A decrepit looking Silver Ford Escort pulled up in a cloud of acrid blue exhaust smoke on the oil stained drive of an equally decrepit looking house in the North London suburb of Hillingdon. Hillingdon is ten minutes away from London's Heathrow Airport. All the curtains were drawn; dingy drapes over grime stained windows, and net curtains that were grey and dirty looking. The droppings of a thousand pigeons had accumulated on one of the windowsills whose paint was long since gone. Its rotten wood gaped with fissures and cracks in which all manner of nasty insects lived, eating away at the wet timber. The black sticky oil stains on the driveway which was once tarmac but now was mainly potholes and loose gravel, dripped from the sump gasket of the rattling engine of the Ford. At some time or another a few paving slabs had been placed on the driveway but these were now broken and stained too. There was a deep gouge all along one side of the car where the driver had misjudged a gap, and one window was missing, the space taped over with a black plastic bin liner. When he indicated to turn off the main road, his indicator flashed rapidly at the front and not at all on the rear. The driver braked and in the rear lights, the side light came on dimly at the same time, a rusted earth wire causing the problem. The owner and driver of the vehicle was called Yasir Patel. He had lived in the house for seventeen years, almost since the day he was released from the nearby Harmandsworth Immigration Detention Centre. The money he had brought with him from India had enabled him to buy the house, but he did not need to worry about carrying such a sum because the time honoured tradition of ‘Hawala', took care of that.
Hawala is centuries old. One person in one country makes a deal, and the funds he has in another country are then paid, based solely on trust. In this way very large transactions that flout all currency laws are easily carried out. Unfortunately, things had not worked out as well as Yasir had planned when he left India for England which was why after seventeen years his house was a ruin, his car was a wreck, and he still worked long hours as a baggage handler at London's Heathrow Airport; a mere ten minutes away (when the car would start). The job was not without its compensations. A surprisingly large number of baggage items that are lost each year really do go unclaimed, and on top of that is the number that go ‘missing' on purpose. Quite often the random theft of a bag here or there goes by unnoticed, and even when a check is made, it is impossible to pinpoint where the bag was ‘lost'. For the baggage crew, it was always pot luck although over the years they had learned to be discerning, choosing more upmarket luggage or better, boxes marked with the label from an expensive store. The best victims were First and Business class bags, but care had to be taken not to concentrate too heavily on that area for fear of discovery so a few economy bags were stolen to even the books. There was even a draw system to see who got to pilfer which hold, and the night before, Yasir had come up with First Class, Air France.
Normally that should mean rich pickings but a delay in the baggage hall knocked on to the departures and the aircraft was loaded very quickly. ‘Just my luck', thought Yasir. Then, a stewardess radioed down that a bag was to be moved from the First Class cabin to the hold. She placed it outside of the aircraft, at the top of the connecting walkway, and a few minutes later an airport worker wearing the usual yellow jacket and large ear defenders, spirited it away. Nobody had any idea at all as to who the employee was, it was just routine, a task that happens dozens of times every day, and sometimes goes wrong. Yasir passed the bag to another man who wheeled tall enclosed trolleys laden with packed meals to the aircraft, and returned with them empty. They were supposed to be checked every time but never were, and the bag that Yasir had collected passed through the building, into the kitchens and from there into a locker. Later it was moved from the locker into the boot of Yasir's old Escort. He drove to the security barrier, waved his ID at the man who was dozing in a small cabin at the side of the barrier, which then opened, and he left the airport.
Yasir turned off the ignition and the engine ran on for a few more seconds, its timing and carbon deposits hopelessly impaired. Finally, the engine shuddered to a stop, backfiring once on its last dying wheeze of compression. He got out of the car and had to slam the door to close it because the rust in the hinges had caused it to sag. Taking the suitcase from the back of the car where it had been covered over with an old tartan blanket, Yasir found his door key and entered his home. The first thing that he did was to fill a kettle and switch it on. That task done, he turned to the suitcase. It took him less than ten seconds to spring the locks with a kitchen knife, and open the case to inspect his haul. The contents surprised him. There were four shirts, underwear and socks as might be expected, but it was all brand new and still in its original wrapping. There was a new electric razor, again as if just purchased. Two expensive jumpers packaged in cellophane and a brand new pair of soft leather shoes came next. As Yasir rooted through the contents it was as if he was tallying the entire brand new outfit of a man who clearly could afford the very best. After removing all the clothes and accessories, there was just a single towel left and when Yasir removed that, he saw the money belt. He had no doubt at all what it was, the wide belt with its series of pockets, each of which appeared to be bulging at the seams. When he opened the first one he completely forgot his kettle which boiled happily, injecting a flow of steam into the room because of its faulty cut-off switch, which condensed on the cold windows and dripped down in like sad tear drops. He looked at all the American dollars in disbelief, and then opened another pocket and another. They were all crammed full. The kitchen table was soon covered in crisp one hundred dollar bills. He had never seen so much cash in his life before. The kettle had boiled dry, then expired, blowing the fuse to the ring main in the process. Yasir did not even notice when the loud humming from his refrigerator suddenly stopped.
