1 November 2002
PARIS IS A BLONDE . . . THAT EVERYONE ADORES . . . well I don’t . . . so shut the fuck up . . . what is this anyway? . . . WITH HER LITTLE SNUB NOSE . . . AND MOCKING EYES . . . You’re getting on my nerves with your eyes and your hair . . .
THAT PROMISE PARADISE!
Jean-Luc gave himself a few moments to gather his wits, scattered all over the duvet. That singer’s voice is coming from my radio-alarm. It’s four in the morning.
And Jean-Luc remembered it was Sunday. The day he had to smash, teeth clenched, buttocks ditto, straight into the wall. He switched the radio-alarm off. Noah and Farid must have come in and played a trick on him. They’d chosen a station that played nostalgic tunes, and turned the volume up to the max. If they were trying to help him conquer his fear, they’d failed. Jean-Luc’s stomach was churning.
He got up, went to the bathroom, splashed cold water on his face. In the mirror he eyeballed a young guy with shaven head and brown goatee who looked even more unkempt than the night before. He took an antacid tablet, dressed, and went down to the kitchen.
Noah and Farid were there. Sitting with coffee. Straight-faced. But he could see they were laughing inside. Noah and Farid, dressed in black, black-haired, Farid with black eyes, Noah blue, but apart from
that a pair of Siamese twins from the Mediterranean. They were nibbling on biscottes.
“YES, THAT’S PARIS!” Farid sang.
“Yeth, thath Paris,” Noah said, his mouth full of crumbs. “Sleep well, Jean-Luc?”
Farid had chosen the blueberry jam, his favourite. Emergency rations before he tightened his belt the whole day for Ramadan.
“You’re always saying me and Noah only ever listen to gangsta rap, so we thought we’d make you happy,” he said, the three silver rings on his hands flashing as he waved them around.
Farid never took the rings off. During the raids, they were hidden under his gloves. They meant a lot to him. But what exactly?
“Yo, man! What we like most of all is making people happy,” Noah said.
“But Mistinguett remixed is an idea to keep on the back burner,” Farid added, with another gracious sweep of his hands.
Farid was proud of his hands, but he could be equally proud of his looks. The good looks of a twenty-year-old who has no worries because tomorrow doesn’t exist. Beside these two, Jean-Luc felt old. Old, at twenty-six. He forced a smile.
The Siamese twins finished eating; Jean-Luc could only manage a coffee. Then the three of them went down to the garage to pick up the Kalashnikovs, the sledgehammers and the bags. They climbed into the Mercedes 4×4. The automatic doors lifted, to reveal a B.M.W. parked across the way. Menahem started the engine at once. Young Menahem was one of the best: he always supplied in time and on time. He was the one who had stolen the 4×4 and the B.M.W. in Asnières. He was Noah’s kid brother, and Noah looked out for him. No way was he to get involved in a raid: they all understood that all he would ever do was supply the cars and be their driver.
While they were speeding through Saint-Denis, Noah switched on the radio. The news soon turned to Palestine. People killed in a suicide bombing. Sharon says this, Arafat says that, and meanwhile Ramallah in ruins. Farid changed stations. Whenever the talk grew serious, he always changed the radio station, the T.V. channel, the subject, or left the room. And he never read a newspaper. The same went for music. Farid didn’t like French hip hop because it forced him to listen to the words, to open his mind to others. And all Noah had learned from the American rappers was the “Yo, man!” he was always coming out with.
Jean-Luc took another antacid tablet. He had to talk to forget the way his guts were heaving; and besides, whatever was going on between Farid Younis’s ears interested him. He couldn’t just be some guy who blew all his dough on gear and C.D.s. Farid was as shut tight as an oyster. But a pearl oyster. Jean-Luc thought for a while, then asked, “D’you have a problem with reality, Farid?”
“None. My reality is money.” “Yo! Me too,” Noah said.
“You see, Jean-Luc, my best mate is a dirty Jew, and his reality is money as well.”
“You’re my favourite towel-head of all time,” Noah said, ruffling Farid’s hair.
“I don’t get it. You never talk about things.”
