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Dark Tales from Gent's Pens

Mike Kanner: The Devil in Paris

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Art by Nancy Soriano 2022

The Devil in Paris

 

Mike Kanner

 

PARIS, 1920

 

"Poor Lucille, you always did what I wanted." Kaspar gave the body a push and watched it drop into the Seine. "Until you didn't." He used the woman's scarf to wipe the blood off his switchblade, dropped the scarf into the river, and watched both of them float away.

He turned and headed back to his home district. At one time, it might have bothered him to kill someone, especially a woman he had slept with on a regular basis. But after surviving a Croatian orphanage, a civil war and the Western Front, people had become expendable to him. Survival was the only value, and his life was the only life he cared about. 

#####

Kaspar's usual bistro was like many - small, smokey and reeking from a combination of cheap tobacco, second-rate food and the foul-smelling clientele. He was looking for a drink, a meal and some employment. He entered, took off the beret that covered his straw-colored thinning hair, and ordered a drink. 

"Calvados." 

The bartender nodded and poured the drink. "Some men are looking for you."

Kaspar gulped down the drink and banged the glass on the bar for a refill. "Police?"

"The police know you." The bartender poured the drink. "These two just had a description and asked if you did special jobs."

"Where?" He looked to see if he could spot the strangers before he decided whether to talk to them.

"Corner booth." He nodded in the direction of two men sitting across from each other. Their suits were a few seasons out of date, although that was not unusual in this bistro. The older man had a tight grip on a worn leather briefcase while the younger scanned the crowd. 

"Charge my drinks to them." Kaspar picked up his drink and walked over to the booth. He thumped his glass down and sat next to the younger man, using his bulk to slam the young man into the booth's corner. His hand was in his pocket, ready to use his blade on the two tablemates. 

He addressed the older man. "You are looking for me?"

The old man looked across the table. "Are you . . .?"

"Depends." Kaspar was still suspicious.

"We have been informed that you can acquire things."

"One of my skills." Staying alive in this last decade had left Kaspar with many talents. 

"And you don't ask the reason?" The older man asked.

"I don't have the luxury." Morality was not one of Kaspar's qualities despite the efforts of the nuns at Saint Theresa's orphanage. He learned to lie and steal to survive those early days. "Now, to business. What do you want stolen?"

"What do you know about the Imperial Diamond Fund?" The older man asked. 

"Rumor. Myth. Fancy name for Russian jewelry. You want me to steal a piece?"

"Two pieces." The older man opened his briefcase and took out a set of pictures. He spread them out on the table in front of Kaspar. "This," he pointed at the picture of a necklace. "is the Diamond Riviere necklace. And this," pointing at the other picture "is the Orlov Diamond."

"And you want them. . .?" His clientele's motivation did not matter, but he was curious. 

The young man spoke up for the first time since Kaspar sat down. "We represent the new Soviet government."

"Communists." Kaspar chuckled. "I met your type in Verdun trenches. Called for mutiny. Officers shot them on the spot. No mutiny."

"Then you understand the necessity of the workers to claim their property." The young man asserted.

"I understand politics get you killed. I steal to live." Kaspar turned to the older man. "I will steal these for you. You will pay me one quarter their value."

"That's outrageous." The younger man exclaimed. Kaspar slammed him into the corner again and took out his switchblade, flicking it open.

"What is outrageous is the number of unsolved murders in this district." Kaspar muttered loud enough so both could hear.

The older man began to panic. "Excuse my colleague. He doesn't understand the world. Here let me buy you another drink." The old man signaled for a waiter and ordered a round. Kaspar folded his knife but kept it visible. 

Kaspar stared at the older man until their drinks arrived. "I don't negotiate." He threw back the drink. "You accept my price?"

"Yes! Yes!" The older man was eager to end their negotiations. He had dealt with feral men while a young revolutionary. They were effective because life had been hard for them, and they were willing to do whatever was necessary to survive.

"Okay." The drink and agreement had settled Kaspar down. "Now, do you you know where these are?"

"Yes, they are in the possession of the Grand Duchess Alexandra Kropotkin and her daughter, the Duchess Marie."

"If you know who has them, why hire me?"

The two men glanced at each other. Kaspar knew what they were thinking. "Because you cannot be seen as the thieves."

