Monday, January 2, 1956
Nick and Carter have arrived safely in Paris and were even greeted at the airport by a minor government official and a small detachment of the famous Republican Guard.
After taking a week to recover from their Christmas adventures in Vermont, they're ready to move into their new house over in the 4th Arrondissement.
It takes three cabs to get the whole gang over there from their hotel and, as they stand on the sidewalk outside, none of them can quite believe what they find: a crumbling building, a trash-filled courtyard, several broken windows, and, as Nick tentatively pushes the front door open, the stench of a rotting corpse.
The police know that none of them could possibly have committed the crime but what about the mysterious Madame Marika, who has suddenly disappeared? Is she back behind the Iron Curtain? Or has she too been murdered?
The entire household gets involved in solving the mystery, dashing around the city that is their new home, and discovering, in the end, the bonds of love and friendship they have brought with them from San Francisco, across the Atlantic Ocean, and to La Ville-Lumière—Paris: The City of Light.
Display Historical Notes (contains spoilers)
The Adroit Alien
Europe's Lighter Side
by Art Buchwald
International Herald Tribune
Monday, January 2, 1956
If you happened to be one of the lucky few to be arriving or departing from Le Bourget Airport on Wednesday last, then you saw quite a sensational show. A sleek Comet jetliner, the first to fly the Atlantic with passengers—and the first to arrive intact since '54—landed at 10 that morning. From the cheering crowds—small but fervent—and the smartly turned out spit-and-polish of la Garde républicaine, you would have been excused for thinking it might have been Ike or Eleanor coming down the steps, but no, America is exporting something very different these days. Who, you might ask, if not a head of state or a movie star, would deserve such treatment?
To wit: one M. François Queneau, special assistant to the Minister of the Interior, embraced the V.I.P. passenger in the traditional Gallic and manly way: a firm grasp of the shoulders, followed by une bise—a kiss—on the left cheek then one on the right. There is nothing queer about such things to the average Frenchman. Strange to Americans, yes, but vive la France!
For a Mr. Roberts of Des Moines or a Miss Smith of Seattle—mere mortals—smelling salts were on hand, therefore, as the V.I.P. passenger was revealed to be none other than Mr. Nicholas Williams of Nob Hill, San Francisco, with all his gold rush money—and how!
You may know him as Notorious Nick. The American Ambassador calls him persona non grata. The Hon. C. Douglas Dillon withdrew, in the Nick of time, a late invitation for the man of the moment and his towering companion to the ambassadorial New Year's Eve gala at the Hôtel de Crillon—wherein Nick & Cie have set up housekeeping for the first week of their fêted stay in the city of lights.
Today, we are told, Nick and his friends of a feather are making their big move to a large mansion in the 4th. What will life in gay Paris hold for Notorious Nick and his pals? As they say on the radio, stay tuned.
Hôtel de Crillon
10, place de la Concorde
Monday, January 2, 1956
Half past 6 in the morning
I was looking at Carter Jones, my tall, muscled, ex-fireman of a husband, over a cup of coffee in the back of the hotel dining room when a folded-over newspaper landed on the plate next to mine.
"Have you seen this crap?" That was Jacob "Jake" Robinson. He was my lawyer, originally from Richmond, and spoke with a soft southern accent. He stood about 5'7", came in at around a hundred and twenty, wore steel spectacles, and tended to dress like a lawyer twice his age which was 27. He sat down in the chair and sighed dramatically.
I said, "Nope. I don't read the papers. Remember?"
Carter leaned over as Jake handed him the paper. I watched as Carter's mouth turned up on the left side. That meant he was amused. He finished, handed the paper back to Jake, and cut into his egg pie. "Not too bad. Could've been worse."
Jake thumped the paper with his left hand. "I usually think Buchwald is funny. But this—"
"He's funny when he's writing about someone else, right?" I asked.
Jake put the paper on the table and crossed his arms. "Yeah."
"Welcome to the big league, kid." That was Carter. He was grinning and almost done with his egg pie.
The waiter, knowing his job, swooped in, removed the first plate, and swiftly deposited a second plate, with another piece of pie. He was gone, as usual, before either of us could say anything.
I looked over at Jake. "Why doesn't he bring two slices at once?"
He shrugged and pulled the napkin off the plate. Before he could reply, the waiter was back. He quickly poured Jake a cup of coffee and added a small silver creamer next to the cup. Denis, the waiter, knew that Jake liked extra cream and no sugar. And, with that, he was gone.
As Jake doctored his coffee, I asked, "Where's Grumpy?" I was referring to Antoine Descombes, Jake's lover.
Snorting while he stirred, Jake said, "Last I saw him, he was sitting on the edge of the bed looking at the wall in his usual daze." Antoine wasn't a morning person.
By that time, Carter was done with his second slice of egg pie. He leaned back and sighed. "Nick, we have to find a cook who can make one of those."
Jake laughed. "That won't be hard. It's the equivalent of roast beef back in the States."
I frowned. "I thought beef burgunyawn was the equivalent of roast beef."
Jake grinned at my terrible pronunciation and said, "It is. What I mean is that any middling cook in the States can make a baked chicken or a roast beef. Here, almost any cook can make a quiche lorraine."
Carter winked at me and said, "Anyone who knows that it's not called an egg pie."
I crossed my arms. "It is an egg pie. Just because it has some fancy name doesn't change the fact."
