Authors: Robert Sheckley
This book is for you, Gail, my wife, my wondrous combination of intellect, feeling, and beauty, my first inspiration and most important reader. How did I ever get so lucky?
It was an easy one-day drive from Paris to Grisons in Switzerland. Hob brought along his friend Hilda. Hilda was a Dutch girl who had become a French citizen, had a job at Rroukes Gallery in Paris, and had command of a number of European languages. Hob hadn’t been sure his French would be sufficient in Switzerland, and he had no Schweizerdeutsch, indeed no Deutsch at all. Also, Hilda was a lively and pretty companion of the blond milkmaid variety and seemed a perfect choice to help Hob winkle out the dark and well-kept secrets of an expensive European sanitorium and spa.
He parked his rented Renault in the visitor’s lot, and he and Hilda walked to the main reception area. It was an early summer day, cool and bright in the Swiss Alps, the sort of day in which you were glad to be alive even if you weren’t in Ibiza.
Hob had a number of ideas about how to get around the no doubt strict sanitorium system. He had decided upon a direct approach first, just to test the defenses and see how formidable they were.
At the main desk Hilda asked to see Mr. Sertoris, as Hob had told her to do. She was told that Mr. Sertoris was not having any visitors. All this was in English, which he could have done himself.
“But this is ridiculous,” Hilda said. “We have driven all the way here from Paris at the express request of Mr. Sertoris’s daughter. And we are to be sent away without even speaking to him?”
“It’s not my fault,” the receptionist said. “It is Mr. Sertoris’s orders himself.”
“How am I to know that?” Hilda asked.
“We have a paper from Mr. Sertoris authorizing this. We can show it to you if you like.”
Hilda glanced at Hob. Hob narrowed hs eyes slightly. Interpreting, Hilda said, “It’s easy enough to show a paper. But we want to see the man himself.”
“Oh, as for that,” the receptionist said, “there will be no difficulty.”
“I beg your pardon?” Hilda said.
“Mr. Sertoris and others have come to this place as much to escape from relatives as for any other reason. It is for their own peace of mind that they refuse to visit with their kin, and we respect that wish. But as for
—” She glanced at her watch. “Yes. Come with me.”
Hob and Hilda followed the receptionist down a hallway, up a flight of stairs, and down a very broad corridor to a glassed-in area.
“There he is,” the receptionist said.
Looking through the glass, Hob could see a fair-sized indoor skating rink. There were several dozen older people skating on the ice. Prominent among them was a tall, skinny old man in warm-up pants and maroon sweatshirt. Hob didn’t even have to look at his photographs to know that this was Mr. Sertoris.
“As long as our patients are ambulatory,” the receptionist said, “the ice skating is part of their regular routine. And we make the viewing of them available to whoever asks. That way, there are no suspicions. You’d be surprised what some people think when they’re told they can’t see their parents.”
“I can imagine,” Hob said. “Mr. Sertoris looks well.”
“Oh, yes,” the attendant said. “He is in amazing health. We expect him to go on for years and years.”
And so, when he returned to Paris, Hob had to file a negative report for Thomas Fleury, who had so been looking forward to inheriting Uncle Sertoris’s money and thus finally able to move from his small luxury finca in San Juan, Ibiza, to a big luxury finca in Santa Gertrudis—he had one all picked out, a place that would be large enough for all his guests and his four Afghan hounds. The Alternative Detective Agency’s report was the end of Fleury’s dream. Also the end of Hob’s stipend. And it came just before the beginning of a new case.
After the Sertoris affair, Hob decided to hang around Paris for a while and see if anything turned up. He took advantage of a long-standing invitation to bunk for a few days with Marielle Lefleur, a senior editor at Editions Charlemagne. The few days stretched to a few weeks, money ran out as it always did, and everyone’s patience began to wear thin.
Hob knew it was not going to be one of his better nights when Marielle came back from the office more tired than usual. She dropped her briefcase filled with manuscripts and page proofs onto one of the chairs, walked over to the window—without saying a word to Hob—and looked out.
The apartment was on the fifteenth floor of the Salles des Armes Apartotel, the new structure on the boulevard. General LeClerc just above boulevard Montparnasse. From the terrace you got a wonderful view of the switching yards of the Montparnasse station. The sky was a fish-belly white, lit up coldly by the glow of Paris’s lights. The apartment itself was narrow, but it had a lot of rooms. On the walls were photographs of relatives, of Marielle’s children, presently on holiday in Brittany. There was a picture of Marielle herself, standing with Simone de Beauvoir. That had been taken four years ago when Editions Charlemagne had published de Beauvoir’s book about her journeys around America with the tow-headed young Italian fencer about whom she wrote so movingly in
Auprès de ma Blonde.
“So what is it this time?” Hob asked.
“I’ve asked a few people over,” Marielle said. She was smoking again, her harsh Gitanes. She chain-smoked them, all day and sometimes half the night. Hob, a smoker himself, had grown to hate their smell, the harsh black tobacco mingled with sour red wine that was Marielle’s characteristic odor.
“Christ, who in hell is it this time?” Hob asked.
She rattled off a few names. All publishing people, all a bunch of sluts as far as Hob, with his old-fashioned sexist vocabulary, was concerned.
“I told them you’d make your famous chili,” she said.
