The Eyes on Those GuysPublié
A short story by Marc Villard, translation by Tim Henderson, revue par Stéphanie Benson
Stéphane Cortal climbed onto block number two, flexed his knees and plunged headfirst into the deep end of the Butte-aux-Cailles public swimming pool. He surfaced, took in a deep breath and proceeded through the warm water in an uncoordinated crawl. The whole show was in fact aimed to impress two young Cambodian prick-teasers sitting on the edge of the pool and openly snickering at Stéphane’s efforts.
Whenever Stéphane walked into the pool area, an approving rumour crept through the female lines, as he had conserved from five hellish years of fighting his way up to become one of the best welterweights in Paris, a fine set of shoulder muscles. But his crawl was less impressive. Since he’d split up with Sophie (saved by him from a near and discreet drowning after having fainted in the deep end), Stéphane had taken to hanging around the pool on the lookout for a good body with sentimental eyes. He was an unabashed romantic.
He gave the Cambodian girls a withering stare, the African gay stretching out under the lifeguard’s seat a sympathetic wave (the life-guard was a Nazi), and decided to go back to the changing rooms. He pushed aside the foam rubber raft belonging to a group of Swedish kids who regularly plummeted his 200 meter time, slapped hands with Mona, the second life-guard, lounging on a deck-chair, and went through the compulsory shower. Two young guys were soaping their testicles inside their trunks and exchanging loving looks through the spray of warm water. Stéphane shrugged, entered the changing-room and held out his rubber bracelet to Bambaata who was trumpeting Bob Marley’s Get up, Stand up behind his counter. With his clothes in his arms, he went to the farthest cubicle, which happened to be the only one not to have been pierced with a wanker’s hole to allow Peeping Toms to jerk off in peace. He whistled to himself while drying, pulled on his T-shirt and flowered shorts, but then an argument in the next cubicle attracted his attention. Stéphane put his ear to the separating wall.
“Who’re you trying to fool, Dumbo? You know what my name is? Marchetti. And no fucking Negro is gonna sell me Mexicain brown cut with insecticide. You already killed one of my clients with your shit.”
“You’re wrong, man, that is good shit. Direct from Acapulco.”
“Sure asshole, travelling first-class, like a senior executive. You know what we’re gonna do, Fats and me? We pocket the rest of your 700 grams as compensation and the slate’s clean.”
“You’re dead, Marchetti.”
“What d’you say?”
A third voice spoke up, over the other two.
“No, don’t! Not in here!”
Eyes popping, Stéphane noted the sound of a brief struggle with a sickening death rattle used as final punctuation.
“Come on, let’s split.” murmured the third voice.
Mustering up his courage, Stéphane pushed the door slightly open and saw two 18 to 19 year-old men in leather jackets head calmly towards the exit. He opened the door completely, but the younger of the two men spun round. They stared at each other without moving then the young man in the leather jacket hurried after his companion who was already pushing the metal gate to leave the pool.
From that moment on, the pool personnel went haywire. Bambaata lapsed into I feel happy, from West Side Story. Cortal yelled at the cashier to call the police, but she could only dig her red fingernails deeper into her face. Mona flunked down onto her arse and nobody could manage to get her up. Finally the police arrived, sirens screaming. Dumbo, who turned out to be a 25 year-old Black, had had his throat slit from ear to ear. Frothy blood mixed with pool water formed a maze of red trickles on the spotless floor.
Stéphane repeated his statement five times to an asthmatic police inspector and was then allowed to leave on the condition that he stopped off at the local police station to sign his statement later that evening. The young man, still under shock, found himself on the pavement only to see the two dealers badly hidden behind a metal-finish Mercedes. Cortal quickened his pace as if he hadn’t seen them and took off towards Boulevard Blanqui. At the intersection, he looked briefly over his shoulder and saw that the two bastards were confidently gaining on him. So he sprang into the traffic — quite dense at this spot — and crossed the boulevard to the Estienne School gardens. He jumped down the five entrance steps and double vaulted the rails to land in front of the forbidding door of the supervisor’s office.
