A Spy in Exile: Chapter 65


PARIS, FEBRUARY 2015

 

Batsheva peered out into the street through the café’s glass wall, waiting for Claude’s figure to emerge from around the corner. The glass was distorting the shapes outside and she felt as if she was in a movie; at that precise moment, she was the viewer watching the scene unfold, but at any minute she could step into the shoes of one of the main characters. She recalled the missions she had been given as a teenager, missions that had led her, ultimately, to this moment, the crisis she had chosen not to share with Ya’ara and the other cadets. Becoming a cadet enabled her to find meaning in her life again. She felt as if she had been reborn. And in the end, she overcame everything, the slight depression, the sense of meaninglessness. She was in Paris, and not simply for the pleasures it offered. She had a reason for being there.

Across the street, through the incessant rain, the fringes of the Luxembourg Gardens looked like a grayish-green stain, wet and blurry. She was hoping desperately that the rain would stop.

When he walked through the door, Batsheva couldn’t help thinking that he looked like a street mongrel, almost pitiful, his hair wet and shaggy. His face, with its look of misery and suffering, lit up when he saw her. She stood up and embraced him gingerly, to avoid getting wet. He was a head shorter than her, his dripping-wet hair plastered to his scalp, his shirt hanging out of his trousers, his umbrella inside-out and broken.

“Once again you chose one of the most expensive cafés in the city,” he said. “The price here of a café au lait is outrageous. You could have had something to drink at my place for free.”

But Batsheva had chosen this time not to have to forge a path among the piles of folders and mountains of paperwork that cluttered the musty system of rooms composing his office, one of the oldest insurance agencies in Paris. The last time she was there she was served a turbid lukewarm coffee, and along with the coffee, she was also subjected to the overtly hostile looks of Madeleine, Claude’s personal assistant, who was clearly in love with him. A normal café was a better option, she thought.

In spite of his clumsy, shabby appearance, and notwithstanding the dreariness of his profession, Claude was one of the most learned and brilliant people she knew. He spoke fourteen languages and apologized for being able to read and write in only ten of them. He had a phenomenal memory and oozed personal charm, the moment you gave him a second chance. He once had plans to pursue an academic career in the United States; he believed he could become a world-renowned historian, a historian of ideas. But when his father fell ill, he was summoned back to Paris to provide for the family. You should never rely on first impressions, he had once told her. Ya’ara had said the same. But Batsheva recalled an American saying she had heard many years earlier, that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Thus, despite the gross injustice of having to do so, you should invest a great deal in the initial impression you make. That’s what she had said to Ya’ara, and Ya’ara, who always left a dazzling first impression, said, You’re right, Batsheva, even if I’ve never put it that way myself.

She had met Claude for the first time in the late 1980s, at a wedding in Jerusalem. He had come especially from France; she was the bride’s cousin. His dry humor appealed to her from the very outset, and the closeness that developed between them continued through the years, even when the marriage they celebrated back then fell apart in the form of an unpleasant divorce. He taught her ancient proverbs in French, and she offered him snippets from her life, anecdotes, incidents in part, enough for him to want more, and not enough to cause him to ask for something he couldn’t get. In any event, he became her permanent way station in Paris. Thanks to his unrelenting inquisitiveness and unlimited connections, he often helped her to locate artworks and family members and heirs pertinent to her legal affairs. “You’re making me walk the streets like a hooker,” he protested affectionately. “I’m a reputable insurance agent and you’re turning me into a miserable private detective.”

“You love it,” she responded. “And besides, every job dignifies the individual who performs it. And this detective work contributes much more to your wife’s alimony than does your insurance business, which has seen better days, as far as I understand.” She loved his company, his frenetic energy, his wide, comprehensive knowledge. He enjoyed her wit, her sharp tongue, her passion for a juicy piece of gossip. He used to look at her with a sense of wonderment that hadn’t faded with the years, surveying her tall stature, allowing his eyes to feed on her beautiful face and looking at her expensive jewelry, and then he’d whisper to himself: Is that really me? Claude?

“Listen, Claude,” she said to him after two more cups of tea were slammed down onto the table in front of them, in the typical style of Paris’s grumpy waiters. “I’m expanding my business dealings a little, and I’m going to need your help with other matters in the future. I still don’t know when I’ll be calling on you, but I want your help, discreetly of course, with setting up an infrastructure that I can use here if necessary. We’ll need a small apartment, a bank account in the name of a company you’ll open, a technical translations company, let’s say, or something like that, and I also need you to get me two 9mm pistols, and ammunition, of course.”

“Of course, ammunition, too, of course,” he mumbled, making no effort to hide his astonishment. “When you say you’re expanding your business, does that mean you’re joining the ranks of organized crime? Because it suits you really well, and I want to congratulate you on your initiative and wish you luck with your new endeavors.” Batsheva’s request had indeed caught him by surprise, and he knew for certain: She’ll always surprise me.

“Don’t be cynical, Claude, it doesn’t really suit you. You know I’m not a gangster. I’m working here for the State of Israel, for Zion. There are some things that need to be done. For our homeland. You can see for yourself what is happening here in Paris, what’s happening in France, throughout Europe. There’s a real war starting here, and no one’s going to leave the Jews out of it. They’ve already dragged us in, after all. Hypercacher isn’t far from where you live, right?” Hypercacher was a Jewish supermarket that was attacked by Muslim terrorists. “And we need to prepare for a long, harsh war, which will be conducted in secret, for the most part. As you must realize, I’ve become a part of it and you’ll be a part of it, too. I need a friend, and I need someone I can count on. And if need be, you’ll show everyone who is the best racing driver among the chubby Jews, or who is the most successful insurance agent among the racing drivers. Whichever you prefer.”

Claude didn’t conceal his pride. Among his other occupations and pastimes, he was also an amateur race car driver, secretly proud of his driving skills as well as his intricate knowledge of the streets of Paris. He claimed, in fact, to know his way very well around the streets of several cities in the world, and would always say that if his insurance business were to crumble completely, he could always work as a taxi driver in ten different capitals around the globe. Batsheva was well aware of his weakness for fast cars, and had even accompanied him once to an amateur competition somewhere near Antwerp, Belgium, where he finished a very respectable fourth.

“Tell me now,” he asked, lowering his voice, “where am I going to get the pistols for you?”

“Don’t whisper, it’ll make people think we’ve got something to hide,” she instructed. “Didn’t you tell me about that criminal, the one who turned religious? What’s his name? Lucien something.”

Claude nodded.

“So tell him you need two unregistered guns for a group of young individuals who’ve decided to band together to protect the community. Give him the sense that he’s doing something important for his brothers. Believe me, that’s the way to get the best goods on the market. I don’t know when we’ll need them, but it wouldn’t be a good idea to start looking only when the need is urgent. It’s always best to be prepared in advance.”

“Without doubt,” Claude said. He imagined the meeting with Lucien, the man’s surprise, and the understanding smile spreading slowly across his face.

Batsheva looked at Claude sitting there in front of her, his eyes appearing to be shining all of a sudden like those of a child. She knew his brain was already intensively and excitedly at work on the secret task she had given him, and she thought that with soldiers like him, smart and loving and faithful, not only could one go to war, but victory was an option, too.


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