The next day Yasir did not report in for work, or the next day either, and the day after that. When a week had passed by his shift manager tried to call him by telephone but got no reply. Concerned at last, the manager drove over to Yasir's house. When he arrived he saw Yasir's rusting car on the driveway, and a collection of unopened milk bottles on the step. The birds had pecked a few of them open to gorge on the cream. There were a few free newspapers laying there too and when he looked through the letterbox he could see more that had been pushed inside. With no other option he called the Police and explained that he thought something might have happened to Mister Patel, who had never missed a shift for as long as he could remember. The duty car arrived an hour later, and the Constable forced the front door. The smell inside was awful as food in the now defunct refrigerator and freezer too had gone far beyond ‘ripe'. He found an empty suitcase on the kitchen table, that had obviously been forced open. When he checked the other rooms of the house he found one room that was almost full to the ceiling with empty suitcases, just stacked in there, one on top of the other. Every one of them had broken locks. It was the result of fifteen years systematic pilfering at Heathrow. Yasir Patel was never seen or heard of again.
During the week that Yasir was being noted ‘absent from shift', Nathan marked time in Paris. He had booked into a Best Western Hotel, which offered him good enough accommodation at a reasonable rate. He was never bored that week - how could he be in a city such as Paris, but his mind was never far from his missing suitcase. He called the airport twice a day but no sign of it was ever reported back to him. Finally, the manager at Air France offered five hundred dollars for his inconvenience and a free first class ticket back to London whenever he chose. The case was lost, another statistic for the lost property office. Nathan had five thousand dollars less the cost of his hotel and the Audi he had hired, and his Rolex wrist watch. It was not going to last him long. He had to resign himself to that fact that from now on, he needed to make some money at the same time as wreak his revenge. Maybe the two would work together ? Who knows ? He still had a phone number for an Irishman in London who had promised a good return for his services. Did he want to do that ? Was that what he had become ? He was confused and had no real idea but looking back he would say that the loss of his money then had been a turning point in his life, the true moment that a merciless killer known as ‘The American' was borne. At that precise time, his ‘name' was still unknown - he would be christened the first time he called London. For the time being, and with what small finds he had left, Shelby McCrae was heading for a very picturesque village to the south of Paris called Saint Lambert des Bois. The village was about twenty miles outside the city.
Saint Lambert des Bois is a pretty French village with a growing number of smart houses owned by the professional people who commute daily to Paris. Nathan had no intention of staying in the village, he simply wanted to call at the Town Hall. The law in France requires that all births are registered at the local town hall. From the day he found those few documents in his father's safe, Nathan had looked forward to the day he would come here to Saint Lambert des Bois, to trace his true birth parents whose names were written on the French document he now had. Nathan had been patient, waiting for the right time to come, and now at last it was here. He parked in the small car park at the front of the town Hall. The Town Hall was quite a small building, two stories high with an open housing around a bell in its slate pitched roof. There were neat white painted shutters for its lower windows and well manicured gardens surrounding the building. The flag of France hung importantly from a flag pole that jutted out from one wall. Nathan spoke good French although his accent was clearly American, but his grammar was correct and his vocabulary wide. Like most things, if he chose to memorise something, then he would, it was always that simple.
As he opened the main door, its handle a burnished brass and the wood highly polished, he was actually nervous. There was a French woman whom Nathan guessed to be in her forties, sitting at a spectacular looking antique desk as he entered. Nathan greeted her, "Bonjour Madame", and she smiled replying, "Bonjour Messeueir. We do not see many Americans here." As always, his accent made the introduction, and her English was perfect, if also as heavily accented as was his French.
"A beautiful village you have here Madame", said Nathan. "I have come here from America to seek my birth parents, and I was hoping I might trace them here ?"
She looked up in surprise, "Trace them ? You mean you do not know who they are, and you think they are French ?"
