The Paris Architect: A Novel (12 page)

“Hold on,” he whispered. He was already planning his meal for the evening while he quietly unlocked the door. A bottle of wine would be wonderful. He’d had his last one four months ago. He opened the door a crack to see the tan leathery face of Aubier, his former servant from his home on the rue Copernic. Aubier flashed him a big smile of yellowed teeth and pulled an apple from a paper bag. Cambon’s eyes lit up at that beautiful sight—it was easier to find gold on the streets of Paris than fruit. He opened the door just enough to let Aubier pass through. But the old servant came crashing into the foyer onto his face, pushed from behind by three plainclothes Gestapo officers in brown leather overcoats. Cambon shoved a console table in their path and ran into the rear bedroom, straight to an ornate four-poster bed. He pulled a revolver from beneath the mattress and then sat on the bed. As the first Gestapo man came through the bedroom door, Cambon calmly aimed and fired off a round, hitting the man in the left thigh. The officer dropped to the floor like a sack of potatoes. The officer directly behind him pulled back and ducked behind the wall next to the door. With his revolver in hand, he came out from behind the wall, blasting away, putting four bullets in Cambon, who was still sitting on the bed, making no effort to duck. He fell back, looking as if he’d just lain down for a nap.

***

A few minutes later, Captain Bruckner walked into the room with his hands clasped behind his back and silently surveyed the situation.

“Fuckin’ Jew bastard!” screamed the officer writhing in pain on the floor. “Did you see what he did to me? Did you kill the sonovabitch?”

Bruckner walked over to the bed and felt the pulse in Cambon’s neck. “One dead Jew. How do you like that? He didn’t want to be taken alive.”

“I don’t blame him after hearing what happens to these kikes once they go east,” said the third officer, who was bending over his wounded comrade. “You know, that’s the first time one of these kikes put up a fight. He went down fighting. I respect this Jew bastard.”

“I sure as hell don’t,” yelled the wounded man, and the other two laughed at him. They helped him to his feet and dragged him to the door where Aubier was standing.

The wounded man glared at the Frenchman, who looked down at the floor.

“You’ve done your job, you can go,” said Bruckner.

Aubier, clutching the bag of food to his chest, quickly made his way past Bruckner and out the door. Bruckner was always amazed at how easily the French would betray each other. Like Aubier, most did it in exchange for food or a favor, but many did it out of hatred or pure spite. His office would get dozens of letters a day, all of them beginning with some form of the sentence “I have the honor to draw your attention to a person living at…” The letter (usually unsigned) would finger a Jew with wealth: “He has an apartment full of fine objects.” Many would ask the Germans to protect Christian families “from the actions of scheming Jews” or to help return a French husband “from the temptations of a Jewess.”

And it wasn’t always a Jew that was turned in. The French, who were always hungry because of the rationing, despised their fellow countrymen who ate well, so they too would be accused of plotting against the Reich. Was it a flaw in their national character or what? Of course, it served the Gestapo’s purpose perfectly, and they encouraged it, but these people had absolutely no pride. The French even had a stock phrase for denunciation: “I’ll go and tell the Germans about it.” He hadn’t expected them to act like this. It filled Bruckner with disgust because he had enormous respect for French culture and history. He wondered whether his own people would be as shameless as the French if they were under Occupation. They didn’t understand that these denunciations deepened the contempt the Germans had for them and made it much easier to use brute force on the French.

“Duisberg, bring up the French police and have them round up the neighbors on this floor,” said Bruckner. “If they aren’t in, get some from the floor below. Bring them downstairs to me. We won’t need the children. Becker here can handle Bloem.”

Duisberg shouted down into the stairwell, and four police officers came running up the steps. They pounded on each of the wooden doors on the floor, screaming, “Police, everyone downstairs except children! Now!”

Like frightened mice inching out of their hiding places, the neighbors came out from behind their doors. Middle-aged men and women, a sixteen-year-old boy, an ancient man of about eighty-five, a woman around sixty, all silently gathered on the landing next to the lift.

“Move your asses!”

