Read The Paris Architect: A Novel Online

Authors: Charles Belfoure

The Paris Architect: A Novel (7 page)

He had completed the column drawings in a couple of hours then had set to work on the factory. It felt good to be designing again, and Lucien enjoyed every minute he worked on the building, drawing detail after detail, trying out different ideas for the facades. The building had wonderful skylights, which brought light into the center of the factory floor, and three two-story entries, where the workers would pass through each day. The last thing to do was a perspective drawing of the entire building, as if one were looking at it from an airplane. By Monday, the drawings would be complete, ready for Tuesday morning’s meeting. He couldn’t wait to present the drawings. Herzog would be impressed.

The Germans had only given him a week to complete the design drawings. If it had been any other client, he would have told them to go to hell. But since this was a client who could have him executed, he didn’t protest. He also didn’t protest the tiny fee—just 3,000 francs—he was getting for the design. What mattered most was the opportunity to design a good building; he couldn’t blow this.

Lucien lightly knocked on the door. He didn’t want to draw the attention of any neighbors. The door swung open, and Manet stood before him, looking very contented.

“Come in and see your handiwork, Lucien,” he said in a loud voice that made Lucien cringe.

He cast a nervous glance behind him and went into the apartment, following Manet into the salon. At first, Lucien was puzzled that everything looked the same as when he’d first visited the apartment almost a week ago. Then he realized that was a good thing. It seemed as though nothing had been touched. He walked toward the column, but stopped about three meters away to see whether he’d notice anything odd about the shaft. As he circled the column, he kept staring, but everything seemed perfectly normal to him. Moving a meter away, he still saw nothing. Then with his face five centimeters away, Lucien examined the shaft up and down to see if even the tiniest flaw would give the whole ruse away. He could barely see the joints hidden in the square edge of the fluting. He had designed quite a bit of custom cabinetry before the war and had seen work of great precision, but this was amazing. The joints were even less than razor-thin; they almost disappeared. It was the kind of precision one would see in the engineering of high-quality steel machine parts. As an added precaution, the door had been placed on the side of the column closest to the wall to avoid detection.

Lucien took the index and middle fingers of his right hand and sharply tapped the right side of the door about three meters from the floor. The very tall door popped open to reveal the hollow space of the column. He stepped inside and pulled the door shut with a brass handle. He stood in total darkness, looking about him. Lucien couldn’t see any light showing through the joints of the door. He stooped down and slowly stretched out his hand, finding a latch at the bottom of the door and fastening it. Running his hand along the door’s edge, he found another one a half a meter above it. He continued to do this until he’d fastened five latches.

“Monsieur Manet, I want you to pound on this door with all your might,” Lucien shouted.

Manet got a running start and threw his entire body against the door, repeating the motion two more times. With his hand on the door, Lucien felt that the door didn’t budge a millimeter. The column itself didn’t move at the base either. The workmen had done a good job of securely fastening it to the floor.

“A few more times,” said Lucien. Manet walked four meters from the column and charged at it like a bull. After the second time, he began to get winded and tired, but he did it two more times.

“All right, Monsieur, I’m coming out.”

Outside the column, Lucien circled it, running his hand along the fluting of the beautiful wood shaft, his face beaming with pride. The feeling of incredible exhilaration was back, and he was off on another high.

“You’re certainly a man of your word, Monsieur Manet. The workmanship is extraordinary.”

“I’m glad you approve. My men are excellent, but they needed your imagination. They just followed your instructions.”

“It’s incredible that they could do such fine work in so short a time.”

“Because I may have more than one guest staying here at a time, I decided to have the other column done as well,” said Manet.

At once, Lucien walked over to the second column to examine its exterior. The work was equal to the first.

“Doubly extraordinary,” said Lucien with a smile.

“A clever solution, Monsieur,” said Manet, patting him on the shoulder.

“That’s if your guest doesn’t panic and start crying in there,” replied Lucien who knew that the success of the most ingenious design depended on the nerve of the occupant. “I can’t soundproof this thing.”

“I’m afraid that is something you and I have no control over.”