The walls of the lobby were hung with pictures from an exhibition on Herman Zapf, a German graphic artist, and the creator of block letters. In one corner, Stéphane spotted a public phone booth covered with complex graffiti. He took his phone card out of his wallet and dialled the local police station number the cops at the pool had given him.
Steiner, the asthmatic police inspector, took the call after a two-minute wait. Stéphane, eyes fixed on the main entrance, whispered: “They’re after me, officer, I’m hiding at the Estienne School.”
“Who’s they?” wheezed Steiner.
The guys who slit the Black’s throat at the pool.
“Can you see them from where you are?”
“No, but they were waiting for me outside the pool and followed me here. I’m scared.”
“OK, don’t move, I’ll send a patrol car and my colleague, Bertin, will look after you.”
“Right. I’ll wait.”
Stéphane hung up and moved hesitantly towards the middle door that opened on to the gardens. He risked a look outside, but it was getting dark and he couldn’t see much around the school. A voice behind his back spun him round. “Are you a student, young man?”
The voice belonged to a fifty-year old supervisor wearing a sober grey suit. The man was small with the unfathomable face of a Sicilian godfather.
“Uh, no. I was a student, and I stopped by to see the exhibition.”
“Eighty-four, but I dropped out at the end of the second year.”
“May I ask why?”
“I was boxing and I hoped to go professional.”
“OK, now I’ve got you. Stéphane Cortal, B section. You were part of the cafeteria strike in ‘85.”
“Uh, in fact…”
“What are you doing now?”
Stéphane blushed, lowered his eyes and confessed. “I’m a salesman for Olympia. Typewriters.”
The supervisor nodded knowingly, turned around and, with a thrust of his chin which could have been taken for a goodbye, headed for the cloakroom.
Antoine Marchetti parked his BMW thirty yards down from a townhouse on the Rue des Francs-Bourgeois and punched the entry code at the gate before making his way to the top floor. The fourth-floor, terraced apartment was closed by a varnished, wooden door with no bell. Tony took a bunch of locksmiths keys out of his pocket and, with a dirty smile, tried them one after the other until he managed to slide back the lock and free the door. He moved into the rich, thick-carpeted apartment and stopped in front of a half-opened door leading to a wood-panelled office. A man of fifty or so was whistling while typing on an office computer. He felt someone behind him and rose to his feet. The two men glared at each other. Paul Marchetti, with his powerful shoulders and flat stomach looked at his son and was struck once more by their resemblance.
“Good evening, Mister Senator, sir”, said Tony sardonically.
“I forbade you to come here. How did you get in?”
“I have hidden talents, Paulie, you know that. Tell me, you’re just two months away from the elections, aren’t you?”
“Of course. Did you come here to talk politics? I must be dreaming.”
“Hoping to be re-elected?”
“Yes. OK, Tony, spit it out.”
“You’re in big trouble, Paulie. I killed a guy this afternoon in front of a witness who’s out lose. The shit-hole knows my name and what I look like.”
Paul Marchetti took three steps forward, seized his son by the collar and slapped him twice across the face.
“You total bastard!”
Still shaken, the young man took a step backwards and, pulling himself together, thrust his hand into his jacket pocket. He pulled out a slim switchblade and waved it in front of his father’s face.
“Don’t ever do that again, Paulie. Not ever. Now listen, if you want a chance to pull through in two months, you’ll have to get rid of that fucking witness for me. Otherwise I go to prison and just think of the scandal: Marchetti’s son a murdering drug-dealer. Your career’s on the line, Paulie, and it’s up to your own fat arse to save you. Got it?
A deflated Paul Marchetti sat back down in front of his computer. With an automatic gesture, he switched off the screen and held his head in his hands. “We’re not in Columbia, Tony, this is a civilised country with laws, a penal code…
“Shut the fuck up!” Screamed the younger man. Think of your future, of the scandal, of the family and do something! The prick just got home with a cop: 34 Rue Covisart. Your move.
