Nethery stepped off the train at St. Charles station. He made his way outside the main hall and and across a plaza until he stood at the top of a broad marble staircase that looked out over the city. It was a clear day and he could see the Old Port in the distance. He examined his map, and between that and following the majority of people he descended the staircase onto the Boulevard d’Athènes. He followed that to the Canebière, and then headed for the Old Port. Along the way he stopped at Centre Bourse, a shopping complex, a block off the Canebière. After a brief search he found a boutique and bought the first suit he found that fit, a Hugo Boss. He also picked out a shirt. From there he made his way to another boutique and bought an expensive pair of Persol sunglasses and at a third shop he picked up some black dress shoes and some socks. As he went from place to place he discarded his old clothes.
On his way out of the mall he stopped and looked at himself in a wall of large mirrors. He looked good, even stylish. He looked like money, like he’d just rolled into town from Monaco with a suitcase full of cash. He left the mall and stopped at a small corner store and bought some plastic bags, then found a phone store and got a prepaid cell. All together the shopping had taken almost two hours and he walked the few blocks to the harbor and had a coffee at La Samaritaine.
After resting for a bit he went to the bathroom and locked himself in a stall. He’d taken approximately three ounces of coke with him and he eyeballed one ounce into each plastic bag. It was in large chunks, and had a pinkish tone, the crystals flaking apart and shining almost like mother of pearl. He’d seen this type of cocaine before, many years ago in Seattle. It was called ‘Bubble Gum’ because of the color and was processed with ether instead of acetone. It was very rare and potent. As he was bagging the coke he got some on his fingertips and he stuck them in his mouth. The taste made his entire body stiffen and his hands became sweaty. And then he berated himself for tasting it.
He wandered around the Old Port. The day had decided to be pleasant and the few clouds had vanished. Marseilles reminded him a bit of Seattle, with its hills and access to the sea. It was an extremely noisy city. Everyone seemed to be yelling and car horns honked continuously. It didn’t take long for him to figure out he wouldn’t get far in this part of town. There were only nice restaurants and upscale bars and the people looked like tourists and rich businessmen.
He examined his map and decided to venture up into Le Panier, a very old neighborhood. It was situated on a hill to the north of the port, a maze of extremely skinny streets, narrow passageways, traverses and steep winding staircases. After twenty minutes he realized he was lost. Between buildings he would occasionally catch a glimpse of the Old Port and regain his bearings and then head back in that direction, but there was no direct route and he kept ending up having no idea where he was. But he kept on, and after two hours he began to get discouraged, and wonderded if he’d over-estimated how easy this was going to be.
The bars he’d come across were the right type, small and inconspicuous, but the bartenders weren’t what he was looking for. He sat down at the top of a winding staircase and had a cigarette. An old woman dressed in black walked past him and descended the stairs. She was towing a small cart with a bag of groceries strapped onto it and as she climbed down it clattered behind her. He sat there for about fifteen minutes until he felt slightly re-energized and he set off again, heading back in the general direction he had come but taking different streets. The afternoon sun was hot. He began to sweat and he took off his new jacket and slung it over his shoulder.
Lily stood on the sidewalk and looked out at the harbor. She thought it was strange that so many of the boats remained tied up. There were only a couple of empty slips. And it was a beautiful day. Why weren’t they out sailing around? She turned around and looked to see if Fanny had come out of the flower shop. She was not there and Lily sat down on a bench that faced the sea. The morning had been interesting, or at least it had kept her mind off things. At the grocery Lily had tried to pick up a few things, but Fanny had put them back on the shelf and chose another brand, or another bunch of bananas, claiming it was better.
Lily had bought food enough for a few days, knowing she would need something to keep her busy. Even though she knew very little about it, cooking had been the only thing that had come to mind to pass the time while she waited for Nethery. She wasn’t used to waiting. She was used to handling things herself. But now she had to wait, and she had no control over what happened. She thought Nethery’s plan was ludicrous, and all day she’d imagined him not coming back. Just vanishing and leaving her hanging. As the day wore on she had grown more and more scared, and now it shot up another level and her mind spiralled down into negative scenarios.
Despite the sun warming her skin she began to get cold inside. She stared out into the harbor, not looking at anything in particular, and her eyes were drawn to a large expensive yacht, tied up to a small cement dock out by the mouth of the harbor. She had been on boats like it, many times, and she wondered who owned it. The idea of walking out there to see if they wanted some company entered her mind.
She turned and faced the town. Across the street was the flower shop, and cafés and quaint little restaurants lined the rest of the waterfront. There must be some nightclubs here somewhere, she thought. There was definitely money in this town. Maybe not as much as Monaco and Cannes, but the villas she’d seen and the yachts in the harbor proved that it was here. All she would have to do is find it, find the men who had it, and then make them do what she wanted.
