The Camera: chapter one

The Camera by Simon Cann

Anaïs had left a message.

I called back and made the arrangements: “Leave the café at 11:00, turn south; when you’re on the way give me a call, and I’ll tell you where we’re meeting.”

“You’re not going to make me wear a disguise and jump between trains, are you, Leathan?”

“No,” I said. “Just walk so I’m sure that you’re not being followed.”

“That could take hours.”

“It’ll take a few minutes. You walk—I’ll check.”

She grumbled a bit but agreed.

I checked the time again. 11:01 AM. Technically, she was late, but she did have a café to run—a business she had worked hard to establish—so I understood. That was why I had suggested the quiet period before the lunchtime rush.

I sat, up from the café, on the low wall marking the edge of the sidewalk, letting the May sunlight warm me. To my right, seven stories of white-painted buildings acting as a reflector to focus the sun on the street. On the other side was Gare de l’Est, or more accurately, the thirty train platforms of the station shielded by metal roofs stretching away from me like a perfectly flat gray field with nothing to shade me from the sun.

In 1883, Gare de l’Est had been the departure point for the first Orient Express bound for Istanbul. Now, with the romance of steam a long distant memory, the station was just another of the huge transportation hubs moving people into and out of Paris, and Anaïs Moreau had set up her business around the corner to take a small slice from the passing foot traffic.

At 11:05, she stepped out of the café before turning back to talk to someone inside. She was pointing—not pointing aggressively; Anaïs Moreau spoke with her hands. You didn’t need to listen to her words—all emotion was conveyed through physical gestures, whether by shoulder movements, tilts of the head, subtle shifts in her eyes, or hand gestures. All was there; all was on display.

And now she was displaying nervousness. She was leaving her baby—her café—in someone else’s hands. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust the other person, but there was certainly separation anxiety on her part.

A man came to the door. Younger and taller than her. Slim, dark-haired, and with a neatly trimmed beard. He lifted a hand and put it on her shoulder, tilting his head to the side. The bearded guy seemed to know that she was distracted and wouldn’t hear words—she needed someone who spoke in gestures to be reassured.

I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I knew from looking. “You’re sure you’ll be alright?”

“I’m sure.”

“You’ve got my number.”

“Yes.”

“And if…”

“Yes.”

“I’ll only be ten minutes.”

“Ten minutes or ten hours, I’ll be here.”

“You’re really sure?”

“I’m sure. Now go.”

Finally Anaïs turned, heading away from me, a large suede bag hanging from her right shoulder. She dug into the bag, slowing her pace, and pulled out a phone, which she put to her ear. The phone in my pocket rang. “Hi,” she said. “I’m on my way.”

I wasn’t going to tell her that I already knew. “Keep going south. I’ll call you in a minute,” I said and hung up. I stood, feeling the blood rush back to my ass as it left the cold stone.

Anaïs continued walking, reaching the end of the vehicle access in the street. She stepped around the low fence and walked to the top of the steps. For some reason, Rue d’Alsace—where Anaïs’ café was located—was on two levels joined by a staircase between the two. Pedestrians could make the journey, but vehicles could not.

I looked, but I couldn’t see anyone following her. I couldn’t see anyone paying attention—there was no one waiting, no one watching from a window, no one coming the other way. The street was empty apart from me and Anaïs Moreau. She took the stairs on the left. I watched as she disappeared from my sight, a step at a time.

Then I ran.

This was why I didn’t keep the phone open—I didn’t want her to hear me panting as I ran. I ducked down the first right, sprinting until I reached Rue du Fauberg Saint-Denis, which ran parallel to Rue d’Alsace and the train lines.

Where Rue d’Alsace is a quiet, white-painted street with little traffic, largely due to the stairway, which militates against vehicles, this end of Rue du Fauberg Saint-Denis is its ugly cousin. It’s rammed with traffic—angry drivers who just want to be somewhere else, now. There are far more businesses, but nothing as genteel as a pleasant café where you can sit and watch the world go by. There are phone stores to get stolen phones unlocked, money changers, barbers, electrical stores, and of course, since it’s Paris, pharmacies.

Above the street level there are hotels and private residences. And while the architectural standards laid down by Baron Haussmann in the mid-1800s largely prevail with a few exceptions, clearly no one was paying attention when the edict was passed about color consistency: The buildings are white, gray, brown, dirt-encrusted, peach, and cream.

There were also lots of people on the street, which made running more of a dangerous pursuit—for my fellow pedestrians, not me. I jogged down the slope to where the road met Rue du 8 Mai 1945 and turned left, pulling out my phone. I slowed as I called the last number, trying to steady my breath.

“When you get to the end of the street, turn left and follow Rue du 8 Mai 1945 across the front of Gare de l’Est,” I said.

“What did you say?”

The corner I had just turned marked a transition. I had come from a street largely filled by Parisians to join a wider street where the traffic was primarily intended to service tourists and other visitors to the city. As I had jogged down the hill, there had been cars, vans, and scooters. By contrast, Rue du 8 Mai 1945, the street named to commemorate the surrender of Nazi Germany and mark the day of victory in Europe, was crammed full with coaches. Coaches with no hint of irony, moving large numbers of humanity across Europe in a way that the Nazis could only have dreamed of. And in the few areas of blacktop that weren’t filled with low-rumbling coaches spewing out black diesel fumes, taxis attempted to thread their way along the street.

“Turn left in front of the station,” I said in a louder voice.

“I’m nearly there.”

I made it to where Rue d’Alsace met Rue du 8 Mai 1945 and hung back, letting the tide of tourists give me some cover. About fifty yards ahead I caught sight of Anaïs: short, slim, white T-shirt, her hair cut in an elfin-like style. Her pace had picked up—she was walking with speed, making her way through the herd of tourists milling on the sidewalks. While there were more people, no one seemed to be following her.

She reached the junction and turned left without pause. The large suede bag was firmly over her right shoulder and her phone was clamped to her left ear. “Where now?” she asked as she disappeared from my view.

I paused for a moment or two, looking to see if anyone else was concerned by her disappearance. No one seemed to notice that she had gone.

“Keep going,” I said. “Stay in front of the front of the station; when you get to the road coming down the other side, bear left and cross. Go into Jardin Villemin by the top entrance, and I’ll meet you by the kids’ play area.”

“Okay,” she said. I hung up.

She was headed left, so I headed right. She was going to the northeast entrance. I would enter by the south so I could see anyone behind her. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust Anaïs; I did, but people can always be put under pressure—they’ll do the wrong thing to protect themselves and those they love.

I didn’t want to be understanding—I wanted to stay alive.

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