Sample of “Fritz Bauer and the Courtesan of Paris”
Fritz Bauer traveled light, only a hand bag with two clean shirts and his shaving kit. On the platform, he made his way past the last cars in the train. The vaulted ceiling made the station interior a cathedral to the machine age. Sounds echoed off the tan limestone block walls. The churn of a departing train’s spinning wheels, the scurry of feet, and a thousand conversations in a blur of French he could not follow.
The speed whiskers of chrome that ran along the lower sides of the cars cast his blurry reflection back at him. He lithely stepped around two porters loading a luggage cart, an older German couple where the ruddy-cheeked husband surveyed the station from above his walrus mustache with a self-satisfied glint in his eye, and a French businessman checking a watch pulled from the vest pocket of a fraying blue suit.
No one took notice of Fritz. Good. Being nondescript had kept him alive in no man’s land. It made it much easier to do his job these years since the war.
On the concourse, with the tang of axle grease and diesel exhaust fading from his nose, Fritz found the sign he’d been told to look for. A man with brown eyes leaned on the limestone wall next to the sign, newspaper folded into fourths held in one hand. With his other, he tapped the blunt end of a pencil against his narrow chin. Otherwise, as nondescript as Fritz, plain suit in a shade of gray, hair trimmed short, face clean-shaven in the new style.
His contact. Fritz approached and the man looked up. A flash of distaste, but the man’s expression quickly shifted to that of a stranger making polite conversation. “Pardon me,” he said, “but do you know an eight-letter word for ‘boat’?”
Fritz put on a pondering look. “Does chaloupe fit?” he said, with an accent to make his high school French teacher proud.
The man looked at the newspaper, then tapped his pencil against his forehead, twice. “I should have thought of that myself. Thank you.” He lowered his voice. Fritz angled his ear toward him, to hear every word over the echoes inside the station. “Go outside, past the entrance to the subway station, to the bakery on the left. I’ll come in through the back and lead you to the car.”
Fritz touched his fingers to the brim of his homburg hat and deviated from the script. “Good luck with the rest of the crossword.”
The man’s eyebrows jumped. Surprised a boche could speak such good French, but professional enough not to say anything aloud.
They thought of him as a barbarian in jackboots and a spiked helmet. He knew to expect it, but still it wearied him to encounter it to his face.
The lesson of the Great War should have been to avoid the next war at all costs, not to harbor enmities to make it more likely.
Fritz left the station for a narrow street crowded with three- and four-story buildings clad in gray stone, where dormer windows peeked out of mansard roofs. Late enough in the long summer afternoon for him to walk through shade on the south side of the street. A breeze sighed through the wrought iron balconies and flapped laundry hung out to dry. A motorcar rattled by, top down, a young man in a chauffeur’s uniform driving a graying woman in widow’s black and veil.
Bag in hand, he passed the subway entrance. As promised, the bakery waited three doors down on the sunny side of the street. Fritz crossed the cobblestone street. Warm sidewalk under his feet, his gaze went toward the bakery’s front window and he froze.
Under the window, next to the front door, sat a former soldier in a horizon blue uniform. Both trouser legs were rolled up over stumps of legs amputated above the knee. A safety pin held one rolled-up sleeve against his shoulder. With his remaining arm, he raised a metal cup. He looked at Fritz with two eyes, clear and blue as a boy’s. “A penny, sir?” He took in Fritz’s clean-shaven face. “From one soldier of France for another?”
They could well have faced one another, in the shellscape around Verdun. There but for the grace of God…. Fritz reached into his coat with his free hand and pulled out a five-mark coin. A slight risk of blowing his cover, but he’d had no opportunity to exchange money and the soldier would find a way to spend it. “Gladly.” The coin clanked onto the others in the soldier’s cup and Fritz went into the bakery.
The scent of warm bread flooded his nose. Behind the cabinet glass, baguettes stood in ranks doubled by mirrors lining the back wall. One curtained passageway between mirrors presumably led to the office and bread ovens.
Fritz peered at baguettes while counting exits in his peripheral vision.