Fanny appeared across the street, smiling, with her arms full of parcels. She crossed the street and Lily relieved her of a few items. They made their way to a nearby taxi stand and caught a ride back to the house.
Nethery had passed so many bars he began ignoring the names, instead focusing on the bartenders’ faces. Some were too clean cut and would likely call the police, some were too young and wouldn’t know the right people, and some were just plain arrogant looking. He was looking for a particular type, someone who’d been around the block a few times—hard, but not insane. They weren’t too hard to spot. He’d met some back in Seattle, usually ex-cons who had wised up as they got older. Many owned bars. And he had to find one that spoke passable English.
Eventually he came across a couple possibilities. At the first, when he’d brought out the cocaine the bartender had flipped out and reached for the phone, presumably to call the police. It could have just been a bluff but as soon as he reached for the phone Nethery had walked out, leaving the drugs behind. At the second, the bartender had merely given him a hard stare, thrown the drugs into the trash and pointed to the door.
Nethery was beginning to get tired. He finally managed to make his way back down to the Old Port by following some traverses and staircases on the edge of Le Panier. He sat down at La Samaritaine, had a coffee and read a copy of The London Times he’d picked up from a newsstand. On page three there was an article about Claude. People from the fashion industry were going on and on about what a great man he was and how much he will be missed.
“What a crock of shit,” Nethery thought. “They wouldn’t be saying that crap if they saw the tape.” The French police were investigating. The man in charge said it was a cold-blooded murder and that he would not rest until the perpetrators were caught.
He sat in the sun for a good half-hour and then set off again, this time on the other side of the harbor. He wandered up and down side streets a few blocks removed from the Old Port. After checking out about ten more bars without finding a suitable one he began to ponder other ways to get new passports. He stopped on the street and lit a cigarette, frustrated by the way things had seemingly ground to a halt. For the first time in his life events had begun to unfold by themselves, as if propelled by a natural force. The way things had played out to this point had a feel of inevitability to them, and because of that he had not questioned it. And logically he had assumed it would continue, but now it seemed like everything had stopped, and he didn’t understand why. Unable to decide what to do next, he gave up for the day, made his way back to the Canebière, and began to walk in the direction of the train station.
The sidewalks of the Canebière were crammed with people all seemingly yelling. The street was choked with buses and cars, engines revving, horns honking for no apparent reason. The noise seemed to get louder and louder until it began to grate on his nerves. He knew the general direction of the station and detoured off onto a side street. He turned onto another narrow street that paralleled the Canebière and kept walking until he realized it was quiet and stopped to rest. He leaned up against a wall, lit another cigarette, and noticed that he was outside a small bar, so innocuous a person wouldn’t even notice it unless they were right in front. It was a tiny little place, narrow, with a row of tables along one wall and the bar along the other. There were a couple of faded posters in the window and no sign outside. Nethery peered in through the dirty window. The bartender was behind the bar, talking on the phone. He was about 50, and looked like a man who’d seen some shit and could handle himself, but was very neat and clean.
Nethery finished his cigarette, walked in, and sat down at the bar. The man glanced in his direction, then turned back and continued to talk on the phone for a few minutes. This was another good sign, Nethery thought. This bar probably doesn’t make jack shit for money, and the man clearly doesn’t care, which could mean that the bar is a front for something. Finally the man got off the phone and strolled over.
“Bonjour,” he said.
“Bonjour,” Nethery replied, “Parlez vouz anglais?”
“Yes, I speak English,” the man said, his eyes narrowing slightly. He had some kind of accent that Nethery couldn’t pinpoint. German possibly.
“Can I have a Coca-Cola?” Nethery asked. The man didn’t answer, and seemed slightly perturbed but went about getting the drink slowly and deliberately and when he was done he nonchalantly flipped a coaster onto the bar before him, and set the drink on it. Nethery lifted the glass and took a drink. It was cold and washed away the stale muck coating the inside of his mouth. Nethery discreetly watched the bartender and he could sense that the man was sizing him up.
“What’s your name?” Nethery finally asked, setting the glass down on the coaster.
“Klaus,” the man replied.
“James,” Nethery replied, offering his hand across the bar. Klaus took his hand and Nethery looked him in the eye.
“That accent,” Nethery said, “where’s it from?”
“Never been there.” Nethery took another long drink of the soda.
“What’s a German guy doing running a bar in Marseilles?” he asked.
“You ask a lot of questions,” Klaus said. “What is an American man doing here in Marseilles?”
“I’m just passing through.”
“Marseilles is not exactly a town that one passes through,” Klaus said, eyeing Nethery with a bit of suspicion.
“Oh?” Nethery remarked, raising his eyebrows.
“Yes,” Klaus said, seeming to drift off into thought.
“Why’s that?” Nethery asked.
