Bender at the Bon Parisien (A Novel) (8 page)

BOOK: Bender at the Bon Parisien (A Novel)
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“You
move well, my man,” Pistache continued with a playful tone.

Fleuse
finally shook himself loose and gently pushed Pistache away. I noticed the
stranger with the book watching in quiet amusement.

“I
don’t need the pick-me-up. I’m fine,” Fleuse said while still looking in Trudel’s
direction. “I call diamonds.”

“I
have the two,” Trudel said.

“Did
you like my dancing?” Fleuse whispered to her.

“You
were hating it yourself in the moment,” she answered. “Now you are proud of
it?”

“Of
course he’s proud,” Pistache interjected. “We were good together just now.”

Fleuse
shot him a disdainful look.

“Who
has the three?” I asked. No one answered.

“How
about the four?” Pistache added.

Again,
no one moved. We all looked at each other.

“What
happens if consecutive cards are in the blind?” I asked.

“Then
everyone takes a drink! Pistache!” Pistache yelled.

“You’re
making that up,” Trudel accused.

“Yes,
I am,” he finally admitted. “Are you not having fun?”

“Yes,
actually, I am.”

“I
knew it, Madame von Hugelstein,” Pistache said with a smirk.

“But,”
she added. “That doesn’t mean I find you at all funny!”

Pistache
brightened. He leaned toward her and threw his arm around her shoulder.

“Madame
von Hugelstein, I must tell you! I have met my match!” He laughed heartily and Trudel
leaned away. His breath must have had a proof all its own.

“Okay,
that’s enough of that,” she said, grimacing. “You can get off me now.” She shrank
from under his arm.

“Sorry,”
Pistache said with a smile more at Fleuse than Trudel as he took a sip of his
drink. “Didn’t mean to move in on your girl.”

“I’m
not his girl,” Trudel reiterated.

“She’s
not,” Fleuse sighed.

“Let’s
have a break from the game,” I announced. “I feel like we are all going to be
hurting tomorrow morning if we keep this pace up.”

“Yes,
I’m good with that,” Janie reinforced.

Fleuse
pushed the pile of cards in front of him back toward the group. I could tell he
was in agreement.

“It
was just getting fun!” Pistache exclaimed.

 

*        *        *

 

Janie
was alone at a table, scribbling on a napkin. She tends to log ideas the moment
she gets them. It’s the curse of the artistic. Plus, I knew she needed to clear
her head a little. The booze had twisted up everyone’s mind. Pistache is a
dangerous game.

Fleuse
and Jacques were also back out at a table. I couldn’t hear them talking, but
the conversation looked congenial enough. The stranger had not moved from his
post with his book, so that left me alone at the bar with Trudel.

“Is
tonight turning out as you expected?” I asked.

She
thought for a moment. The liquor had opened her up a little bit. “Not exactly,
but it’s going alright I suppose.”

“That’s
good to hear. So,” I switched gears, “you and Fleuse, huh?”

“No!
Of course not!” she exclaimed.

“No,
I know. You are clearly still in love with Victor. But, I meant that you used
to date or something?”

“It
was a long time ago, and it didn’t mean anything.”

“It
seems to mean a little to him now.”

“Perhaps
it does,” she said with a short glance at him over her shoulder.

“I
guess it’s harmless,” I said.

“But
annoying,” she answered.

“What
did you think of my piano playing?”

“Fine,”
she replied, again without expression. “You should stick to writing the news.”

“Well,
I wouldn’t call it news. I’m usually assigned the most boring stuff. Actually,
tonight has made me want to go and be a bartender again. I’m having a really
good time.”

“Like
I said, you should stick to writing the news.”

Taking
advantage of the break in the action, the stranger among us approached the bar.

“I
see that this might be a good time to get another drink,” he said, smiling.

“Why’s
that?” Trudel asked, barely looking up.

“That
game seems to have died down a bit, and the bartender doesn’t seem too busy,”
he replied.

“Absolutely,
sir. What’ll it be?” I answered.

“Another
of the same, please.”

Following
the lead of the stranger, Janie and Pistache were slowly moving back in the
direction of the bar. Fleuse remained at the table, lost in his glass.

“You
know,” I said to the stranger. “We very well may begin another round of the
game here. Would you like us to deal you in this time?”

He
smiled. “No, it looks full to me.”

“Are
you sure? It’s a made-up game. I’m sure we could find a way to include you,” I
said with a nod in Pistache’s direction.

“Don’t
look at me,” the street performer said with a smile. “The game came through me!
I was merely a conduit of the drinking-card-game fates!”

“No,
thank you anyway,” the stranger said pleasantly. “I was having a fine time just
observing.”