"Well yes. You see I was adopted at birth but I never knew until...until my mother and father died."
"How terrible for you. You have lost your mother and father recently?"
"A year or two ago now...I had some...err...business to attend to before I could come here."
"And what makes you think you may be French, may I ask", she said with a genuine smile of interest.
Nathan carefully unfolded a document on the woman's desk, "this does. It is my birth certificate, registered here by Raymonde and Arianne Durand on August 11th 1971. It was the last thing my father said to me before he died." As he explained this Nathan thought he detected a flicker of recognition to the name he had mentioned, but he could not be sure.
She could see the deep sadness in his face, almost feel his grief - how terrible to be with your father as he dies and then, at that very final moment, to discover that he was not your true father at all, but why of all people does he think he is a Durand ? "Have you thought that maybe Messeuier Durand will not want to see you ?"
"There is another document here that says that the Durands were killed in a road accident the month that I was born, so I guess if you have a record of deaths for August 1971, they should be there." Again she seemed to look shocked for the briefest of moments and Nathan could not figure out why, or was he just imagining it ? Who knows how the French really think ?
"To lose your parents not once but twice. This is so very sad, Messeuier...?", she prompted.
"McCrae, Shelby McCrae", said Nathan.
"Messeuier McCrae. Let us see."
She got up and disappeared into a room whose entrance was behind her ornate desk. After five minutes she came back out of the room clutching a large ledger. The spine was marked ‘1971'. For a few minutes she leafed though the thick leather bound tome. Then back a few pages, forwards again only to repeat her actions. From time to time she ‘tut tutted' and shook her head as if unwilling to accept what was written. Twice, three times she scanned its pages until finally leafing each one in turn, from start to finish. In all it took her thirty long minutes while Nathan stood by, watching her nervously. At last she decided that she had taken long enough, and she picked up the telephone that was on one corner of the desk. It was an old fashioned black bakelite instrument with a round dial and a brown cloth covered cord. Sitting on her desk in the pretty French village the telephone looked perfect - no other would do. She dialled an internal number, but the building was so small that Nathan heard it ringing the moment she dialled. When it was answered she spoke in very rapid French, so fast that Nathan could barely catch a word. No sooner had she replaced her handset than a figure appeared on the staircase.
The man who walked down the stairs was aged about forty-five or fifty, Nathan guessed. He was quite a short man, but round, with a heavy paunch and his hair had already given way to a large bald patch. He wore a well pressed business suit with a crisp white shirt and a silk tie that matched a handkerchief in his jacket top pocket. The man also wore a pair of round framed glasses that perched on bulbous nose below which cowered a moustache, the ends curled and waxed. His face was ruddy with a number of red veins that scattered across his cheeks like a road map, and behind his glasses his eyes were a steely gray. The woman at the desk said to Nathan, "May I introduce you to the Mayor. I am afraid he does not speak English, but I will translate if you wish."
"Messeuier le Mayor", said Nathan, rising and extending his hand but not understanding yet why the man had been summoned.
"Messeuier McCrae", said the woman, "The Mayor's name is Raymonde Durnand."
Nathan's mouth dropped open in surprise and then bewilderment. "But Raymonde Durnand is dead, I have the papers. Is this man a relative or are you playing some kind of a joke here ?"
"We thought it was you who were playing the joke, Messeuier McCrae."
"Me ?", replied Nathan indignantly "I am deadly serious. This is no joke ! Who is this man ?"
"Perhaps I should explain", said the woman as Durand had another rapid exchange with her. "Messeuier Durand did indeed have a son with his wife Arianne on the date of your document. The name of their son is the same because your document is no forgery. However, their son was still borne, a tragedy that haunts them both to this day. As you can see, Messeuier Durand was not killed in a car crash, and neither was his wife. That part of your story is a fiction. The Mayor thinks that for whatever purposes, the identity of his son was taken and used as a cover for you, whoever you are."
Nathan was stunned by the revelation. He had lived with the painful knowledge that the family he still loved had been murdered and that in reality he was not even part of them, but now to find that the birth parents he thought might still be alive somewhere did not exist either. "Then who am I ?", he said helplessly.
The woman looked at Nathan and saw the pain and turmoil, could see at once that this was no bad joke, that this young American really did believe that his parents came from the small village. "Do you have nothing else ? No other documents ?"
"I have this", said Nathan offering the blank business card with the long telephone number, "I tried it a few times in the States but I could never get a line."