"Our government is already unpopular with elements of the French government. Accusations of illegal activities would not help our cause." The old man offered as an explanation.

"And I am to be your goat." Kaspar added.

"I would not put it …."

"I do not care how you would put it." Kaspar put his knife away and pulled on his beret. "I accept the job. Come back in three days. If police contact me or I am followed, you two will see what I learned in the trenches."

#####

The World War and the Russian Revolution produced several communities of immigrants. However, Croatians and Russians did not mix, so the introduction he needed would have to be through the criminal community. 

The woman he wanted to talk to was easy to find. She was at her regular corner and was easy to spot by her bobbed platinum hair. She was smoking a cigarette and chatting with a nervous young man in an American uniform.

Kaspar grabbed the young man by his epaulets and threw him to the ground. The soldier was about to fight when Kaspar flicked open his blade. "Piss off." he snarled, which sent the soldier scrambling. Losing his virginity was no longer a priority. 

"Kaspar." He was well known among a particular class. "That was a customer. Are you looking for some variety? Bored of Lucille?"

He ignored her questions. "Anya, you still being pimped by the Russian?"

"Yes, but you can pay me. He trusts me to give him the money."

"You mean you are too scared to cheat him. No, I need to talk to him."

"And I need to make money. So, either pay me for my time or leave so I can find another customer."

Kaspar took out a thick roll of francs. "Suppose I pay you for rest of night?" She stared at the roll. "Introduce me, and you can get a night's rest."

She snubbed out her cigarette on the sidewalk. "Follow me." She turned and headed down the street to a small cafe. It was not much different than Kaspar’s usual bistro except for the Russian which flavored most conversations. They walked to a back corner booth where a heavy, bald man sat eating a meal.

He looked up from his meal to see Kaspar and the woman. "What are you doing here?" He asked. "And why is he here?"

Kaspar sat down opposite the man. The two stared at each other for a few minutes before the woman was dismissed. 

"You are Nikolai?" Kaspar asked.

"You know this, or you would not have paid Anya to bring you here. I know you, Kaspar." The man stopped to drain a beer glass. He raised it to signal the waiter for a refill. "I don't usually do business with Croats."

"Croatia is lost cause. I am only Kaspar."

"Okay, only Kaspar. What do you want?"

"I need to find Russian nobles."

"Since Revolution, there are lots of nobles. Some work for me. You want real or fake?"

"Real. Their name is Kropotkin."

Nikolai raised his eyebrows at the mention of the name. "Important name. Your business with them?"

"My business is my business." 

Nikolai leaned back. "Then we have no reason to keep talking. You find Anya. You already paid for her."

Kaspar drummed his fingers on the table for a few seconds before continuing. "They have some things that I want."

"Ah!" Nikolai exclaimed. "Imperial diamonds. What makes you think they have them?"

"I have been told."

Nikolai closed his eyes and swayed his head before talking. "Okay, maybe I help. What do you need?"

"They are in your community. I need to know where they are."

Nikolai opened his eyes and eyeballed Kaspar. "And what is the value of my help?"

Kaspar was silent. Finally, he spoke. "Twenty percent of what I get."

Nikolai signaled to have his plates cleared. "No, you will lie to me about what you make. You pay me specific amount. I get money whether you steal or not."

"How much?"

He wiped his mouth with the napkin and tossed it on the table. "For address? Four thousand franc."

"Two thousand."

"Three or leave." Nikolai nodded toward the door.

"And if I leave?"

"No Russian will talk to you. So, we have a deal?" Nikolai folded his hands.

Kaspar nodded in agreement. "Deal."

"We drink on it," Nikolai ordered two vodkas. 

When the drinks came, the two gulped them down. "Okay, you come back here tomorrow, and I let you know what I find." 

#####

Kaspar arrived at the cafe a half-hour before the appointment. He took a position that let him keep an eye on the door without being conspicuous and waited. Nikolai came in accompanied by his two thugs. They took seats by the entrance while he went to his usual booth. Kaspar signaled a waiter to have beers sent to the thugs. While they were drinking, he slid into Nikolai's booth across from him and far enough in that Nikolai's henchmen could not see him. 

"What have you found out?" 

Nikolai signaled for drinks. "It cost me money."