And with that, Tony Marchetti backed off to the door, his eyes never leaving his father’s face. Then he disappeared into the shadows of the corridor and the door slammed shut at the other end of the apartment. The middle-stream Senator, Paul Marchetti, wearily reviewed his furniture, his bookshelves, the small original painting by Fernand Léger. Suddenly, his eyes fell on a photograph of his smiling wife in a hammered stainless steel frame. He took a long look at her peaceful face before reaching for the phone and pulling it towards him.
Paul Bertin, a banal forty-four year-old police officer, had a passion for American films, Burberry trench coats and sport in general. He was getting through life in a suburban house in Aulnay-sous-bois which he shared with his wife, Monique, a Twiggy replicant, slowly soured by the sterility hidden in her womb. In order to escape from his wife’s nagging mouth, Bertin often volunteered for long-term assignments. Right now, he was walking down Boulevard Blanqui in the company of a witness, a nice strong young guy named Cortal. They turned off onto Rue Covisart.
“I bet you’ve been doing some sport recently, murmured Bertin. Am I wrong?”
“No, your right. I was a amateur boxer for a few years.”
“A boxer? Great sport! I’ve been trying to get my wife to subscribe to cable television to see the championships. Do you watch fights on TV?”
“Sure. You’ll see, at my place, I’ve got pictures of boxers on the walls of my bedroom. Two are even autographed; Monzon and Boutier.”
“Are those your models? Monzon and Boutier?”
“No, no, I’m into Sugar Ray Leonard. He’s finished now, but he was a really subtle fighter, good technique and no fool. Not an animal.”
“What’s the hardest thing in boxing?”
“Well… I’d say the hardest thing is not to let the other man know how hard it is. You have to learn to swallow your own blood, for example, and to keep your eyes open even when your brows have doubled in size.”
They had arrived at number 34, Cortal punched in the entrance code.
“Why did you stop boxing?”
“Oh, you know how it is… To start with, I wasn’t a first class fighter and I wasn’t sure to earn a living by boxing, and my parents kept nagging at me to go back to the Estienne School. So from one thing to another, I let things fall apart. Now, I sell typewriters.
They entered a small one-bedroom apartment nicely furnished with contemporary furniture.
“It’s a good job, selling typewriters?”
“Bearable. I don’t do any door-to-door, which is good. I get appointments with companies and I get rid of my junk in boxes of ten.
Bertin nodded approvingly and collapsed with a sigh into a small armchair covered with Indian cloth.
“Can I get you something to drink?” asked Stéphane.
“A beer, if you have one.”
“While you’re on duty?” laughed the young man.
“Stop that shit, I’m dying of thirst. Hey, since I have to spend the evening here, what can we do to keep on our toes?”
“Well, I’ve got a TV, or we can play cards, if you like.”
“Yeah. You haven’t got the cinema version of Trivial Pursuit, have you?”
“No. I’ve got the cultural one that includes cinema.”
“Perfect. I’ll whip you on Trivial Pursuit. Hey, I bought some fresh pasta while I was passing by the Gobelins. Do you know how to cook it?”
“My mother’s Italian.”
“Well then, my boy, we’re going to have a great evening. Lock your front door, will you, so we can hear the idiots coming if they decide to make a raid tonight.
Stéphane nodded, bolted the door and, carrying the pasta, went into his small kitchen while Bertin draped his Burberry over a living-room chair.
An hour later, the two men, their stomachs full, were bent over Stéphane’s Trivial Pursuit board. Stéphane had been tricked on the question concerning Robert Altman’s film on country music: Nashville. And Bertin hadn’t been able to remember that the author of The Skin was indeed Curzio Malaparte. The telephone rang in the bedroom. Cortal got up to answer it and came right back. “It’s for you, your boss.”