Jake took a roll out of the wire basket in the middle of the table and began to butter it. "Well, as much as I'm enjoying this episode of The Bickersons, I'd like to get this show on the road, if you two don't mind." He looked down at the bread in his hand. "But I'm going to have another one of these first."
I nodded and took a roll for myself. I ate mine without butter. It was warm and seemed to have butter baked into it, somehow. For my second bite, I dabbed a little bit of strawberry jam on, using the spoon instead of my knife as Jake had taught me to do.
"What time does Dragon Lady swoop in?" asked Jake as he wiped his hands on his napkin. He was referring to Madame Marika. She was the aunt of Ferdinand Zak, the man who'd been our gardener and ersatz chauffeur in San Francisco. He and his lover, Gustav Bilek, who had been our valet and butler, had moved to Paris with us from San Francisco. Nora Vanyova rounded out our little group. She had worked for us as a housemaid at home on Nob Hill. They were all Czechoslovakian refugees who had been hired a couple of years earlier by our housekeeper, Mrs. Kopek, who had moved to San Francisco from Czechoslovakia long before the war and seemed to know everyone in that particular ex-pat community in the City.
Madame Marika was a no-nonsense woman who may, or may not, have been either Ferdinand's father's sister or his mother's sister. She could have been a great aunt or a second or third cousin. I'd never gotten a straight answer out of Ferdinand.
Whoever she was, she'd helped us with all sorts of things since we'd arrived in Paris on the previous Wednesday. Besides Czechoslovakian, she spoke fluent English and French, and probably several other languages.
I looked at my watch. "They're all going to meet us here at 7."
Jake shook his head. "You know that only foreigners ever get up this early in Paris, right? I mean, look around." He stopped and surveyed the dining room. "The only people having breakfast in the hotel are Americans and Englishmen. I'm sure Denis must think we're all insane."
Carter grinned over his cup of coffee. "My theory is that he goes out around midnight to a nightclub somewhere and comes in here at half past 5 to get breakfast going at 6. He then goes home to wherever he lives, sleeps from 2 or 3 until 10 or 11 and then starts it all over again. He's definitely one of us."
I glanced over at the waiter. He was handsome, in a way. He was about 5'9" with a wiry build. Mostly, he had very intense black eyes. He kept his hair longer than most American men would and held it in place with some sort of heavy-duty pomade. It never seemed to move, whatever he did.
Jake said, "It's coke. I'm sure of it. I mean, how else could anyone move like that?"
"Coca-Cola?" asked Carter, with half a smile. He was teasing Jake.
"No, Carter. You know. Dope."
Carter watched as Denis glided around the dining room. "Could be."
"Look at the way he moves so fast. No mortal can do that without a little pixie dust. In his case, I think it's a magical white powder."
I stood and said, "Well, you two can wonder about him all you want. I'm going to go settle the bill. They should have it ready by now."
Carter winked at me and said, "We'll get everyone and everything else together and meet you outside. Your mansion awaits."
I grinned and walked in the direction of the front desk.
6, rue Catherine la Grande
Monday, January 2, 1956
A few minutes past 8 in the morning
"Uh, is this it?" That was Jake. He was looking up at the crumbling arch that straddled a narrow entrance leading into a courtyard overgrown with brown weeds and riddled with bottles, empty cigarette boxes, and scraps of paper swirling around in the chill morning wind.
As the last of the small caravan of cabs left us on the sidewalk with our luggage, we all looked around the narrow alley of a cobblestone street and gaped. My first thought was how glad I was that Lettie, my stepmother, wasn't around to see the "mansion" we'd bought. My second thought was that she was the one who'd found the house and bought it for me, sight unseen.
I looked over at Ferdinand, who was as shocked and astonished as the rest of us. Madame Marika, whoever she really was, had been the one who'd said it was a good buy. I hadn't asked about the price. I was hoping we didn't spend more than fifty thousand dollars on the place. If it had been a penny higher, we'd been swindled.
"Well," said Carter, as he looked around, "It looks like we're gonna be busy for a few weeks."
Gustav folded his arms and said something terse to Ferdinand in Czechoslovakian. Ferdinand sneered in reply with a frown and a dismissive wave of his hands. Nora added something that sounded as if she were making fun of Ferdinand who then replied in a long tirade of what I guessed were insults. Before I could say anything, Carter made his hog-calling whistle, which sounded a lot louder in the narrow alley than it usually did. The three kids stopped talking.
In response to the whistle, several people in the apartment building a couple of doors down opened their windows and began to complain loudly in French. Antoine replied back and included some hand gestures I was pretty sure were obscene.
As all that worked itself out, I stepped over the green shards of a broken wine bottle and made my way into the courtyard. I carefully picked around broken cobblestones and then began to climb the five white marble steps to the porch. A faded inlaid stone pattern decorated the porch. In various places, small chips revealed the comings and goings over the years.
I looked up and noticed the wide door was slightly ajar. I gingerly pushed it open and called out, "Hello?"
About two seconds later, a couple of alley cats scrambled past my feet and ran halfway across the courtyard. They made a quick right turn and jumped through a broken window at ground level.
By that time, Carter was making his way up the steps and grinning at me. His grin faded, however, as he walked up to where I was standing and got a whiff of what I could already smell.
"Who or what died in there?" he asked.