“It has a way of…capturing a person,” Klaus replied, searching for words.
“Did it capture you?” Nethery asked.
“Yes. Is this so strange?” Klaus asked.
“Well. It’s just…you look like a man who would be difficult to capture, that’s all,” Nethery said and smiled.
Klaus grinned slightly, and then he looked off to the side.
“Can I buy you a drink?” Nethery asked, slapping a hundred Euro note onto the bar.
“Yes. Thank you,” Klaus said, and then he poured himself a shot of Jack Daniels.
“This is a nice little place,” Nethery said.
“It is not so nice, but…” Klaus said, leaving the sentence unfinished.
“But it’s yours. Right?” Nethery said, and then he indicated Klaus should have another drink.
“Yes. It is mine,” Klaus said, seemingly thinking about something. He poured himself another shot.
“Is that how you got captured?” Nethery asked as calmly as he could, trying to lure the bartender into a conversation.
“Oh. In a way, yes. I came here as a boy. I joined the Foreign Legion,” he said, pointing to a photo hanging on the wall behind him of about ten soldiers. “Twenty years ago I was finished with that, and I was going to go home…to Germany…but…it never happened.”
“Well,” he said, “I…became distracted.”
“You found work?”
“Yes, you could say that.”
“It’s a cool city,” Nethery said.
“Cool?” Klaus replied, and he chuckled. “Maybe.”
“I spent all day wandering Le Panier,” Nethery said.
“Le Panier? What were you doing there?”
“I was…looking for something,” Nethery replied and then he intuitively felt it was time to roll the dice.
“I’d like to talk to you about something.” Nethery said, looking at Klaus in a way that he would know it was something important.
“Oh?” Klaus replied, cautiously.
“Yeah. I’m looking to do a spot of business. The kind of business that…well…the police would not approve of,” Nethery said and grinned, watching Klaus closely to see how he would respond. A spark of interest flashed across his eyes, and then it vanished.
“What kind of business?” Klaus asked.
“This kind,” Nethery said, pulling the last bag of coke out of his pocket and placing it on the bar. The air got thicker. Klaus tensed up for a moment, but then he relaxed, picked up the bag and examined it. Before he could respond Nethery continued.
“If you like that sort of thing, you can have it. Or, if you have friends who like it, give it to them.”
“Maybe I will just call the police,” Klaus said, feeling Nethery out.
“Well, yeah, you could do that. But then you would miss out on all the money to be made. I have six kilos like that,” Nethery said, “and I will give you a price you won’t believe.”
Klaus opened the bag, touched his pinky to his tongue, stuck it into the coke and then onto his tongue again. He stepped back, crossed his arms and looked at Nethery. He furrowed his brow, if trying to decide what to do.
“And why are you telling me this? You think you can just walk into a bar in a strange town and start selling drugs?”
“Yeah,” Nethery said, laughing, “I think I can.” It was an infectious laugh and he saw Klaus smile, but only barely, and only for a second.
“Look, sometimes things happen. Sometimes we get lucky. I’m sure as a soldier you can understand that.”
Klaus was about to throw him out when he paused. A memory floated up from the past and he fingered the silver coin hanging from a chain around his neck. His mind replayed the incident, for the thousandth time. He’d been with the Legion in the Congo, 1978, with the 2nd Parachute Regiment. They had dropped and were on their way towards Kowlezi, where some European and Zairian hostages were being held by a group of rebels. He was on point, and should have been focused on the terrain ahead, the windows and doorways of the empty buildings, but for some reason his eyes kept drifting towards the ground at his feet, as if a part of him had known something would be there. And eventually there was, a silver coin, sitting there in the mud and shit. It shone like a solitary star in a night sky. Klaus bent down to pick it up and at that instant a sniper’s bullet whizzed through the space he had just been occupying and struck another soldier who had been following in his footsteps.
“Klaus?” Nethery asked, seeing that he was lost in thought.
“Well? What do you think?”
Klaus shut off the memories and gathered his thoughts.
“It is a very dangerous game you are playing,” he said.
Nethery laughed again. “You think I just went down to the Old Port and put up a cardboard sign?”
Klaus grinned for a moment.
“No, but…there is a way of going about these things,” Klaus said.
“I know that,” Nethery said, “but I don’t have that luxury. I don’t know anyone in Marseilles and I don’t have a lot of time. That’s what I was doing in Le Panier, checking out some bars.”
“Bartenders know what’s going on in a town more than anyone else, the cops or the crooks. You know that,” Nethery said and he smiled.
“Yes. That is true,” Klaus said, grinning slightly.
“Look, I just don’t know anyone here. And you look like the kind of man who…knows things.”
