The Paris Architect: A Novel (15 page)

“Yes, this would work,” he said. “The fake wall would be faced with a lightweight brick veneer placed on a steel frame that could easily be moved back and forth in one piece.”

To set Manet’s mind at ease, Lucien added, “Please don’t worry, monsieur. I’ll design it so they’ll be completely safe.”

“Well, if you say so. But it seems so difficult. But if that’s what you want, then you shall have it. I trust your judgment.”

“I’ll deliver a drawing to you the day after tomorrow. Our same arrangement stands.”

“Of course, Lucien. No one will ever know. People are most grateful for your help even if they don’t know you exist. You have already saved two lives.”

Lucien had resumed thinking about the Citroën and Adele but snapped back to attention when he heard this comment.

“I saved someone’s life?”

“Yes, indeed. Remember your steps in the hunting lodge in Le Chesnay? The ones that lifted up?”

“Someone actually used them?” Up until now, this had all seemed like a game to him with him designing a pretend hideout that no one would really use.

“The Gestapo tore the house apart but never found the two Jews. They walked over them and even sat on them but never found them.”

“And what happened to…”

“They are now in a safe location, rest assured. But they sent word to me that the hiding place saved them and how ingenious I was to think of it. I wished I could’ve told them who’d really thought of it.”

“I’m…glad it worked out.”

Lucien walked over to the fireplace and picked up a small jade statuette of a cat and examined it closely. He tried to imagine the two Jews under the stairs, listening to the Germans walking on top of them and searching for them. How terrified they must have been. Then a smile came over his face as he realized that he’d really outwitted the Gestapo with his architectural ingenuity. It had actually worked. They’d been mere centimeters away from their prey, but they hadn’t found them. He was quite proud of himself. Once, in an egotistical moment, Lucien had actually hoped the Gestapo would be tipped off so they could rip apart a place to test the cleverness of his hiding space. His mind was starting to race with ideas on how to detail the false wall when Manet yanked him out of his reverie.

“Lucien. Your Citroën is awaiting you.”

As he drove off, Lucien was irritated that he wasn’t enjoying the ride in his beautiful new car. No, he wasn’t enjoying it because he began thinking of the two people he’d saved. That wasn’t what this was supposed to be about. This was about fitting an object of certain dimensions into an enclosed space with adequate clearances, rather like placing an object inside a box to be mailed. All for twenty-seven thousand francs and the opportunity to design a huge factory—to show the world that he could really do a great design. And now this wonderful car. And the unexpected pleasure of fooling the Germans.

He almost wished Manet had said nothing about the actual people involved. He didn’t want to think of them.

22

At first, Pierre thought it was Jean-Claude knocking something off the kitchen table again. He was always running around like a little madman, never paying attention to anything. But there came another loud crash, then another, followed by the children’s screaming. He could hear men shouting, and Madame Charpointier shouting back at them.

Below him, men like rampaging elephants came tearing up the main staircase of the townhouse, first crashing through the second floor then the third and the fourth, going into one room after another. They were yelling at each other, upending furniture, opening closet doors. Pierre fastened his eyes on the attic door in the floor expecting it to burst open at any second, but the men went back downstairs. He could clearly hear the wailing of Jean-Claude, Isabelle, and Philippe. Pierre’s first instinct was to run down the attic stairs and help them. But he remembered what Madame Charpointier had told him and stopped dead in his tracks. His heart pounding, he dropped to his knees and put his ear to the attic door. He could just hear what the grown-ups were saying.

Madame kept telling them that these children were Catholics, baptized in the church in Orléans, and that they knew their prayers. She ordered his brothers and sisters to recite their prayers. In unison, all three started saying a Hail Mary, but a German screamed at them to stop. Philippe, the youngest, was now wailing away, and this angered the German, who yelled at him to shut the hell up. But Philippe cried even louder, and then there was a sudden silence. Madame started screaming at the German for slapping a four-year-old. There was the sound of another slap, which Pierre imagined was directed toward Madame, but that didn’t stop her rage. The shouting continued until Pierre heard the front door open and the commotion shifted to the sidewalk. He got up and went to the attic window that overlooked the rue Dupleix. Two French policemen were dragging his brothers and sister into the rear seat of a French police car parked at the curb.