The group ran down the stairs, even the old man. Duisberg was behind them, cursing and shoving them down the four flights. No one uttered a word of protest or tried to make a run for it. As they passed each floor, Bruckner knew that all the residents were behind their doors listening and praying with all their might that there wouldn’t be a knock on their door. Duisberg herded them through the beautiful wood-paneled entry foyer and out into the street. Bruckner followed behind and walked to his car parked at the curb and lit a cigarette. When everyone was lined up in front of him, he threw out his unfinished cigarette and paced up and down in front of them.

“I’m thinking of a number from one to twenty. Each of you guess what it is,” Bruckner said in a jovial voice. He went to the end of the line and faced the sixty-year-old woman.

“What number?”

The woman was tongue-tied, and this annoyed the captain.

“Give me a number, old woman.”

“Eleven.”

“No, that’s not it.” He moved to the next in line, the sixteen-year-old boy.

“One.”

“No. How about you, beautiful?” he asked an attractive middle-aged woman.

“Seven.”

“You win!” he shouted with glee, like an announcer on a game show on the radio. With lightning-fast reflexes, he whipped his Luger from his holster and shot the woman in the middle of her forehead. She dropped like a rock to the gray sidewalk. Bruckner holstered his weapon, walked to the middle of the street, and looked up at the apartment blocks that surrounded him.

“This woman lived on the floor where a Jew was hiding,” he shouted at the windows of the buildings on both sides of the street. “I bet she didn’t even know he was there. But that really doesn’t matter, my friends. If a Jew is found in your building, every last one of you will be shot. If a Jew is found on the fifth floor and you live on the second floor—you die. It’s as simple as that.”

Bruckner walked a few meters down the street with his arms folded. His eyes scanned the facades of the elegantly designed apartment blocks. Not a single person was standing at a window, but they were there all right, standing a meter or two away from the sash listening. He understood how the neighbors behind those windows felt. They all were going to look the other way; they didn’t want to see what was going to happen to the people waiting in the street. That’s the way the French acted during the Occupation—they didn’t want to see. All that mattered was that
they
weren’t rounded up.

Becker and Bloem came out of the building, and Duisberg helped them get Bloem into a black Citroën by the curb. Bruckner watched impassively and then walked over to the remaining apartment dwellers. They hadn’t even looked down at the dead woman but kept their eyes straight ahead. The Gestapo captain resumed pacing directly in front of them, looking each person straight in the eyes as he passed. One of the most fascinating things he’d experienced in his three years of service in the Gestapo was how people acted when they were about to be shot. To his surprise, very few broke down and started sobbing or begged for their lives; most remained resigned to the fact and were quite stoic. The residents of rue Blomet were in the latter group. Like all Parisians, they seemed to accept that death was inevitable and that it could come at any hour of the day. It was odd that the French were so dignified in death but in life acted like shits squealing on each other.

He wondered what they were thinking about. If Bruckner were in their place and were about to die, he’d try to think of the most enjoyable experience he’d ever had. That wonderful summer in Bavaria when he lost his virginity to Claus Hankel’s aunt. Seeing Trudy Breker’s tits for the first time. Or the time he was awarded his university’s highest award for athletic achievement in the long jump.

He stopped in front of a middle-aged man in a rumpled gray suit who stared straight ahead. Maybe he was off in his own world, remembering something fun he had once done. Or was he betting that Bruckner only intended to execute one resident to make his point?

The Gestapo captain kept pacing for another minute, then returned to his car, leaned against the hood, and lit another cigarette.

“Well, ladies and gentlemen, it’s getting late and I don’t want to keep you any longer. Thank you for your time. Good night to you all.”

18

“Ah, Monsieur Bernard, good to see you. Please, please come in.”

Major Herzog looked very odd in civilian clothes. His dark green smoking jacket was quite handsome, and the cuff of his charcoal gray trousers broke just right on his polished chestnut-colored shoes. Lucien, who’d made sure no one saw him slip into the entrance of the apartment building on rue Pergolèse, quickly stepped into the apartment, slamming the door shut behind him.