"I am not surprised Messeuier McCrae, this is a Swiss telephone number. Have you not tried to reach it since you arrived in Europe ?"
"I tried a few times from London to see if it was a British number..."
"All you need to do is to add the Swiss country code".
"How can you tell ?"
She shrugged her shoulders as if the question was irrelevant, "its just the way the numbers are in Europe. Each country has their own system, you just get used to it", she said as if it were all perfectly obvious.
"So maybe the answer is in Switzerland ?"
"Who can say, but I am so sorry that you have come all this way for nothing."
"Oh I wouldn't say that Madame, you have been a great help. It is I who is sorry for reminding Messeuier Durnad of his lost son, but you will understand I had no idea ?"
"Of course you didn't. As we say in France, Bon Chance, Messeuier McCrae."
"Yes, thank you, and Messeuier Le Mayor also. I am sorry to have taken up so much of your time. Au revoir".
Nathan turned around, opened the door, and left the building, still bewildered by his discovery but also feeling that somehow he was another step nearer to the truth. At this moment he had much more pressing matters to attend to. His money now was in short supply - what he had left would not last him long although he could always try to sell his Rolex, but even that would not fetch much since he had no proof of ownership. There was enough money for the time being, and his immediate destination was Marseille. The drive down from Paris was almost the length of France and he could use some thinking time. He left the pretty village and turned his car South.
There was grim work ahead, and Nathan took the drive South very casually. He could easily have driven down in a day, but there was no rush, not now. Another day would make no difference. There was a lot of snow in the north and still more when he climbed up into the hillside, but the further south he got, so the weather became a little more mild, but it was February and still very much winter in France. Eventually he reached Lyon which was about halfway to his destination and so he stopped at an inexpensive but spotlessly clean Pension for the night. The next day he was awake early, took breakfast of croissants and coffee - croissants that melted in the mouth they were so delicious and the best coffee he had ever tasted, including back home in the United States - or was that his home ? Had it ever been his home ? A thousand thoughts ransacked his mind as he drove onwards and he barely registered the fact that he was entering the outskirts of Marseille. The information he had was sketchy at best this time, and Nathan hoped that it was enough - enough that he could find his man without alerting him that somebody was looking for him. All Nathan had was the name of a bar, down near the harbour. He was unable to get very close in his hired car, but didn't want to either. Best that the car was somewhere he could reach it easily in the event he needed to escape rather than to hunt. He remembered well the words of the Irishmen who could have so easily ended it all for him - he had been very lucky, how much longer would luck be enough ?
Nathan waited until nightfall. The picturesque harbour seemed to put on different clothes as the light faded - dark and dingy clothes that smelled of treachery and corruption. Out of the shadows came the night people, those lost souls of this vibrant city for whom the day was an enemy that exposed the ravages of their drug riddled bodies, the sadness of the fifty year old whores with their caked on make-up. The pimps the pushers and the prostitutes, the drunks the gamblers and the thieves all came out under cover of darkness, and the area in which the bar was located was about as bad as it could possibly be. Even in the daytime the interior of the place was murky and dim, the air thick with Galouisse cigarette smoke. At night it just got blacker and its shadowy corners concealed the evil dregs of humanity that even Marseille disowned. A juke box played old French records, sometimes, when it was kicked hard enough in the right place. A token candle lodged in a bottle coated with the wax of a hundred others, and one like it burned on a few of the tables. There were two dim bulbs behind the greasy counter top that passed for a bar. Behind it, on shelves deep with the dust of decades stood a dozen or so spirit bottles. Many of them boasted as much dust as the candle bottles bore their multicoloured wax trails. There were a few chipped glasses on display, none of which had any sparkle at all, and two creaking pumps handles from which the barkeep dispensed foaming Stella Artois Lager. There were about eight men that Nathan could see when he first entered. The moment he stepped inside he felt out of place - even the older clothes he now wore seemed dressy compared to the appearance of these men, and this time he knew that his entrance did not go unnoticed; he felt every pair of eyes burning into him as he walked as casually as he could to the bar. As his eyes became accustomed to the hazy gloom and his nostrils to the foetid smell of sour sweat, smoke and stale perfume, he saw that there were some more men sitting around a table in an alcove. Theses men wore the uniform of the Foreign Legion and they looked hardened and tough.