Two German soldiers took hold of Madame Charpointier, who was still screaming at the top of her lungs. A German officer in a black and green uniform came up to her, and the soldiers let her go. His hand rose to the level of Madame’s forehead, and there was a loud bang. She dropped to the sidewalk in a heap. The children, who had witnessed everything from the car, screamed out, “Aunt Clare! Aunt Clare!” The officer holstered his pistol and, along with the soldiers, got into another car, which sped off. Madame was lying on her back with her eyes wide open, as if she was quietly watching the clouds roll by.

Pierre backed away from the window in horror, stumbled, and fell onto his backside. He pulled his legs up to his chest and grasped them with all his might, rolling back and forth on the attic floor in anguish, but not uttering a single sound. His eyes shut tight. There was such an intense ache inside his chest, he couldn’t stand it. Pierre kept rolling around until he collided with a large steamer trunk piled high with old dusty magazines that fell on top of him. He lay there on his back gasping for breath and finally opened his eyes.

The first thing he saw was an old raincoat covered with cobwebs that hung on a nail on a rafter. As he stared at it, dozens of kind things Madame Charpointier had done for him flashed through his brain. The new football. The beautiful navy blue sweater for his birthday. The money she gave him to take his brothers and sister to the cinema. Helping him with his math homework. He reached to wipe the tears from his eyes and was surprised to find there weren’t any. Maybe because he’d been bar mitzvah’d and he was a man now, he didn’t cry anymore. Tears were just replaced with this terrible aching feeling in his chest. Pierre wanted desperately to cry but couldn’t. Crying, he thought, might not hurt as bad as the pain in his chest.

Pierre sat up and saw the attic window. Below it, he noticed a wisp of grayish-white smoke slowly curling upward into the rafters. Pierre realized it was his cigarette that he’d dropped during all the commotion. He’d come up to the attic in the late afternoon as usual to smoke in secret. It was an excellent place to sit and enjoy his Gauloises. Sitting by the window and looking at the roofs of the houses in the neighborhood and the sky above gave him great pleasure. Madame always gave him hell for smoking, saying a twelve-year-old shouldn’t smoke, that it would stunt his growth and yellow his teeth, so Pierre needed his own hideout. He knew she knew he snuck up here to smoke, but she never confronted him about it.

Pierre heard a truck pull up in front of the building, and he crawled on hands and knees to the window and raised himself to peek out. He was sorry he did. Two French laborers hoisted Madame Charpointier’s body onto the truck bed. They did it with a casualness that shocked him, like heaving a heavy sack of flour. Sitting against the wall under the small window, he snuffed out the burning cigarette. He closed his eyes and thought of his brothers and sister being thrown into the car. That would be his last image of them forever, screaming and frightened to death. A new wave of sadness even worse than before crushed him. He’d fought, bickered, and sometimes hated Jean-Claude, Isabelle, and Philippe, but he’d loved them with all his heart. They had been the only family he’d had left, and he knew he’d never see them again. Of all his family, he was the only one left. And he didn’t understand why.

The horrible images of what had just happened kept swirling around and around in his head. He placed his hands on his skull as if he could squeeze them out. Then the boy realized that all that had just occurred had been predicted by his father. When he’d told Pierre of the plan to pretend to be Christian and stay with Madame Charpointier, he’d explained what could happen to all of them. That one day with no warning, they could be found out. How the Boche would take his brothers and sister and him away and that Madame would be arrested. Everything he’d said had come true. The only difference was that instead of being taken away and tortured to death by the Gestapo, Madame had been shot on the spot. Pierre knew the Boche made examples of all those who hid Jews. The French hated Jews, his father said, even ones who had been in the country for hundreds of years. It didn’t matter. They wouldn’t hesitate to inform on their neighbors. Gentiles might smile and be polite to Jews, but in the end they’d stab them in the back. Always remember that, he’d said.

