ONE TRUE SENTENCE
Snow falling on the Seine.
It was half-past-two and it was quiet as it gets with the heavy-falling snow and Hector was just starting to cross the Pont Neuf, heading home after a long night of writing. He was alone and cold and slightly drunk.
Icy fog crawled across the river. The lights of the bridge glowed strangely in the fog, not illuminating anything, but instead casting hazy, solitary cones of weak light that receded off into the cold mist.
From the other end of the bridge, much farther than Hector could see, he heard a scream, then the sound of the rubbery, thin ice breaking below...water splashing.
Hector called, "Hey there!" and began running, his leather soles slipping and sliding on the slick bricks. Hector thought he heard other feet hitting the pavers.
He crossed the bridge, knowing he'd passed the halfway point when the grade changed. Hector ran to the spot where he thought he'd heard the splash and leaned out over the stone rail, peering into the fog. Squinting, Hector could see a black patch belowstanding out against the thin veil of snow covering the iced-over surface of the river. Wisps of steam from the warmer water trapped beneath the ice drifted from the black spot, curling into the mists of the fog. Hector watched a few moments, waiting to see if there was any sign of motion from the hole, but he saw nothing like that.
A suicide, probably...there was never any shortage of those.
He looked at the steps leading down to the river's edge. The bridge's lights glowed meanly across the slick steps. And if he got down there without falling, Hector knew he'd still be faced with just that hole in the ice. The current would likely have already swept whateverwhomeverhad gone through dozens of yards from the steaming hole.
Reluctantly, Hector backed away from the railing. He decided going to the authorities would do little good. And doing that might just make Hector a fleeting suspect if they fished a body from the river later, after the thaw.
There were fresh footprints in the thin crust of snow...spaced far apart, like the person who left them was running. The weight of the impact on the hard snow made the size and the shape of the footprints indistinct...impossible to tell if they were those of a man or a woman.
He looked around again; saw nothing; heard nothing. He thought about trying to follow the footprints in the snow, then decided against it.
Hector shook loose a cigarette and struck a match with his thumbnail. He pulled his collar up higher and tighter around his face and jammed his hands deeper into the pockets of his overcoat, continuing his solitary way home.
By morning he'd nearly forgotten about all of it.
They were gathered in a private room off the back of a café called the Grand Néant.
The speaker wearing the black mask surveyed them sitting there, sipping their wine or anise: gaunt, intent-eyed men whom the self-dubbed "Nobodaddy"a moniker borrowed from the poet William Blakehad personally selected as likely converts.
Dark men with darker sensibilities. Cynical vets, jaded rich boys, and bitter men who viewed life after the trenches and horrors of the World War as a gauntleta thing to tear pleasure from at any cost and with no eye toward consequences.
A lost generation. Prospects. Worthy candidates for Nobodaddy's dark campaign.
Nobodaddy said, "As a movementas an organized entitywe can impose our artistic and philosophical vision on the world. Here, in the City of Lights, we stand at the center of the beating heart of the arts. Every writer, painter, and poet of consequence is right here. If we seize control here in Paris, our vision, our artistic aesthetic, can be carried forth to the world."
The Germanthe tall dark one with the hawk nose and the terrible scar down the side of his faceshook his head. Werner Höttl said, "Your aesthetic. Your artistic vision. For surely, it is not mine. You embrace nihilism...wallow in your concept of nothingness and the futility of life. Insofar as you dismiss religion, I applaud you. Particularly because the artistic community of this city is too in thrall to the Jew. But my medium is film, and film is a communal experience. It can elevate an audience. A master filmmaker can make an auditorium of strangers feel the same things...react the same way. All you offer is sterile, black loneliness. This does not appeal to me."
Höttl studied the speaker in the black mask again. He was still trying to decide it if was a man or a woman. The voice was odd...rather androgynous.
The other dark-haired, hawk-faced oneDonovan Creedycleared his throat and nodded. "Herr Höttl is right about the Jews and the way they're poisoning and warping the artistic scene in this city. They run all the little magazines. Their salons are hives of indoctrination to their vision of the arts. I'm all for grounding out their influence. But I don't see how your campaign in any way enhances the prospects for our artistic success. Your vision of Nada renders life meaningless. If you have your way, everyone will be throwing themselves out windows or under trains. They'll be drinking poison and shooting themselves in the head to escape the barren world you've handed them. I want no part of this."