“There’s enough people talking shit already,” Farid said. “Too right, man,” Noah said.
“If I were in your shoes, it’d do my head in. Brothers killing each other. It could be you two. On opposing sides. Hasn’t that ever occurred to you?”
Dense silence from the Siamese. The tranquil silence of unshakeable bravado. The 4×4 was entering Paris. Noah headed towards Boulevard Ney, the B.M.W. and Menahem still in his slipstream.
“It’s a nightmare, spiralling out of control,” Jean-Luc went on. “Those people hell-bent on tearing each other to pieces over a miserable bit of land that was promised so long ago no-one can even remember who to. And no-one can see an end to it.”
“Yo, man!” Noah said. “A nightmare . . . spiralling out of control? What the fuck you talking about?”
“About piles of dead bodies. About things getting worse and worse. That’s what I’m talking about, Noah.”
“It’s true that it concerns us,” Farid said, “and I’ll tell you why, Jean-Luc.”
“Go ahead, I’m listening.”
“Because it’s bad for business. They screw up the whole planet. That’s why terrorists terrorise and people everywhere are shit-scared. So here and elsewhere, they vote for the Right. And suddenly the Feds are all over the place, especially in Paris, and it gets harder for us to do our job. You see, the dirty Jew and me do think of these things. We know it’s all connected, don’t we, Noah?”
“Course we do, man,” Noah replied, stifling a giggle.
“Respect, Farid. Comparing terrorists who terrorise with us and our hold-ups is one way of looking at things.”
“You wanted to know if I had a problem with reality. Now you know. I look reality in the eye.”
Jean-Luc silently gave up on the twins’ lack of awareness. A lack he now realised he envied. Perhaps if he’d been Jewish or Arab or both, the Siamese would’ve really been his brothers; that level of complicity must help them feel less fear when it came to crashing into the wall. All he knew was that he was in fact circumcised. Before abandoning him, his mother had made sure his foreskin was snipped. God only knew why.
Adopted by a family in Normandy, Jean-Luc had grown up in a small town where the kids went to catechism without a murmur. One day he had explained to the Mediterranean Siamese twins that he was a bit like them, without going into it too closely. The missing foreskin had no more interested them than the ruins of Ramallah.
He still had his terrible stomach ache.
A deserted Paris rushed past their car window. Even the Eastern European whores had gone home to bed. Autumn felt increasingly like winter. Jean-Luc’s desire to be sailing freely across the Mediterranean grew stronger with every day. A few more jobs and he’d be able to buy the sixty-footer of his dreams. A bargain at 1,200,000 euros. The deal would be done through a broker in Palma de Mallorca. Easy: you say you prefer to pay cash, and the money goes through a bank in the Virgin Islands, a tax haven where boats change hands as easily as the wind changes direction.
Out at sea he would listen occasionally to French songs to remind himself of Paris and perhaps of Normandy a little as well. After all, it was thanks to his Norman childhood that he had become a sailor. Jean-Luc wondered why Farid never talked about Algeria, where his parents were from. In Paris, the Younis family lived in the Stalingrad neighbourhood, but Farid never visited them because he wasn’t on speaking terms with his old man. Neither was his sister, and she and Farid didn’t speak either. A real hornets’ nest.
They were getting close. Noah drove past Saint-Philippe-du-Roule church. Jean-Luc read the banner on its façade. Come unto him, Jesus is here to listen. Something seductive like Jesus gives himself to you would have been better, he thought. That was what people needed right now; their funkometer was off the scale. Jean-Luc had heard a study about people’s fears on the radio. The French needed no encouragement to be scared shitless. Terrorism, unemployment, the threat of war, oil spills, apocalyptic viruses, Frankenstein maize, human cloning sects. Everything scared the life out of them. Really, it was only at sea you could find peace. Provided you avoided the pirates. As long as all this keeps going through my head I don’t feel so scared, Jean-Luc told himself. They were almost there, a matter of seconds . . .