Lucien saw that Herzog was amused by this. They both knew the French were in a precarious position, and they couldn’t be seen in public socializing with their conquerors. That’s why Lucien had been invited to dine with the major in his home. Lucien had said absolutely nothing for almost thirty seconds after Herzog had telephoned and extended the invitation. A debate had raged in his head whether to accept. Celeste had also been invited, but that had only been a formality; Herzog must have learned after a few months’ duty in Paris that Frenchmen rarely mixed wives with pleasure, a combination of oil and water. Lucien had accepted because, like in peacetime, it was good business to socialize with the client. What the hell, thought Lucien, he’d see Herzog once and that would be the end of it.

German officers were quartered in the affluent western section of Paris, an area that was closed to all French citizens except residents who lived there. Herzog had arranged for Lucien to get a pass to visit him.

Lucien was surprised by the décor of the German’s apartment. He’d expected curtains with a swastika pattern, busts of Hitler or at least a portrait of the Fuehrer in a heroic pose, maybe wearing knight’s armor. But it was wonderfully decorated with modernist paintings, sculpture, and modern furniture. The rugs were of a dynamic abstract design in bold colors of olive, terra cotta, red, and black. He was instantly drawn to a sleek, streamlined piece of sculpture made of shiny stainless steel.

“This is quite magnificent, Major,” said Lucien, careful not to touch the sculpture for fear of leaving fingerprints.

“It’s interesting that you’re drawn to my favorite piece, my Brancusi. A lot of his work has an almost phallic appearance. The American postal authorities once denied entry to one of his pieces because they thought it was a sex object.”

“Puritans,” said Lucien, who moved on to a painting of a grid of primary colors. “Is this a Mondrian?”

“A very small one, I’m afraid.”

Lucien took a few steps back and gave the German’s apartment a 360-degree sweep. It was an elegant dwelling built during Haussmann’s reign, with beautiful walnut paneling and a white plaster ceiling done in very fine low-relief work. But it was the juxtaposition of the modern artwork and
moderne
furnishings with the fine nineteenth-century architectural detailing that made the interior so unique. He was impressed and quite envious at the same time, realizing that a German had better taste than he did.

“What an incredible flat. I would’ve thought that German officers lived—”

“In a cold stone barracks with just a cot, table, and chair with a picture of Hitler on the wall?” Herzog said, smiling. “No, we’re allowed to secure our own quarters. This used to belong to a Jewish fellow who wouldn’t cooperate with the Reich. So he had to forfeit his property.”

“And where is he living now?” Lucien asked, realizing a millisecond after he spoke that it was an incredibly naive question.

“In somewhat less comfortable accommodations,” replied Herzog. He poured his guest a glass of cognac.

“Oh,” said Lucien as he took the glass from his host, who was pouring one for himself.

“I think you’re surprised by my taste in art,” said Herzog with a smile. “A bit avant-garde for a soldier of the Reich?”

“Well, I…” Lucien was thinking exactly that.

“I try to keep an open mind when it comes to collecting. Come, let me show you something that I’m especially proud of,” said Herzog, leading Lucien down a dark corridor.

Herzog switched on the overhead light and pointed to two small paintings on the wall. One was of a lush green landscape along a riverbank and the other was a portrait of a well-fed man in a black outfit and hat.

“This is my Corot,” said Herzog, nodding toward the landscape. “And my Franz Hals. So you see, Monsieur Bernard, not everything has to be decadent and modern.”

“They’re beautiful. Look at the brushwork on the trees,” exclaimed Lucien.

“Two extraordinary masters. No one can capture an expression like Hals.”

“They must have been quite expensive.”

“Not at all. A gentleman who was about to take a long trip didn’t need them anymore,” replied Herzog. “And he let me have them for almost nothing.”

Lucien could imagine the kind of trip the man was on.

“You’ve started quite a collection.”

Herzog laughed. “Just a modest beginning. But I hope to pick up more bargains in Paris. There’s an incredible collection owned by a Jew named Janusky whom the Gestapo is going crazy trying to find. I’d love to get my hands on the two Franz Hals portraits he’s supposed to have. But you can be sure Reich Marshal Göring will have first crack at the art. But I am expecting some very beautiful engravings by Dürer any day now.”

Lucien said nothing and looked down at his glass. He knew that the acquisition was from another man leaving on a “trip.”

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