I
went to work on the man’s second drink. Alcohol was slowing the bartending.
Funny.

“So!”
Pistache began as he threw his arms into the air. “Tell us, my friend. What
brings you in tonight?”

The
stranger looked to Pistache. “Well, I wanted a drink. I happened to see this place
as I was walking by. It looked as good a spot as any.”

“Well,
you couldn’t have chosen better, my friend. What are you reading?”

“It
is a book of poetry. I found it at a book fair recently.”

“Very
cool,” Janie commented. Both men ignored her.

“Oh
yes? Who wrote it?” Pistache asked.

“It’s
a compilation. Various authors,” the stranger said with a shrug.

“I’ve
never heard of him,” Pistache said with a laugh, looking to the rest of us for
a response.

“I
liked the picture on the cover. Poems are short. They are easy to read,” the
man went on without acknowledging the joke.

“I
have actually always thought the opposite,” Pistache said. “They are kind of
cryptic.”

“That’s
the beauty of them,” the stranger answered. “I like to search for the subtle
hints at meaning.”

“That
always just frustrated me,” Pistache said.

“Not
me. It’s what I do. It’s like a code to decipher or a treasure to uncover. I
like the hunt almost as much as I like the eventual feeling of discovery and
release.”

“Aren’t
you a deep one?!” Pistache roared with amusement. “Have you read one yet that
you don’t understand?”

“No.
Eventually, I always figure them out.”

The
stranger only smiled and nodded as I passed him the drink. There was a quick
moment of silence as Pistache looked at the man.

“Well,
this exchange has gone on long enough without us knowing each other! Jacques
Pistache!” Pistache exclaimed as he thrust his hand into the stranger’s grasp.
“It’s a treat to meet you, finally!”

“Julian
Renard, and it certainly is.”

“With
you watching from the corner, it felt as though you were our audience, and we
the players. I’m glad you are a part of the show now, Monsieur Renard!”

“I
have been waiting for the right time, to be truthful.”

“Oh,
I figured you were content to watch.”

The
two shook hands for a few moments in silence. I almost had to smile at how
awkward the exchange had become so quickly. Now that they had introduced
themselves, there didn’t seem to be anything more for either to say.

Finally,
Julian continued. “So, Monsieur Pistache …”

“Yes?”
the street performer answered slowly.

“How
long do you think it will be before Madame von Hugelstein realizes that her
ring is missing?”

Trudel
immediately shot a look toward her hand. “My ring!” She gasped.

Pistache
frowned at Renard.

“Jacques,
mon ami
. Don’t you think this charade has run its course?” the stranger
said softly.

Chapter VII.

 

 

 

The golden ballroom
at Peukington Manor glowed with grandeur. Spinning couples turned to the
soaring strings of a small orchestra, and many more guests stood among a sea of
round dinner tables, laughing and conversing. The air was full of floral
breezes and champagne fizzes.

Jacques
Pistache swam slowly between tables, waiting to strike. Dressed in his
black-tie best, no one could have suspected that the man didn’t know a soul at
the fête. He sipped from his drink as he walked and smiled pleasantly at anyone
who caught his eye.

The
street performer had already been at the party for about an hour. He’d spoken
with several other guests. Everyone seemed gracious, but he was slightly
disappointed. He had yet to see the man he’d come to meet. Surely, Lavaar
Peukington should have arrived by then. Why would he be late to his own
daughter’s engagement party?

Peukington
was one of the richest residents of Paris. A successful businessman, he’d
gained fame through large real estate dealings. His company financed scientific
research grants, owned thousands of patents on products in all industries, and
published a fashion magazine. Still, Lavaar Peukington was almost never seen in
public.

Pistache
was different. He attended gatherings of all kinds. He often met many people,
without conversing for more than a few minutes with anyone in particular. All
of this superficial glad-handing was part of his trained behavior. His livelihood
depended upon every handshake and people’s willingness to be physically moved.
With every pat on the back or brush of the arm, Pistache steered the momentum
of his subject. He lived in the personal space of others.

Jacques
Pistache was a pickpocket.

Considering
himself to be part magician and part dancer, Pistache mastered the fundamentals
of his craft. However, other challenges often kept him from succeeding. Self-awareness
was not one of his strong suits, nor was staying sober enough to properly perform.

Still,
history proved that he was good at it. The pickpocket imagined the expression of
the mayor’s wife when she realized her diamond earring was gone—a crowning
moment in his career. He loved the deception almost as much as the money.

His
sense of humor was evident in his work. He could steal belts or shirt buttons. Pennies
tucked in loafers were often targets. The pickpocket enjoyed giving the coins
back to their original owners for luck. Victims rarely realized that the pennies
were actually theirs.