The Champs-Elysées were less empty than the boulevards. Here, a group of party-goers was leaving a night-club. Elsewhere, a few outcasts were pounding the pavements in the chilly dawn. The few cars visible sped along the wide avenue towards the Place de la Concorde and beyond. A fluid Paris . . .
They were there.
Farid put on his gloves. His hands weren’t shaking. On the ground floor of a modern block, a brightly lit shopfront with an electronic door, two employees behind the tills. And, damn it, two customers. A boy and a girl with backpacks.
“What are those asshole tourists doing at a bureau de change at five in the morning?” Jean-Luc growled, putting on his ski mask.
“They’re after a bit of cash the same as us,” Farid said.
Noah slowed down. They all put their seat-belts on. Farid passed Noah his mask before slipping on his own. Noah swerved the 4×4 onto the kerb, and accelerated.
“PARIS IS A BLONDE!” he shouted.
“THAT EVERYONE ADORES,” Farid added, chortling.
It’s unbelievable, they’re like little kids having a laugh, thought Jean-Luc. The 4×4 smashed into the bureau de change window. The sound of an iceberg cracking. Huge splinters in the glass. Relieved, Jean-Luc said to himself: it’s giving way, we’ll do it. Noah hit reverse. Accelerated again. A gaping hole in the glass window – it was collapsing. And no sirens, no police. A miracle that never ceased to amaze him.
The three men leapt out of the vehicle. Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders, Farid and Jean-Luc used their sledgehammers to widen the hole while Noah covered them from the roof of the 4×4. They could hear the girl screaming.
Jean-Luc pointed his gun at the cashiers, Farid covered the customers. The girl was sobbing, she looked ridiculously clean for a backpacker. Farid slapped her. She fell to her knees, blood pouring from her nose. Farid stuck the gun-barrel to her temple. Paralysed by fear, her partner looked as if he was about to faint. The cashiers didn’t move, except to put their hands in the air. They seemed accustomed to it. Jean-Luc pulled the bags from his jacket, threw them over the counter. Farid told the younger cashier, “Hand over everything in your safe. Be quick about it.”
He did as Farid demanded. Jean-Luc pointed his gun first at the tourists, then at the other cashier, who still had not moved. The money flowed on and on. It’s the biggest heist of my life, Jean-Luc thought. The girl started to moan, “Please, don’t shoot, please . . .”
“Shut up!” Farid barked.
Jean-Luc had no idea Farid could speak any English. It must have come from listening to all that hip hop.
As they charged out of the bureau, Menahem was pulling up in the B.M.W., doors half open. Jean-Luc jumped in the front, Farid slid in the back alongside Noah. Menahem sped up towards the ChampsElysées roundabout, then turned down Avenue Matignon.
“A nice, fresh miracle,” Jean-Luc thought. At first glance, there must be over a million euros. At the very least. Noah had started counting the bundles. Farid was smiling into empty space.
It was worth scaring yourself shitless. Jean-Luc had always known Farid would bring him good luck. In prison, he had developed a technique for seeing inside other people. You had to concentrate as hard as possible on the person you wanted to see into. So hard you ended up in a trance. Then you could see the same way a medium does. Shortly after he got out of Fleury, Jean-Luc had concentrated on Farid. Against a sky streaked with orange, a sky on the verge of tearing open with rage, he had seen a dark angel. An angel with huge, floating wings that made a soft, unnerving sound.
As long as Farid’s power remained focused on money, everything would be fine. But beware if it was turned against you . . . Farid had it in him to kill.
The American backpacker had no idea who she was up against. Perhaps because she was a woman. All men instinctively knew you had to respect Farid if you didn’t want the swollen, angry sky to split in two and pour down on the world.
“Hey, guys – roughly speaking we’ve nabbed about a million and a half euros,” Noah said, without any trace of emotion. “Plus a small bundle of dollars. And a few yen.”
Menahem allowed himself a quiet whistle. Farid was unhurriedly stuffing the bundles of notes back into the bags. It looked to JeanLuc as if he were calculating something.
“Drop me off at Passage du Désir,” Farid said to Menahem, closing one of the bags. “I’ll take the metro back to Saint-Denis.”
“What are you doing, Farid?” Jean-Luc asked. “I’m taking my share.”