The clerk greeted him, moved a step closer, but then a chime sounded from a door hidden somewhere in the back and a flat look came to the clerk’s face.
The curtain pulled back. A narrow chin showed first as Fritz’s contact peered around. He beckoned with his index finger.
Fritz checked the street through the front windows—
“No need,” his contact said. He glanced at the window above where the former soldier waited for alms. “He’d alert us.”
Fritz nodded, but gave the street another survey before following the man out the back.
A motorcar waited in an alley. His contact bade Fritz to sit in the back, then got behind the wheel. He pulled on a cap and leather gloves. With smooth shifts of the gear lever, they set out.
Ten minutes through picture-postcard Paris, down broad avenues lined by lindens and horse chestnuts and past outdoor cafes where waiters in black ties served espressos, brought them to a block of unremarkable buildings. Somewhere near the government quarter, if he accurately tracked their progress through his mental map of the city. An electric gate opened, wheeled black iron rattling down a track. His contact drove him into a courtyard and they parked out of sight of the street.
His contact shucked his chauffeur pose, then led him into the building. An elevator cage stood open for them. As Fritz and his contact stepped in, the operator pressed the button for the fifth, top, floor.
Fritz’s contact led him to a corner office. Closed windows gave views to anonymous office buildings. A ceiling fan turned sluggish air. Behind a broad desk with fluted edges and curved corners sat a man with a bushy mustache tinged with white. Brown hair retreated from his forehead and white flecked through it like sprinkles of salt. Hazel eyes studied Fritz from his fleshy face. “Bauer? I’m Driant. You’ve already met Sarrail.” He beckoned at the man who’d met Fritz at the station. “Enter. Sit. I’ll order brandy. Smoke, if you choose.”
Fritz had weaned himself of the habit after two months in a hospital with his jaw wired shut. He rested his hands on the arched arms of his high-backed upholstered chair. While Sarrail struck a match, Driant fixed his gaze on Fritz. “We have kept your visit in extreme confidence. Only three men know your purpose in Paris: the President, the Foreign Minister, and me. Though I suggest Sarrail should know it too, because he too will work with you on this.”
And spy on Fritz. Such was how the game was played. “I agree.”
Sarrail took a drag of his cigarette. Tobacco crackled at the burning tip. He waved his hand. “About time, if I may say so.”
A bell tinkled inside the door. The servant with the brandy, most likely, but Fritz twisted in his seat and let his hand drift toward the Luger pistol holstered inside his coat.
Driant bade the servant enter with his wheeled cart, then dismissed him and poured three snifters himself. He offered a choice of two to Fritz and said, “I’ll let you explain.”
Fritz inhaled the vapors, then sipped. Not beer, not even schnapps, but he’d sampled brandy enough from the stock in his father’s casino to appreciate the taste. Warm glow on his tongue, he said, “Prince William, grandson of the Emperor and second in line to the German throne, turns sixteen next month.”
“July 4th,” Driant added.
Sarrail tapped fingers of his free hand against his thumb. “Five days from now.” He took another drag of his cigarette. His brown eyes showed he plainly did not care for the birthdays of boche royalty.
Fritz picked his words with care. “The Emperor has gifted him with an evening with Maxine LaFleur, to introduce him to the arts of love.”
Sarrail’s face turned stony. A line of smoke rose straight from his cigarette, until he made a violent backhand motion and scowled at Driant. “You approve this? That is all we are to them. A defeated country whose women are to be taken in concubinage!”
Fritz lifted his hand. “The Emperor knows that even if Mars has turned against France on the field of battle, the temple of Venus still glows brighter here than anywhere else.”
Driant gave Fritz a wry smile. “You would make a diplomatist, if you retired from your secret service.”
Face as red as his cigarette tip, Sarrail said, “The god of war never turned against France. The treacherous English—”
“Enough,” Driant said, voice mild. Sarrail squirmed before slinking back in his chair under his superior’s watchful gaze. “Because our government is willing to cooperate with Germany, but an official visit by Prince William would outrage popular opinion, he will travel with a small party