Pistache
had been anticipating the party at Peukington Manor for weeks. He traveled to
this posh neighborhood in Paris for one simple reason: to take something from
Lavaar Peukington himself. Given the man’s fortune, surely he must be a walking
goldmine.

The
pickpocket had received a fresh martini when another partygoer sauntered up to
the bar.

“Evening,”
the stranger said.

“Good
evening,” Pistache replied.

“What
a night, no?”

“That’s
right,” the pickpocket smiled. “A fantastic party.”

“Yes,”
the man replied as he stuffed a euro into the tip jar. “He sure knows how to be
a host!”

“He
does,” Pistache agreed, casually brushing the man’s tuxedo pocket with the back
of his hand. Nothing.

“Did
you have trouble with the valet?” the man said. “I thought the young man was
difficult.”

“Well,
I didn’t think he was bad,” Pistache lied. The pickpocket had hired a taxi to make
the drive. Few people arrived at this party so unceremoniously.

“Just
think twice before you tip him,” the man said as he lifted his two drinks from
the bar.

“Oh,
I will.”

“You
just never know if those guys are working for you, or against you.”

Pistache
nodded as he sipped his drink. “Have you been to one of Monsieur Peukington’s
parties before?”

The
stranger nodded as he took the first sips of his drink.

“When
can we expect the host?” Pistache asked, lightly touching the edges of woman’s
dress behind him.

“He’ll
be down any minute. Did you see the seafood spread?”

“I
did.”

“Well
enjoy yourself. The dance floor calls,” the man said, raising his drink as he
left.

“Nice
meeting you,” Pistache answered.

“Nice
meeting you,” the man said, slipping away into the crowd.

In
that exact moment, Lavaar Peukington entered with much pomp. From where he
stood at the bar, Pistache did not have a direct line of sight. In fact, his
back was turned to the scene. Still, the pickpocket could see everything happening
through the large mirror behind the rows of bottles of booze.

Peukington
walked like a wealthy man, hard jawline lifted and shoulders relaxed. Jacques
could see the perfectly pressed breast of his tuxedo, the flash of a bright
white scarf, and the glint of gold cufflinks. The pickpocket would love to have
a closer look at those.

As
one entire section of the room seemed to gravitate toward the gentleman, Pistache
remained stoic with his back to the action. His instincts yearned to go
straight to Peukington, but he knew better. He waited at the bar to watch the
man move, casually exchanging a few words with the bartenders.

Finally
seeing his moment of opportunity, the pickpocket entered the crowd, leaving his
drink behind. He slipped between shoulders, involuntarily noticing prizes
buried under thin fabrics on either side. A watch passed on his right, a wallet
on his left. The pickpocket resisted the urge, hoping for a larger payout.

Did
Peukington’s cufflinks have diamonds? Would there be a key to a safe in his
pocket? Did he wear an heirloom watch? As questions swirled in his head, he saw
the host truly for the first time as the crowd briefly parted.

Tall
and slender, Lavaar Peukington was in top shape. He sported a neatly trimmed
mustache and a full head of hair. Bright eyes were framed by crow’s feet, surely
earned on the beaches of southern France. The man was charmingly happy and
greeting people as if he were running for public office.

“What
a rich asshole,” Jacques muttered to himself.

The
crowds thickened as Jacques approached Peukington. Everyone surrounding the man
was waiting to speak with him. Pistache even noticed the stranger from the bar
hovering close by, eyeing the crowd, looking for his own opportunity.

The
pickpocket watched Peukington closely. The wealthy host was deliberate,
confident, and slightly protective. A waiter passed, and Jacques accepted a
glass of wine.

Close
enough to hear the rich man’s voice over the roar of the room, Peukington
pronounced every letter in every word. Jacques was rarely intimidated, but his
target appeared formidable. The pickpocket felt already out matched, patiently
worming close enough to offer a handshake.

“Monsieur
Peukington!” He thrust his hand forward and smiled brightly. “I am Claude Pennington.
We met a few years back at the Parisian Society benefit,” he lied.

“I
remember the event, but I must apologize. I meet so many good people.” Peukington
replied, without reintroducing himself.

Pistache
had hoped to sense some weakness in the man’s handshake. He didn’t.

“I
wouldn’t expect you to remember. My company catered the event,” Pistache
continued.

“I
had a nice time that night, and I’m glad that you could join us this evening,” Peukington
said, eager to greet the next guest. “Please enjoy the wine. Tonight’s a good
one for celebrating.”

And
with that, he moved on.

Pistache
barely had enough time to introduce himself, let alone properly assess the man.
Additionally, Peukington’s lack of sincerity bothered the pickpocket. He
detested the man’s air.