“I’m ready for Tuesday’s presentation,” said Lucien, shifting the conversation to a more pleasurable topic.

“Major Herzog is looking forward to seeing your work. He called yesterday to see how things were going.”

“You…and the major will be very pleased,” Lucien said. “It’s a very functional design that—”

“Tuesday at 9:00 a.m., then?” said Manet as he walked to the door, gesturing for Lucien to precede him, for they couldn’t leave together.

Lucien wasn’t insulted that Manet had cut him off. The old man had probably worked with architects before, so he probably knew what bullshitters they were when it came to explaining their work.

Walking down the stairs, Lucien’s pride in his columns slowly faded away. When he got to the front door, he stayed there for about two minutes, terrified to go in the street. A black Citroën, the automobile favored by the Gestapo, could be parked at the curb waiting for him. He took a deep breath and opened the door slowly. Looking to the left and right, he stepped out onto the sidewalk and began walking briskly down the rue Galilée. He wanted to break into a run, but he remembered the dead Jew in his blue suit and slowed down to a walk.

8

“You were right, it’s ingenious.”

Mendel Janusky popped open the door to the column and stepped inside. He shut the panel, then came out. “The total darkness in there is serenely peaceful.”

Janusky walked over to Auguste Manet. “Can your architect be trusted?”

“Without question, my friend. You’ll be safe in his hands,” said Manet.

“I hope so. I’m so tired of running, Auguste. There are some days I feel like walking into Gestapo headquarters and giving myself up. I’d tell them where all the money is and let them kill me.”

Manet laughed. He had known Mendel Janusky for almost twenty years, and he wasn’t a man who gave up easily. Janusky would never surrender to the Nazis, let alone let them have his vast fortune. Every sou of it went to buy freedom for his people, not just in France but throughout Europe. Beginning in the late ’30s, Janusky had set up a network of agents on the Continent to arrange transit papers and visas to help Jews escape, mainly to Portugal, Turkey, and South America, the easiest places to bribe officials. Money could buy freedom, and he was willing to spend as much as it took. Even as late as 1941, families were being saved by him. Manet knew he’d recently arranged to smuggle sixty Jews into Turkey, where they’d boarded a freighter bound for Venezuela. Warned by his friends that he must get out of France, he’d ignored their advice and now was trapped. The Gestapo was tightening the noose around him. Nonetheless, he told Manet he was determined to escape to continue his work. There were many more to help.

“That’s a joke. I’ll turn myself in before you ever do, Mendel.”

Janusky smiled. “You’re a good man, Manet. When most gentile businessmen turned their backs on the Jews, without hesitating you offered to help us, putting yourself and your entire family at great risk.”

“Any good Christian would do the same.”

“Now
that’s
a goddamn joke. You know, I never trusted gentiles. They would smile in your face and call you a dirty kike the minute your back was turned. They would do business with us, but forget about socializing. Did any gentile ever invite me for a weekend in the country except you? Not on your life. France might have been the first country in Europe to grant Jews civil rights, but it’s still a country of Jew haters. I was stupid enough to be fooled into thinking they’d finally accepted us.”

“I don’t believe that.”

“That’s because you’re a true Christian gentleman. But you’re a fool to think most men think like you.”

Manet was saddened to see the physical change in his friend. Once a tall, distinguished-looking man with piercing blue eyes and a vibrant personality, Janusky’s eyes now seemed dull and lifeless, and his face was haggard. His salt-and-pepper hair was completely white. Walking with a pronounced stoop back to the column, Janusky ran his fingers up and down its fluting, clearly enjoying the tactile pleasure of its smoothness.

“You know, I had a dream about my father last night,” Janusky said, almost absentmindedly. “That hasn’t happened in many years.”

“I remember your father. No man worked harder for his family. He rose from nothing.”

“Less than nothing. He escaped the pogroms in Russia in 1881. Gathered people’s old scrap metal eighteen hours a day and sold it for a tiny profit. A sou here, a sou there. Until he had the biggest scrap metal business in Paris. Then came the steel mill.”

“The best in all of France.”