Creedy rose, putting on his hat and scooping up his overcoat from the back of his chair. The German, Höttl, also stood, said, "I'll follow you out, Herr Creedy."
Dejected, Nobodaddy looked to the young critichandsome, tow-headed...a trust fund baby. "And you, Quentin?"
The art critic blew twin streams of smoke out his nostrils and shrugged. "What can I say? Either you aren't a good ambassador for your cause, or your aims are simply unfathomable to anyone who is remotely sane. All I've heard is an argument for the meaninglessness of all human effort...all artistic endeavor."
Quentin ground out the stub of his cigarette; lit another. He said, "I'll confess, I have artistic ambitions myself. Until I get a better handle on how I mean to realize them, I'm furthering my own education under the cloak of art criticism. From where I sit, you and your groupif it extends beyond yourselfare at odds with my interests. Hell, if everyone starts believing as you do, nobody will be painting, writing novels or poetry...writing plays. Hell, as those two odd birds who just cleared out said, all the artists who fall for your pitch will be too busy killing themselves to create."
Quentin Windly stood up, stretched, and said, "Afraid I'm going to take the air, too. Thanks for the drinks. I was you, I'd try drinking more myself. Maybe it'll change your black state of mind. Oh, and lose the maskit doesn't engender trust. Hell, it makes you seem, you know, insane."
Nobodaddy had used the name "Elrond Huppert"a fanciful alias he'd partly borrowed from a Leeds professor named Tolkienwhen he'd solicited their participation; he hadn't told them to expect a masked host. "When you'd joined us I meant to reveal my face," Nobodaddy snarled, close to losing self-control.
Quentin grinned. "For someone who believes in nothing, you ask for big leaps of faith."
Nobodaddy watched the art critic go. Nobodaddy stood alone in the room, staring at empty chairs.
Well, soul winning wasn't an easy task, particularly when you were trying to win converts to a faith as black and pitiless as this one.
But there had been successes. The "church," for lack of a better word, was growingthose who'd just left would probably use another word...maybe "festering."
But a dark course had been charted.
It was just a matter of staying true to that plan and vision. If Nobodaddy couldn't win them overall the artists, all the opinion shapers in the artistic community of the City of Lightswell, then Nobodaddy and his minions would just continue pitching them into that black void, one at a time.
Maybe one couldn't kill them all, but one could surely try.
After all, God was dead; actions no longer carried consequences.
Hector took the mail handed him by his femme de ménage and sorted it. He opened two envelopes from magazine publishers in the states and found two checkseach made out for several stories. It was enough to carry Hector well through the fall...not that he was as hard-pressed for money as so many other writers in the Quarter.
Germaine LeBrun handed him a café au lait and he sipped it gratefully. She said, "It is good news?"
"It is very good news," Hector said, sipping again and winking. He took out his fountain pen and signed one of the checks over to his landlady and kissed her cheek. "So you won't have to set me out."
"You're not even late," she said, touching her cheek where he had had kissed it. She was an older woman and stocky and she had appointed herself his surrogate mother, Hector thought, though she was closer in age to his grandmother, if he still had one.
"This will ensure we stay on our good footing," he said.
He climbed back up to his room, carrying the breakfast tray she had prepared for him: eggs over easy, toast and bacon, and a cup of yogurt. She'd also added a flask filled with more of the strong coffee Hector favored. He smothered his eggs in salt and pepper and dug in, reading a couple of newspapers while he ate.
Hector was startled to see that an acquaintance had been murdered...found stabbed and left propped in a doorway of a vacant shop on the Rue de Moussy. Death had come from a single puncture to the heart, probably administered with a long stiletto, according to the report.
Hector sipped his coffee, added a little more cream and sipped it again. There would be no shortage of suspects for the murder, Hector figured.
Hell, most of the young writers on the Left BankHector exceptedhad good reason to want Murray Panzer dead.