Plus,
there was that iron handshake. Usually a test of his prey’s willingness to be
controlled, this greeting was statuesque and uncompromising. Lavaar Peukington
moved for no one. Jacques would not be able to operate the man easily.

To
get anything off of him, the pickpocket would have to be extra careful. Pistache
welcomed the challenge, but he needed time to reevaluate. He retreated, gulping
the wine and rethought his plan at a table.

 

*        *        *

 

An
hour passed, and Pistache didn’t feel any better about his chances with the
host. He began distracting himself by recounting items he’d already nabbed: a
lapel pin, a gold band, and a tie clip. Jacques had only targeted things easily
lost by their owners and unlikely to arouse suspicion. After lifting a diamond-encrusted
pocket watch or necklace, he would have to disappear quickly before anyone
noticed it was missing.

Peukington
had gotten a good look at the pickpocket’s face. Pistache assumed that his
target was not the kind of man to forget many people. This may have already
raised Peukington’s suspicions, since they had presumably met once before. Jacques
wondered if he understood the man enough to proceed. On the other hand, was he
reading too much into his prey?

Always
maintaining a general awareness of Peukington’s whereabouts in the room, these
thoughts kept Pistache busy. He knew his actions would need to be well timed
and the moment chosen carefully. But to his surprise, it wouldn’t be up to him.

Suddenly,
Jacques heard Peukington’s voice speaking directly behind him. His ears
twitched as the host greeted guests, and he wondered how Peukington had gotten
so close to him. Was the wealthy man in the pickpocket’s trap, or was it the
other way around?

Jacques
stood immediately. He decided that it was time to make his move, whether or not
he felt ready. There wasn’t a second left to think any further.

He
had act quickly, so Pistache purposefully tripped a random partygoer near Peukington.
Falling over himself, the unsuspecting man fell directly into the host. Pistache
lunged for Peukington’s wrist.

In
a moment just long enough to blink, Pistache flicked his fingers and unclasped Peukington’s
left cufflink.

“Oops,”
the pickpocket muttered, as if genuinely surprised by the falling man. “Excuse
me,
monsieur
!”

Pistache
felt the cufflink slip from his grasp. It hadn’t even hit the ground yet, but
Jacques knew he had dropped it just as he removed it from the shirt. It would
be too obvious to grab it from the floor or even acknowledge it.

Slightly
panicked, Pistache launched into an effort to save the moment. Thrusting
himself into Peukington, Jacques reached for the host’s breast coat pocket. He
hoped for anything and blindly pinched an object inside.

“Yes,
excuse me!” Peukington blurted, pushing Pistache away. Turning his attention to
the fallen man, he said, “Are you okay?”

“I
think so,” the partygoer stammered.

Pistache
noticed the stranger from the bar dart from the crowd to help the fallen man
get up. Peukington adjusted his tux coat.

“He
had better not have another drink, wouldn’t you say?” Pistache said to
Peukington, nervously laughing.

“I’d
say so,” he answered, annoyed.

It
was a clean lift.

“Is
this your cufflink, Monsieur Peukington?” the partygoer asked as he stood. He’d
picked up the item.

“It
is. Thank you,” the host said, eyeing the piece.

Pistache
was already halfway to the exit.

 

*        *        *

 

As
he hurried down the sidewalk, the warm evening air brought a welcome sense of
space back to Pistache. He couldn’t help but sneak a smile as he felt the object
in his pocket. He was able to shoot a quick glance behind him. No one followed
him.

After
walking carefully in shadow, he reached a cab in front of a modestly lit café. After
exchanging a few pleasantries with the driver, they were off for the heart of
Paris, and Pistache turned his attention to his loot in the dark backseat of
the car. He removed the small metal object from his jacket pocket and stared at
it for a moment.

“Just
a coin?” he muttered to himself.

“I’m
sorry?” the driver asked from the front seat.

“Nothing,
sorry,” Pistache clarified, waving him off. Soft flashes of light moved over it
as the taxi passed streetlamp after streetlamp. The soft yellow strobe only made
it harder for the inebriated pickpocket to examine the object.

It
carried considerable weight for a coin its size. It was larger than most coins
he’d seen. A man’s face adorned one scarred side, defiant yet calm. Pistache guessed
he wouldn’t recognize him, even without the abrasion.

Without
a substantial lift, the pickpocket was disappointed with the night. He’d spend
the rest of the evening hovering quietly over drinks in a café, the stolen
currency resting on the table in front of him. Barmaids greeted him warmly, but
he just nodded. He remained uncharacteristically silent, exchanging looks with
the man on the coin.

BOOK: Bender at the Bon Parisien (A Novel)
13.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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