“Oh, no,” Hob said. “I’m not making any chili. Never again. The butchers grind the meat too fine. It always comes out chili pâté.”
“You must explain to them,” Marielle said. “You can speak French; tell them.”
“My French is deserting me.”
“That is because you never speak it. Why don’t you speak to me in French?”
“I can’t make my mouth do those contortions,” Hob said.
She looked at him reproachfully. “What is the matter with you? You are never fun anymore.”
It was true, Hob thought. But how was he supposed to have fun? What was he doing living in this apartment with this woman? He had his own place, the dreary little apartment on the boulevard Massena that he shared with Patrick, his Irish flute-player friend from Ibiza. Recently Patrick had returned from his trip to Pau with Anne-Laure, the Frenchwoman he was seeing, and had come to an arrangement with her. He would move into her small rent-controlled apartment near the avenue d’Ivry as soon as her son returned to the Institute of Musical Studies in Rome. Meanwhile, with Hob’s permission, he had agreed to put up her relatives in the Massena flat so they could take a holiday in Paris. And so Hob had moved in with Marielle.
Proximity had been a bad idea. He didn’t like Marielle. Had he ever liked her? Yes, at one time. But that was before he’d lived with her. Why did she insist on leaving the cheeses out? She said that refrigeration spoiled their taste. Cheeses should remain at room temperature. To rot in peace, Hob said. The first of their big fights had been over cheese. Strange what people will find to argue about. There were so many other things to torture yourself over. Why don’t you love me? was always a good one—and applicable in this case to both of them. But what they fought about was the cheese.
There were plenty of other things wrong, too, but the biggest of them was no fault of Marielle’s. Hob was broke. He was, not to put too fine a point on it, doing exactly what Jean-Claude did for a living. He was living off a woman.
It was true that he received no actual cash money from her. But he got his board, and he got to eat whatever was around. They both lived with the pretense that Hob was waiting for a check from America. It wasn’t entirely a lie, sometimes checks did come to Paris from America, and sometimes they were even sent to Hob. But not often and not frequently and of late not at all.
Still, the pretense was important. Marielle was short and squat. She wore the voluminous dark Parisian clothes of a middle-aged woman. They contrived to make her look even squatter than she was. Naked, she had a passable body. Not that Hob cared anymore.
And then the telephone rang. Marielle answered it. “It’s for you,” she said to Hob.
“Hob? It is Fauchon.”
“Hi, Inspector. What can I do for you?”
“If you are not too busy at the moment,” Fauchon said in his precise way, “I would appreciate your coming down here. Is now convenient?”
“Just as you’d like,” Hob said.
“It is just past 2100 hours. Come to the square outside of Métro Sainte-Gabrielle at 2200 hours. Yes?”
“Sure. What’s it about?”
“Somebody you might be able to identify for us.” Fauchon cleared his throat and hung up.
The message from Inspector Fauchon had been precise, though on closer examination its vagueness showed through: meet me at Métro Sainte-Gabrielle at 2200 hours. Very good. But first of all, where was that particular stop on the Paris underground system? Hob had to consult his map, and then he found it, on the extreme eastern edge of Paris, just beyond the city limits, in Bagnolet. But why at 2200 hours? Policemen like to be precise. But 2200 hours, which translated to ten o’clock at night, was damned inconvenient.
His French had deteriorated as the relationship with Marielle fell apart. Forgetting his French was a sort of unconscious and ineffectual revenge on his part, he figured because he enjoyed nothing quite so much as a spot of self-analysis combined with a bit of self-pity.
But Marielle expected him to be there, and Hob was in no mood for one of her rages, which were of several varieties: cold rage, indifference, haughty politeness, and scathing irony, none of which he liked. On the other hand, though he didn’t much care to admit it to himself, Fauchon had a hold over him. Hob’s recent activities in Paris on behalf of his Alternative Detective Agency had involved one or two illegalities. If Fauchon wanted, he could revoke Hob’s provisional license to practice as an investigator in Paris within certain carefully prescribed limits. It was a little bit like being licensed to be a painter, but only of Impressionist works and never under any circumstances to use the color orange.
Fauchon had called upon him before for the sort of help that a rundown American with a rapid, shambling gait and an acquaintanceship with half the
of the Paris demimonde could be expected to have. What would happen if he didn’t show up for this rendezvous? Probably nothing. Maybe, everything. Fauchon could revoke his
Fauchon, like any senior police official, had his contacts with Immigration and the other branches of government. But maybe it would be better to call his bluff, what the hell, and put an end to this bloody suspense.
As for Marielle, let her rage. Just because he slept with her didn’t mean he had to cook the goddamned chili for her friends.
And anyhow, it was expensive to cook chili, especially accompanied by tamales and enchiladas and tacos. It was expensive because unless you started from scratch with beans and tomatoes and garlic, the only way to have your own Mexican food at home in Paris was by buying it in cans at exorbitant markups in fancy food stores that seemed to think canned chili a delicacy and charged accordingly.
It took him almost an hour to get to Sainte-Gabrielle. He had decided that this was the end, once and for all, he’d better have it out with Fauchon. Besides, he was curious about why Fauchon had chosen this strange hour and out of the way place for their rendezvous. It wasn’t like Fauchon to be whimsical while on duty.