“You know, after we made it, we thought we were above all the Jews that came later. But we didn’t count for much, Auguste. We were still immigrants, no better than Jews who arrived yesterday. When the Boche started rounding us up, foreign Jews went to Drancy first, no matter when they came to France or how well off they were.”

Manet remembered how he’d first met Janusky, when he was bidding on a contract to supply steel for Manet’s engines back in the ’20s. Each bidder had to show Manet his factory and prove he had the ability to fulfill the contract. Janusky personally took Manet through every part of the plant, explaining how up-to-date and efficient his equipment was. But what struck Manet was that Janusky seemed to know every one of the scores of workers he passed on the tour. Not just their names but personal information—asking them about a health problem a wife was having, how their child’s recital went, or did they catch any fish last weekend. He even gave one man a franc piece for his boy’s birthday, which he knew was coming up. All of his men perked up when he passed, as if they were glad to see him.

Manet considered himself a decent boss, but he knew little about his men. He’d ended up more impressed with Janusky’s relations with his workers than the factory itself. Janusky won the contract and from then on provided all the steel for Manet’s automobile engines and other parts. His colleagues had warned him against dealing with Jews because they were natural-born thieves, but Janusky had been the best and most reliable supplier he’d ever had. A man of honor.

“Mendel, you’ll stay here for at least a month. But then we’ll have to move you. It’s never safe to stay in one place.”

“I’ve been moved around like a chess piece,” he said with a laugh.

“When the time is right and all the financial arrangements have been made, I can get you into Spain, then Portugal,” said Manet.

“Then America. They have to know what’s going on.”

“America. But now it’s impossible to get you out of the country. My contact in the Gestapo tells me they’re killing people right and left to find you. Remember Deligny?”

“Deligny? I thought he got out. They picked him up?”

“I haven’t found out if he’s talked. Sooner or later they’ll pick up some of my people. I want to believe they won’t crack, but with what those Gestapo barbarians do, the strongest are made to talk. Men can’t betray each other in times like these, but they do.”

“Poor Deligny. All on account of me. This isn’t right, Auguste.”

Manet changed the subject. “You must be quiet as a mouse here—and stay away from the windows even though they’re shuttered. We think a hiding place is safe, but they always find out about it. There’re informants everywhere.”

“Quiet as a mouse.”

“Your food will come up on the dumbwaiter in the pantry every three days.”

“Well,” Janusky said as he looked around the apartment, “this is the lap of luxury compared to being in a barrel in that wine cellar.”

“Yes, I noticed the Pinot Noir cologne you’re wearing,” said Manet, patting his friend on the shoulder.

9

“My darling, what a wonderful surprise. But this must have cost you a fortune.”

Lucien smiled as Adele held the string of pearls before the small candle on the café table and examined them. He knew many men had bestowed pearls upon her that really weren’t pearls but cheap imitations. He was pleased her expert eye could tell these were the genuine thing.

“Real quality doesn’t come cheap, but a stylish woman like you deserves only the best,” replied Lucien. Actually, he got the pearls for almost nothing. A friend of his told Lucien about a homosexual who was desperate to sell his family heirlooms because he had been ordered to go to Drancy.

“These are magnificent, Lucien.” Adele fastened the string around her long slender neck.

Lucien beamed at her. His nightlife in Paris had returned to normal. While the French outside were getting by on scraps and acorn coffee, Le Chat Roux offered a choice of six kinds of fish or oysters, a bouillabaisse, rabbit, chicken, fruit salad, and even pineapple with kirsch. Having money was a wonderful thing, thought Lucien. The necklace looked wonderful against her black dress and her beautiful blond hair.

Lucien was enjoying the fact that other men at Le Chat Roux were stealing admiring glances at Adele. He knew that in a short while, they would be back in her apartment making love and downing the bottle of expensive champagne he’d bought for her.

Adele also saw the looks of envy and admiration and gently fingered the string of pearls. “You’re terrible to spoil me so. The pearls, this wonderful meal. You deserve a reward,” she said, shifting her cornflower blue eyes seductively toward the door, then all of a sudden she started waving her hand like an excited schoolgirl.

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