Pierre tried to think who could’ve betrayed Madame. Was it Monsieur Charles, who always argued with her about his dog? Maybe it was just someone who lived across the street and wondered why four children had mysteriously shown up on her doorstep a year ago. Madame’s story that they were her niece’s children hadn’t sounded that convincing even to Pierre.

Pierre waited until it was dark, then he went downstairs to his room and gathered some belongings in a large rucksack. There were so many things he couldn’t take, and that made him even sadder. He had to leave his football and model airplane, his books on the Roman Empire. Before he went back up the attic ladder, he went to each of his sibling’s rooms and took one small belonging—Jean-Claude’s favorite toy truck, Isabelle’s stuffed cat, and Philippe’s little beach shovel. Just touching these things reminded him of his last image of his brothers and sister, and the pain inside his chest intensified. Maybe this was what grown-ups meant by a broken heart. He’d always thought it was a silly expression.

As he left Philippe’s room, he ran into Misha, Madame’s calico cat. Although Madame had been incredibly kind to them, it had been Misha who had given him and his siblings the most comfort in those first weeks after losing their parents. He purred and rubbed his head on Pierre’s leg. Pierre bent down to rub him under his chin. He looked at the rucksack and decided he could stuff Misha into it. The cat went in without protest and curled up in a ball on top of his sweater, and Pierre gently closed the flap over him.

Pierre went into Madame’s room, where her handbag was sitting on the bed. He removed the money from it, then went to her dresser where she kept her savings in a little plaid bag in her stocking drawer. His father had also told him that money could save your life in times like these and the more you had the better. He still had the large roll of franc notes his father had shoved in his pants pocket when they’d parted. Pierre had never expected to see his father and mother again, but even though they’d received no word from them after six months, he and Madame had kept up a charade for the younger children by always saying, “When Papa comes back from his trip…”

He took one more look around and went up to the attic and out through a dormer window. As Pierre crossed the roofs of the adjoining houses, he wondered how long it would be until he was picked up by the Boche.

23

Serrault knew that this was Manet’s architect.

The light was fading and the rear of the apartment was in shadow so Serrault could watch him without being seen. Serrault had been walking through the apartment when he’d heard someone come in, and he’d quickly hidden. He was surprised the man was tall and distinguished-looking; the architects he had worked with were all mousy and poorly dressed. The architect was on his knees measuring the firebox inside the enormous fireplace, taking great care in noting the dimensions on a pad of paper. This reassured Serrault; the man was making sure everything was accurate. It wouldn’t be like the other half-assed hiding places he and his wife Sophie had been stuck in over the last year. An enclosed loft above a stinking pigsty on a small farm south of Paris. A hastily built recess in the rear of a closet that the Gestapo had easily found a week after they had left for a new hideout.

Serrault and his wife hadn’t waited for a deportation summons as most Jews did. Well ahead of time, they had known it was time to disappear. But before the Serraults could leave, their three children and four grandchildren had to be saved. They had gone into hiding, moving from household to household, making their way to the south of France, eventually arriving at Marseilles, where he’d arranged passage for them on two Spanish freighters bound for Palestine. It had taken seven months and had cost a small fortune, but now they were safe. Serrault, an immensely rich man, would’ve gladly spent every sou to help them, even sacrificing his life if he’d had to. His family was his life; without them, nothing mattered.

Everything he had done was for them; from the time fifty-three years ago when he’d arrived in Paris from Nimes with one thousand francs in his pocket to start a business. But the most valuable possession he’d brought with him was his father’s construction knowledge, which he had passed on to his only son. Believing he had a gift for constructing buildings, Serrault had quickly set up his own company, and nothing but success had come his way. Especially after he’d specialized in reinforced concrete construction, the new structural method that had transformed building.

He was proud to say that he had helped make France a leader in the field, constructing some of the very first concrete buildings in the world. But every yard of that poured concrete was for his wife and children. He’d reveled in every piece of clothing and morsel of food he’d provided for them, every holiday and gift. That was the essence of life, he sincerely believed, to give his family the best life possible. And it had been the best—a great city mansion, a country estate, a home on the Mediterranean coast, and the finest education for his children. But all that had vanished. Now, he and his wife were like frightened mice running from one crack in the wall to another.

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