Bertin left the game with regret, picked up the phone and grumbled: “Yeah, Bertin speaking.”
For a minute, he didn’t say a word, letting Steiner drone on into his ear. But his forehead frowned his disapproval.
“That’s a really stupid idea, Steiner, you know that?”
A short silence answered his question.
“We’ll do it the way I want, don’t hassle me,” grumbled Bertin, then he hung up, his mind preoccupied.
“Something wrong?” asked Stéphane.
“What? No, nothing. Why don’t we watch TV for a change?”
From that moment on, Bertin withdrew into a sullen silence. He didn’t even smile at the clowning of popular comedians. From time to time, he got up worriedly to gulp down a big glass of water in the kitchen. Finally, he picked up the current issue of Pariscope and browsed over the long list of films being shown in Paris. Having found what he was looking for, he raised his head and looked at Cortal laughing himself silly on the couch. A sentiment close to pity fleetingly crossed the policeman’s face. He cleared his throat and casually suggested: ”Hey, what would you say we went to see a film about boxing?”
Stéphane wrenched his eyes off the screen.
“I’ve seen them all.”
“Come on. I’m sure you don’t know the best.”
“Which one’s that?”
“The Set-up by Robert Wise starring Robert Ryan. The best of all boxing films.”
“No, I don’t know that one. I’ve mostly seen all the Rocky, Raging Bull, that kind of thing.”
“It’s showing at the Fauvette. A ten minute walk away. What about it?”
“Well, I’m a bit tired from the pool, but if you insist…”
“Come on, don’t let the TV brainwash you.”
And Bertin, with shameful eyes, turned away to put on his Burberry.
They walked shoulder to shoulder down the warm streets. From time to time, Stéphane glanced at Bertin who had completely lost his friendly attitude from earlier on. Cortal even got the feeling that the policeman slowed down on Rue Pascal, as if changing his mind. But no, the mature man shook himself and accelerated with an angry step on to Avenue des Gobelins.
At last, they got to the Fauvette cinema, ten minutes after the beginning of the film. Bertin piloted his witness to the fifth row whilst on the screen, Ryan entered a hotel room with his wife, Audrey Totter, who was called Julie for the needs of the film. Bertin worried about the right place to sit, even though the theatre was two-thirds empty. When the hesitating was over, Stéphane could at last look up to the screen where Ryan, in a close-up, was trying to convince the young woman:
““Look, Julie, they’re building this kid up, feeding him a lot of pushovers. If I can get him tonight, that’ll mean a rematch. That’s a semi wind-up of a hundred and fifty guarantee, maybe a top spot even!”
“Yeah, a top spot. And I’m just one punch away.”
“I remember the first time you told me that. You were just one punch away from the title shot then. Don’t you see, Bill, you’ll always be just one punch away.””
On the silver screen, Ryan reeled with the blow. Totter understood she was going too far and moved closer to her husband.
“”Aw, Bill, it ain’t I want to hurt you, but… well, what kind of a life is this? Springfield, Middletown, Unionville, Paradise City… how many more beatings do you have to take?””
Bertin shot a glance at Stéphane who, his mouth half-open, wasn’t missing a thing. The policeman pulled his trench coat close and leaned over to whisper in the young man’s ear. “Sorry, I have to go to the toilets.”
Cortal nodded without taking his eyes off the screen and pulled up his knees to let Bertin pass. The policeman moved in the darkness towards the toilet door then, making sure Cortal wasn’t watching him, carried on stealthily towards the exit.
Safet Stojkovic, seated in the last row, didn’t really like cinema films. He preferred the lewd peep-shows down on Rue Saint-Denis. He yawned, saw Bertin leave, and put his hand into his raincoat pocket. He pulled out a metal silencer and without looking screwed it onto a Czech made pistol. There was only one more thing for him to do in order to earn the 50,000 French Francs he’d been promised. He stood up on his rubber soles and, his eyes riveted on the nape of Stéphane Cortal’s neck, headed in silence towards the fifth row.