until the day he almost choked the life out of her in a brief moment of insanity that he never fails to regret whenever he thinks about it. The act had left him quivering in remorse as he watched her get up from the floor, stagger to the sink and drink a glass of water still holding her throat and gasping for breath. She had laughed at him afterwards, taunting him for not being as brave as Othello and for failing so miserably in sending her to her grave.
“You are my damnation, bitch, but I love you,” he had told her.
“I love you too, Clement,” she had cooed, pronouncing his name in a French manner that he liked so much.
He had avoided her kiss that night, left her home without looking back, and then asked the next day to go back home to America. It was hardly a month after he returned home in his bid to be away from Violetta that he met Helen Alston, the southern belle, and then convinced himself that he could become a gentleman after all. Still the memory of Charlotte’s voice producing melodious sounds of Brindisi—the drinking song, from La Traviata, clouded his mind.
The rueful expression on Clement’s face turned into a reflective smile of sweet reminiscences as he started singing Brindisi with closed lips, not articulating the words until he got to the second stanza.
‘Let us drink from the goblets of joy………
…In life everything is folly which does not bring pleasure.
...Life is nothing but pleasure, as long as one is not in love.
...That’s my fate...
Be happy ... wine and song and laughter beautify the night;
let the new day find us in this paradise.
Clement took a deep look at the building, cocked his head, turned around and started walking away—destination Le Cafe Rive Droite where he would find someone to put him on René Roccard’s trail, drink some nice French wine, sing a little and find a woman for the night that would be a song for his ears.