Bag Man: chapter one

Bag Man by Simon Cann

“I don’t trust—”

Claude cut across me before I could finish my sentence. “You don’t trust her, she doesn’t trust you, and I don’t trust either of you. So we’re all even.” He sucked on his cigar, then picked up his espresso cup with his other hand, holding the small lump of white porcelain delicately between his thick thumb and stubby middle finger as he pointed at me—the cup becoming a makeshift finger. “Are you happy now?”

“It’s a trap.”

Claude took a sip of espresso and returned his cup to its saucer. “Possibly.” As the hand with his cup lowered, his other raised itself like a seesaw bringing up his cigar. He sucked the burning leaves. “Probably.”

The fat man seemed happy to let the conversation dry up. He stared at his cigar, his look one of contemplation in the way one might contemplate a vintage wine.

The weather in Paris had turned. The last few crisp autumnal days had been banished, being replaced by gray mornings with biting wind whipping off la Seine, and frequent heavy showers. The city was moving quickly, desperate to get inside before it rained again. Again. Getting wet wasn’t the problem—the problem was being wet when the wind picked up.

Claude and I stood by the waist-high table outside the café. Outside: Claude’s one begrudging concession to the legislation banning smoking inside. I barely knew him, we’d only spoken once before, but I knew Claude firmly believed the legislation banning smoking inside was contrary to the principles of liberté, égalité, fraternité, not to mention all the statutes in the French, European, and United Nations corpus of legislation that had been written since the founding of the Republic.

But for the fat man, the inconvenience was not being outside—I suspected it was standing. His battered raincoat, misbuttoned and a shade somewhere between gray and brown, bore testament to meals eaten since the weather turned and meals eaten during the previous years' rainy seasons. His conversation wasn’t so much talk as gesticulation, and unless he was sitting, he was too much of a target as his food spilled from his fast-moving hand.

“Your choice. Do you want the job or not?” asked Claude. “Do the job, take a risk, get paid. Or walk away and I’ll find someone else. Do the job well, and maybe there’s more work for you.”

“Get killed and you’ll organize my funeral?” I asked, instinctively rubbing my arms for warmth.

He snorted. “You’re funny for an Englishman.”

“Probably because I’m Scottish,” I muttered. But I suspected Claude knew that my father was Scottish and my mother French. He was probably only sniping because he was getting bored by my reluctance to simply agree to accept the job. “Who’s the client?” I asked.

“She’s either a saint or a devil, depending on who you believe. If you’re concerned about business, then Gabriela Carvalho turned around a failing Brazilian mining company and made it a global player. In so doing, she became a feminist icon—mother and CEO. If you worry about polar bears, then she’s the devil slashing and burning her way through the Amazon jungle to satisfy her own greed.”

Claude sipped his espresso, apparently satisfied that I now had sufficient information.

“Why me?” I asked.

Claude contemplated the question—a Parisian philosopher weighing the nature of the matter. “Why you, Leathan Wilkey? Or why you and not the cops or some private army?”

“Both, I guess.”

“You, and not the cops, because Gabriela Carvalho doesn’t want the cops involved. She doesn’t trust them and she doesn’t want the publicity. If it gets known that she paid a ransom for her kid, that will show there was a weakness in her security and that she has a vulnerability. Wherever she goes, they’ll be lining up to grab the kid again.”

“Then she’s got security? So why me?”

“You, Leathan, because…” He stared into the distance. “Because.”

“Because?”

“Because they need someone with local knowledge who speaks the language.”

“There are people who know more about Paris,” I said. “I’ve only been here for six weeks.”

Claude stubbed out his cigar and lit another. It came from the same pack, but he savored the first draw as if this were some new and exotic pleasure he had never previously enjoyed. “My friend the lawyer recommended you. He was returning the favor—he said you got him hired and his client said good things about you. He said you’re good at this sort of thing.”

“What sort of thing is that?” I asked. A gust of wind blew, bringing with it a sheet of moisture that wasn’t quite rain.

The muscles in Claude’s flabby face tightened slightly. “Kids, families, thinking on your feet, giving a shit, sorting stuff out…” said Claude, not giving emphasis to any particular aspect. He gripped the table and faced me directly, the tone of his voice dropped. “She needs your help, Leathan. Will you meet her?”

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