The barman didn't speak, he just looked at Nathan, a mean look that was just begging for him to take offence yet at the same time was inviting his custom. The look said that the barman did not care what he wanted so long as he paid for it, and almost dared him to test his luck. Nathan tried his best at some sort of accent and growled "Beer", slapping a note on the counter. The barman never took his eyes off Nathan as he filled another glass and picked up the note. He slammed down a handful of coins next to the glass which overflowed as they always did. Nathan took his glass and retreated to an empty table, one near to the alcove in which he could now see that a card game was in progress. He tried to melt into the darkness, unsure what his next move should be. A girl came into the bar from and adjoining room and made her way over to Nathan's table where she sat before he could argue. In the pool light she looked almost pretty, but she was thin and pale, her long black hair was dull and her eyes seemed glazed. Closer still he could see that her skin bore many scars of Acne and beneath the make-up her face was pitted and spotty. She smelled of cheap perfume and worse. The girl place a hand on Nathan's thigh and asked him to buy her a drink.
"No drink", he mumbled in English, moving her hand away from his leg.
"Ah, American", she smiled showing teeth that were far less than white even when lit by a flickering candle. "What are you doing here, American ?", she asked trying to sound alluring but it came out almost comically.
"So, you speak English?", Nathan replied. "Okay. I am looking for somebody."
"We are all looking for somebody. Who is it you are looking for ? Can it not be me ?"
"It is a man."
"Hah! You are queer, no ? No matter. I do not care, but such a waste."
Nathan was indignant at her assumption, "no I am not a queer as you put it. I seek this man for a personal matter."
"Ah, that is better. You will pay for information ?"
"Yes, of course I will pay. Isn't that the way ?"
She nodded in agreement as if this was some new idea that was at last understood. "How much is this man worth to you, American ?"
"That depends. I'll tell you his name. If you know anything, then we will see what it is worth. The man's name is Pascal Rousseau."
Nathan was hoping for a reaction, hoping to find his man, but he did not expect the reaction that he got. The three Legionnaires jumped up from their table, kicking it over in their haste. The playing cards, money and their drinks all fell to the floor, the glasses breaking. One of the men grabbed the girl by her hair and threw her out of the way and then all three of the men turned on Nathan, who was half out of his seat in defence of the girl. Luckily the men had been enjoying a long drinking session which had dulled their senses. The first aimed blow missed altogether and Nathan blocked the second man with ease. He was on his feet now and already the barman had picked up a large wooden club, ready to brain any of then who strayed too close to his bar. One of the Legionnaires fancied that he could kick box and he attacked Nathan, throwing a series of powerful high kicks. Nathan blocked two of them and stepped inside the third, delivering a sense numbing chop to the man's exposed neck that saw him felled to the floor where he rolled over on the broken glass. The other two rushed together. Nathan took one down with a kick delivered in the style that his first adversary was trying to perform, and grabbed the last one, spinning him around in a lock that rendered him helpless. From the corner of his eye he saw the first man stagger groggily to his feet and get ready to attack again. As he did so, Nathan kicked out again, this time so hard that he pushed the man back over another flimsy table which collapsed from the impact. The man did not move again. He still had hold of one of them and Nathan said to him in French, heedless of his accent now, "Okay pal. So what is this all about then ? ", and he exerted some pressure to remind his captive that pain was just a breath away.
"No need for the French crap, and your accent is shit by the way, I'm an American too", the man said.
"American huh ? Okay, friend, and I use the term very lightly. Do you want to talk or shall we fight some more ?"
"You're pretty good kid. You can let me go now, its okay."
"You fuck with me and...", said Nathan as he eased his hold.
"Yeah, I know. So where did you learn to do that ? That was textbook Delta Force. Please don't tell me you really are Special Forces ?", said the American with a grin now, watching his two buddies trying to come to their senses. "What do you want with Rousseau ?"
"Its a family thing. Let's call it a debt of honour."
"Okay, fair enough, but you have to understand that The Legion is also a family and we have honour too. If you go after one of us, you take on all of us. Now, you mind telling me what this is all about ?"
Nathan thought for a moment and then reasoned that surely even hardened men such as this would be sickened to hear what had happened to his family and so he told them everything, and as he did so the American translated into rapid faultless French for his two friends, who had found two unbroken chairs and were sitting down again. Their faces were impassive as he told his story, but they hung on his every word. When he finished, the soldiers looked at him for a minute or two, then the American said "be here tomorrow night. We'll drink a few beers and we might have some information for you."
"Okay", said Nathan, standing up and leaving the bar just as he heard the barman shout out "who pays for this damage!", and so the Legionnaires placed some more money on the greasy stained counter, before they also left.