"Your problem. I only want information."

The drinks arrived, and Nikolai took a sip of his before speaking. "You know, I could steal diamonds myself."

Kaspar let his drink sit there untouched. "And I could slit your throat before your two boys saw me. Now information."

Nikolai finished his drink and ordered another. He stared at Kaspar while waiting. "You know, I asked about you. People say that you are devil with no sense of guilt."

"Guilt is what nuns and officers use for control. Church and Kaiser are the same. They make rules so only they prosper."

"HAH!” Nikolai chuckled “You sound like revolutionary."

"Revolutions just change who makes rules and who prospers. Now, do you have information or not?"

"Of course. The young Duchess is working as shop girl. One of my girls is watching store. She'll follow her to get address."

"You trust this girl?" Kaspar was suspicious.

"My girls know what happens if they cross me. Girl should be here soon. We eat. My treat." Nikolai ordered for the two of them. They ate in silence. Just as they finished, a thin, black-haired girl approached the booth. 

"I followed the woman and got you the address." She handed Nikolai a slip of paper. He looked at it and murmured. "I know this address." He turned to the woman, "Lexi, you did good job. Take night off."

The woman was relieved. "Thank you, Nikolai." and left before he could change his mind. A waiter took away the plates and brought drinks. 

Kaspar put out his hand. "You give me the address, and we are done."

Nikolai sat back and held the paper to his belly. "You will need help, I think."

"I work alone."

Nikolai sipped his drink. "We should renegotiate deal."

"I could still slit your throat." Kaspar jammed his hand into his coat pocket to retrieve his blade.

"But you would not get out.” Nikolai indicated the door. “My boys are still here."

Kaspar looked at the two thugs and calculated his ability to make it out alive or with minimum injury. The odds were not good. "What is new deal?"

"Where there are two jewels, there are more. I help get what you want, and I get the rest."

The two men stared at each other. Finally, Kaspar grunted. "Okay, but you. Not your boys."

"You don't trust them? They're good."

"I don't trust you. This way, you can't double-cross me."

Nikolai finished his drink. "Done. When do we meet?"

"Tomorrow evening at six. We meet here and go."

"Okay. Tomorrow. Six in evening." Nikolai chuckled. "That way, we're done for dinner."

#####

The next day, Kaspar was early to make sure Nikolai did not send his thugs in his stead. Once Nikolai arrived, Kaspar checked the street.

"Where are your boys?" Kaspar worried that they would be waiting at the address. 

"You are very suspicious man," Nikolai said.

"I am man who is very alive. Now, where are your boys?"

Nikolai sighed and pointed into the cafe. "In there. You can see them at the bar."

Kaspar gave a quick look and saw the two men at the bar eating a meal. Once he was sure they would not follow, he nodded to Nikolai to lead on.

After a short walk, they reached what had once been a fine Maison de Ville. However, sometime in the past, it had been converted into cheap apartments. 

Nikolai motioned up the stairs, inviting Kaspar to lead the way. "They are on top floor." 

"You first." 

Nikolai nodded his assent and climbed the stairs. When they got to the top floor, Kaspar took a position on one side of the door. Nikolai asked in Russian for the Grand Duchess.

She opened the door, giving Kaspar the chance to slam the door open and grab the old woman. He pushed her into a chair and threw the rope he had brought at Nikolai. "Tie her up." After checking in the hall that no one had heard them, he grabbed a scarf that had been draped on the couch and used it to gag the Grand Duchess. 

With that done, he sat on the couch. "Now we wait." He looked around the sparsely furnished apartment. Besides the chair in which the Grand Duchess Alexandria was bound, there was a couch, a bookcase, and a small dining set. 

About a half hour later, they heard footsteps. Kaspar took a position by the door. The Duchess Marie opened the door with her key and entered the room. Kaspar grabbed her hair and pulled her into him with his left hand. His right arm wrapped around her neck and applied pressure to her neck. Finally, he kicked the door closed.

"Hello, Duchess. As you can see, your mother has been entertaining us." The Duchess could now see her mother tied and gagged. Another man was standing behind her. 

"Now, I am going to let you breathe. If you yell, it will get very nasty. Understand?"

