PL01 - Phantom of the Louvre
Copyright© 2019 by Haro James
The cat does indeed seek the hand that feeds it. Rather than open the door and put himself in a line of fire, he called out from where he was. “Gentlemen, I would that you please come out, so the three of us might have a civilized conversation.”
The brief silence was followed by a fierce whispering. A door swung open. Vautrin saw resignation in their eyes, and the thoughts behind the looks. He did not intend his voice to convey his impatience. “Please, sad heroes before firing squads are not in the book today. Who are you? How and why are you here? Most importantly, what of the basement door?”
He paused to look around the space, then more closely at the men themselves. Vautrin rummaged in his coat, and offered a package of cigarettes. The younger man shook his head, the older accepted. As soon as Vautrin lit it, he drew deeply, then said in accented English “The lifting gas. Is there danger of explosion?” His concern did not slow his drawing on the cigarette.
“Hydrogen rises. They inflate from hoses near the top of this structure, and ventilate it all with hurricane fans.” Holding up a hand, Vautrin went back down the stairs, found a call box. He lifted the earpiece, jiggled its holder until an operator came on line. He told the man to have someone attend him at the Arch call box with coffee, bread and cheese. He returned to the loft.
Twenty minutes later, he was not surprised to hear Rimbaud calling from below. Vautrin directed him to the top of the stairs. They listened to his plodding steps. Once he handed over the basket, the young man sullenly said he was no waiter. Vautrin ignored that, and politely thanked him. Rimbaud demonstrated an extra degree of surliness on the way down. As they listened to his fading steps, the older man’s amusement caught Vautrin’s eye.
The men devoured the food, telling their story between mouthfuls. Poul, the younger, explained that until a week ago, they were in the service of the Prince-pretender from one of the former Thuringian statelets. Vautrin vaguely recalled the place, but it hardly mattered. There were so many stateless German princes wandering Europe these days.
The Prince maintained a court-in-exile in Danzig, with the forbearance of the Poles. He enjoyed considerable latitude, as his family had been stridently Catholique right up to the revolution that deposed them. His Highness concocted a plan to embarrass Paris into supporting his claims. He would stand on the Assembly doorstep to publicly release a sheaf of confidential correspondence between his former chancellor and Paris. Another batch would be handed to reporters the next day, and so on. The truth was, the material was not important, or even particularly interesting. But the Prince was counting on Faure’s aversion to scandal.
While doubting the benefits of such grandstanding, the two performed as the professionals they were. They did their part in getting the princely party, undetected, onto a direct flight to the Aeroport du Louvre. Poul and Emms were first off, heading down the stairs to manage things at the passeport desk. The clerk had not even acknowledged their arrival at the counter when a commotion erupted in the hanger.
His Highness had started down the gangway, lost his nerve, and retreated to the aero. Minutes later, the second officer hailed the dock manager to say an immediate return flight to Danzig was required. Dumbfounded, the manager watched as the great rotors began to spin, severed mooring lines fell to the floor, and the aero slowly reversed out the hanger with neither permission or assistance. He frantically telephoned his superior for instructions amid the uproar. Emms thought the Prince must have paid the captain very well for such a career-ending violation.
Unfortunately, Poul reiterated, they were downstairs, standing in front of the custom officer’s desk. They immediately realized they were about to be stranded without papers or money on an unfriendly foreign shore, facing very hostile border officials. When the ship began its unauthorized maneuvers, those officials rushed to the windows. Emms dragged Poul past the abandoned desks and wickets. Instinct, or blind panic, made them board the first moving conveyance - a service lift bound for the lofts above Berth Two. They hid there for half a day.
Emms uttered a sharp laugh, and said they were so inconsequential that no one was searching for them. While that stung his pride a bit, he was happy enough to be out of sight when not under sporadic princely protection. His former pursuits made him an attractive acquisition to the Prussians, among others. He tilted his head. “I think we traveled in the same circles some years ago, sir. St. Denis, isn’t it?”
“A name I haven’t heard in many a year. I apologize for not returning the recognition, Monsieur...” Emms offered a sly smile, but no hints. Vautrin had a somewhat sour insight. So end old spies: fat security chiefs, sporadically-employed snoops, disposable diplomats. Their story continued.
They knew they could not count on the Prince to do anything for them. In fact, their records had likely been purged, their very existence denied. They were on their own. The only connection either had outside the intelligence brotherhood was Emms’ cousin in New Manchester. With no palatable alternative, they decided to stow away on the next London flight. They remained high in the hanger loft, huddled among boxes of copper nails, buckets of tar and harnessed cylinders. The Anglo’s RSS Ruby would arrive the next morning, and they would be on their way to refuge.
An hour before their intended flight, they started to make their way towards Berth One. The details of how they would board were the subject of intense discussion. So engrossed were they, that neither they or the man climbing the ladder heard one another. Facing them on the walkway, in tones of surprise, anger and fright, he growled in English “What the hell are you doing here?”
Grateful for a common language, Emms responded with simple honesty. “We are here for the Ruby.”
The stranger snarled that he would not surrender a single stone, and drew a knife. He advanced on them with a clearly murderous intent. The aggression surprised the Germans, who fell back. The man kept coming. Poul grabbed the cylinder he had been squatting on, and threw it. It struck the man across the face. A seal ruptured, spraying a foul liquid over everything within three meters.
Their would-be assailant staggered, then fell between the rafters. There was a soft thud below. Peering over the side, they saw a limp form atop the Austria-bound aero. As they watched, the Avion Namur slid out of the hanger to begin the traditional circuit around Eiffel’s tower before making for its destination. Newspapers gleaned from the trash told them the man had fallen to his death, if not dead already, near the American Cathedral. They realized he had attacked them for entirely the wrong reason. It only seemed they had had English in common.
Things got worse. Poul donned a pilfered custodial coat to go on an eavesdropping mission. He was no more than five meters away when the security chief addressed a group of docking managers. Becque outlined new, tighter controls over passengers boarding outbound flights. Now they were stuck, at least until things eased. But at least they would not starve. Poul grazed the discard bins from the aeros, whose contents were, if not always palatable, certainly edible.
In the meantime, they explored other avenues of escape. Becque’s assessment of their opening of the door were quite accurate. Once Poul picked the lock, a task that took him more than an hour, they immediately abandoned the effort when the nature of the place became clear. Emms said he actually prayed. At that, Vautrin interrupted the narrative. He left them, saying he would return as soon as he had an idea of how to proceed.
He left the Louvre on foot, needing to process all this unexpected intelligence. He was less than satisfied with the likely responses to the duo stranded in the hanger wall. The theft would be in the newspapers for a week, until some other event captured the attention of the press. Hardly his concern. The death was adequately explained, and of no significance. The matter of the door, the only important issue, would remain confidential. He would brief the president in detail. He did not care for the sealed directive that would likely come down.