“Man, it’s crazy to walk around with all that cash on you!” Noah protested.
Jean-Luc tried to read Farid, but Farid avoided his gaze. “For that sister of yours?”
“No, not for Khadidja. For Vanessa.”
“Your sister’s friend?”
“That’s right. I’m giving her my share.” “You what?”
“You heard me.”
“Why give her all that cash? She isn’t even family.”
“Who says she isn’t, Jean-Luc?”
There was no edge to his voice, but Farid was staring straight at him. The angel’s wings are rustling, thought Jean-Luc. He weighed his words: “I was just curious. Besides, now we’ve pulled this off we should be thinking about the future . . .”
“I’ll do what I like with my share.”
“I never said you shouldn’t. We all do what we like. That’s the least we can hope for after all the risks we run. But take time to think about it, all the same.”
Menahem pulled up in Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis. Farid got out without a word, and disappeared off towards Passage du Désir. Jean-Luc let Menahem drive on for a while before he took up the topic again. Just a few harmless phrases to whet Noah’s appetite. He knew Noah, he always ended up talking, especially with Farid out of the way. Jean-Luc had never bothered to go into a trance over Noah. It wasn’t worth it. What was there for him to see? An angel’s assistant, a shark’s pilot fish, or even better, a weasel teamed up with a jackal. Noah had a clingy side to his nature, heaven knows why.
Jean-Luc and he had met in prison, where Noah had been happy to find a hulking friend to protect him from the loonies and queers. When they got out, Noah had met up with Farid again, and his friendship with Jean-Luc had cooled. Jean-Luc had not lost any sleep over that. Farid and Noah had teamed up with him because of the house he lived in – a perfect hideaway they didn’t want to pass up. The Siamese twins lived in a tower block – too many dealers and too many police. But Jean-Luc thought Farid could be tamed. Provided he was handled properly. From all points of view.
“Do you get why a guy would give money to a girl who’s finished with him?”
“He’s proving he respects her,” Noah replied.
“He’s paying a high price for a kilo of respect,” Jean-Luc said. Menahem guffawed.
“Yo! You’re here to drive! Keep your nose out of everything else,” Noah said. Then, turning to Jean-Luc: “Farid gives everything away. To prove he’s not a fucking accountant. That he’s cool. That’s all there is to it, man. And if he wants to win Vanessa back, it’s not such a bad idea.”
“Why does he need to sweeten that chick? If it were you or me I could understand, but with Farid’s looks?”
“Farid doesn’t settle for the ordinary.”
“Is she that beautiful then?”
“No idea, man.”
“You’re his best friend, and you don’t know?”
“Oh come on, Noah!”
“I swear, I’ve never seen his missus!”
“But he can’t be scared you’ll steal her from him!”
“Farid is like Menahem. He’s my brother, I tell him everything and he tells me everything, but he never talks about Vanessa. And I respect him. I accept that. The day Farid talks about Vanessa, I’ll listen. For the moment, I keep my trap shut.”
He’s my brother. The sky ahead of them was full of purple clouds on a background that was more charcoal grey than black night. Paris was slowly waking up, and it seemed like hard going. The rain had stopped, but the truce was not going to last: the sky looked threatening. It was cold, the last traces of the Indian summer were slinking off, tail between their legs. Menahem was driving smoothly, the pavements were slick with rain, the streets were empty of people, of police: they would reach Saint-Denis in no time.
Jean-Luc admitted that understanding Farid wasn’t enough. In reality, he had always wanted Farid to show an interest in him. For Farid to call him his brother with a hint of the accent he sometimes had. The accent that was all that was left of a country he had nothing more to do with. My brother. My circumcised brother from Normandy. Yo! Man!
Excerpted from The Dark Angel by Dominique Sylvain. Copyright © Éditions Viviane Hamy, Paris, 2004. English translation copyright © 2013 by Nick Caistor.
First published in the French language as Passage du Désir by Éditions Viviane Hamy, Paris, in 2004. First published in Great Britain in 2013 by MacLehose Press, an imprint of Quercus, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW.
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