Murray had come to Paris from Greenwich Village in '21, a trust fund intellectual with heady notions of starting a literary magazine. He kept his overhead down by paying his hungry contributors in extra copies of his magazine...in itself not an unusual practice. Paris was lousy with little magazines that did the same"little reviews" and chapbook periodicals filled with drivel Hector couldn't read.
But Panzer, it had recently been learned, had been reselling his unpaid contributors' stories to other, paying publications in Spain and Germany...passing the material off as the work of writers whom Panzer invented pen names for, and then pocketed the money. Panzer's subterfuge had been found out by Constance Wright...a poet who'd been traveling with her lover in Berlin and who had found her own poem featured in Der Querschnittbut now allegedly the work of a poet named "Gwendolyn Roquelaure."
Several of the literary writers and poets of the Left Bank were bitterly calling for Panzer's head.
Ernest Hemingway had not been among those burned, but he could vividly imagine himself having been one of those taken in. Hem had insisted that Hector should join him in a "visit" across the river to Panzer's apartment on the Rue Coquillière: "We'll knock him back on his ass, Lasso. Get a little money back for ours."
"No way," Hector had replied. "And I only write for paying markets, where they find other ways to screw you." Hector was forever taking shots for writing for the crime pulps back home, for "whoring" as some other young writers put it.
Hector had decided to use it to his advantage for once. "But at least I get paid in currency for my stuff," he'd told Hem.
"Well, someone should sure do something about that thieving son of a bitch," Hem had said, frowning.
Hector finished with the newspapers. He saw nothing about a body having been pulled from the Seine. He dressed to go outpulling a cable-knit sweater on over his undershirt, shirt, and the sweatshirt he'd already put on. He shrugged on his big leather jacket with the fleece lining. He pulled on his leather gloves and scooped up his chocolate brown fedora.
It was cold on the street and exhaust from the cabs roiled in the chilly wind. The snow had hardened and it crunched under Hector's work boots.
"Lasso, wait up!"
Hector turned and saw Hem running toward him...running with that limping, shambling run of his caused by a weak, reconstructed knee. Hem was dressed in layers, like Hectorsweaters over sweatshirts, a scarf and black fisherman's cap and gloves with the fingertips cut out. Hem was four or five days unshaven and his clothes smelled of peat fire. "Where are you headed, Lasso?"
"Sylvia's...figured to browse awhile."
"Me too. Walk together?"
"Always," Hector said, "But just a minute." He rested his gloved hand on Hem's shoulder to steady himself, then raised his right leg and fished around under the cuff of his pants. Hector pulled the silver flask from his boot and smiled. "For the cold walk."
Hem beamed and accepted the flask and took a swig as they crossed the Rue d'Assas. "Gotta get myself one of these," he said, handing the flask back. "And Pernod...that's sure the right stuff for a morning like this."
Hector took a swig and slipped the flask in the pocket of his leather jacket. He took his off his glove and fished loose a cigarette and a match and got his smoke going. They were headed north on the Rue Guynemer, skirting the gardens. Hector slipped back on his glove and said, "See where somebody punched old Murray's ticket?"
Hem was surprised by that. Hector then told him about what he had read. When he finished, Hem said, "That's two, then. Hear word they found Lloyd Blake dead in his bed yesterday. His throat had been cut." To stay warm, Hem was trading punches with his shadow on the passing walls; with his reflection in the storefront windows.
Lloyd was another of the little magazine publishers. He'd taken on several investors recently to try and keep his little magazine goingmuch of it money taken from aspiring or struggling writers who couldn't afford to be underwriting little magazines. When he'd apparently garnered all the "contributions" he was apt to obtain, Lloyd had announced he was shutting down the publication after all.
Rather than refunding the money taken from his contributors, Lloyd had instead upgraded his living quarters and begun hanging out with a smarter set on the other side of the Seine. Or so the gossips claimed.
Hector said, "Seems the literary life is suddenly becoming bloody."
Stopping his shadowboxing, Hem smiled and said, "Couldn't have happened to two better prospects, though. You can't disagree with that." He reached into Hector's jacket and took out the flask. Hem took a drink and raised the flask and said, "Farewell to that son of a whore."
Hector accepted his flask back and took a swallow. "To both the dead sons of bitches," he said.© Craig McDonald