Klaus rubbed his chin for a moment. Given his history, this could quite possibly be a set-up, despite the fact that he hadn’t been involved in anything since he got out of prison. That’d been eight years now. But still, his name could have come up in some investigation, the cops would look into it, they would see he was running this quiet bar that was often empty, assume he was involved with something again, and decide to take a run at him. That kind of thing happens all the time. They always assume once you’ve been mixed up in the underworld at one point, you always are—and while it was true that getting out was easier said than done—getting to the periphery was doable, it just required some lifestyle changes and some sacrifices.
Klaus stood there, looking at the coke on the bar and then at Nethery. He began imagining what he could do with a pile of money. He could ask Lauren to marry him. They could take a vacation. He could upgrade the bar, make it classy…and then he snapped out of it. Some stranger walks into my bar and wants to sell kilos of coke? That’s crazy, and I’m crazy for even considering it. He walked over to the bar, picked up the bag of coke, held it up in the air over the trash bin, and slowly and deliberately dropped it. He then looked at Nethery without saying a word, a stern look on his face. Nethery grinned. He knew it was a long shot. He climbed down from the barstool, put on his jacket and his sunglasses, thanked Klaus for the Coca-Cola and headed for the door.
Klaus watched Nethery climb down from the barstool, head for the door and then it hit him. This couldn’t be a set-up. There was no way in hell. The Marseilles cops would never in a million years have a foreigner working for them, especially an American. He knew enough to know that they would never, ever contemplate such a thing. They were extremely territorial and fanatically proud. They even ran Interpol out of town whenever they came around, even if they knew where to find who Interpol was looking for. He glanced at the bag of cocaine in the trash, and the wheels began to turn, in that old familiar way. Nethery was halfway to the door when Klaus called out to him.
Nethery stopped, and turned.
“How good of a price?”
Nethery made his way back to the bar.
“Well, what’s the going rate on a kilo? About ten thousand Euros?” Nethery asked. He guessed it was a bit more actually, especially quality stuff, but he didn’t want to push it.
“It’s more like six,” Klaus said.
“I think it’s more than ten thousand actually,” Nethery said smiling. “But the price doesn’t really matter to me. I’m only here for a few days, and there’s something I need, besides the money, so if you can get it for me I will sell them for five thousand. Each.”
Klaus looked hard at Nethery, searching for clues that this was some kind of set-up.
“This thing you need?” Klaus asked. “What is it?”
“Some papers. I need a new passport for me, and another person.”
There were another few moments of awkward silence, and the tension in the air was so thick it was like mud. But strangely Nethery was as relaxed as he’d ever felt, having given himself over to this new thing, and feeling good that events had begun moving again.
“And I tell you what,” Nethery continued, “if you can get me the papers I will give you a kilo. Free.”
Nethery stood there, waiting for Klaus to say something, but it appeared he was waiting for Nethery to make the next move. Nethery removed a pen from his jacket, checked his new cell phone for the number, flipped the coaster over and scrawled the number down onto it.
“I just want to do some business,” Nethery said when he was finished, looking Klaus square in the eye, “the way business is supposed to be done. I get something, you get something. We both come out ahead. No rip-off, no scam, no bullshit,” Nethery continued, shaking his head, “just business. That’s my number. If you’re interested, give me a call,” he said, pushing the coaster across the bar. “But don’t take too long. If nothing happens, I might clear out in a couple of days.”
On the train ride back to Cassis, Nethery thought about what had transpired. He had doubts that anything would come of it. Klaus had seemed somewhat interested, but getting from interest to the point of doing a deal was still quite a ways to travel. Bridging the final distance would require some trust, and that was a rare commodity even when you knew someone. And then there was always the possibility Klaus would call the cops and wait for Nethery to show up with the dope. But his intuition was telling him that Klaus would either do a deal, or forget about him. And if he did the latter, what other options were there? Nethery had only begun to explore alternatives when he stopped himself. It would either happen, or it wouldn’t. There wasn’t much he could do to influence the outcome. He just had to wait and see what Klaus did. It was, in his estimation, his only shot. It was too risky to keep going back into Marseilles. The bartenders who’d turned him down had probably already put word out on the street that some stranger was in town selling top-drawer cocaine.
And there was another problem; the people who owned the drugs. They were certain to be on the war-path as soon as they found out, and would do everything in their power to get their dope back. Nethery knew this, but also was hoping he had somewhat of a head-start. Once they discovered their dope was gone, they would talk to the girl who’d rented him the place, and they would have his name and a description. Not much to go on. But they were sure to have ears on the street, even this far away. As the train pulled into Cassis he became acutely aware that his immediate future, and Lily’s, was a frighteningly delicate situation, and that it could all come crashing down if Klaus failed to come through, and possibly, even if he did.
Adapted from This Is What We Do by Tom Hansen. Copyright © 2013 by Tom Hansen. With the permission of the publisher, Emergency Press.