The Duchess nodded as much as Kaspar's chokehold allowed. He let her go and gave her a push toward the sofa. She took a place so she could take her mother's hand. They had a quick exchange in Russian that Kaspar assumed was about the Grand Duchess' status. 

"What do you want?" The Duchess asked while continuing to hold her mother's hand. "We are poor refugees."

"That is not what I have been told." Kaspar sat back in a chair he pulled from the dining set. “I heard you have some nice jewels.”

The Duchess slumped briefly before sitting upright and looking Kaspar in the eye. "Those are not ours. We are holding them for the royal family."

"You will be waiting a long time. I hear they are dead and buried. So, they might as well be mine."

The Duchess said nothing and continued to sit there defiantly. Kaspar exhaled in exasperation and walked over to where the Grand Duchess Alexandria was tied up. "I am just a peasant, but even I know that your royals are delicate. Once stuck, they continue to bleed." He took out his switchblade and flicked it open. Leaning over, he cut open the sleeve of the Grand Duchess' blouse and trailed his knife along her vein. "You are young. Maybe I open vein, you survive. Mama is old. Who knows how long?"

"NO!"

Kaspar closed his switchblade and sat back down in the dining chair. 

"See, I am reasonable." He leaned forward. "Now, where are diamonds?"

"In the chest over there." Indicating a box on the top of a bookcase.

Kaspar directed Nikolai to bring the chest over to him. Looking it over, he saw that there was a lock. "Key?"

"Here." The Duchess took off a chain from around her neck. A small key hung from it. Kaspar stood up and walked over to the Duchess. He took the key in his hand, stroked the Duchess' face and then trailed his fingers down her neck. "See, I'm not that bad. Who knows? With more time, we might have been good friends."

The Duchess shuddered. "Just take what you want and leave."

"Interesting proposal," Kaspar responded with a leer before taking the box and the key over to the dining table. "But business first. Let’s see what we have." He opened the chest and emptied cases and bags on the dining table. Each box was opened until he found the two items he was looking for. He took them out of their cases and dropped them into separate velvet bags he had brought. Meanwhile, Nikolai was stuffing the other jewels into his pockets. 

"Enough," Kaspar ordered. "Let's go." Kaspar looked at the two nobles. "Now, what do we do with them? We could kill them. You know, for the sake of the Revolution." He took his thumb and mimicked slitting a throat. 

"We gave you what you want!" the Duchess exclaimed. "Just leave us!" She started to cry.

"True, but you are witnesses, and I don't like leaving witnesses."

"Kaspar! What do they know?” Nikolai pleaded. “Two thieves robbed them of jewelry they weren't supposed to have." Nikolai was a pimp and sometimes thief but was careful about never killing someone.

"Still." Kaspar took out his knife and flicked it open. "No witnesses is safer. I like safer." A trail of bodies from Zagreb to Verdun to Paris was evidence of Kaspar's instinct for self-preservation. He pointed to Nikolai with his knife. "You have jewels. Maybe you buy their lives from me? Half of what you grabbed would be price."

“But . . .”

Kaspar quickly crossed to Nikolai and put the knife's point to his throat. "Of course, you are witness too. Perhaps I kill you and take all the jewels." He stepped back but kept the blade at Nikolai's throat. "Make up your mind. Like you said, this job will be done in time for dinner."

Nikolai realized that the knife and Kaspar's size gave him no option if he wanted to live. "Fine." He reached into his pocket for some of the jewelry bags. "Here."

Kaspar pocketed them and his knife. "See, life is better for everyone if everyone is reasonable." He turned to the two women. "If I hear from you or the police, I will come back and finish what I started. Understood?" Both women nodded. 

The two men left, parting company, when they reached the street. 

A few nights later, Nikolai was found dead with his throat cut along with the two men that worked for him. Anya and Lexi were no longer seen on the street. 

#####

Kaspar was eating dinner in his regular bistro when a small nervous man approached his booth. 

“Mr. Kaspar?” The man whispered.

“Just Kaspar.”

"May I?" The man pointed to the other side of the booth. Kaspar grunted his permission to sit. 

Kaspar continued to eat while the man sat anxiously fingered the brim of his hat. Finally, a waiter took the dishes and brought a drink when he was done. While he was waiting, Kaspar examined the stranger. 

With his drink in hand, Kaspar finally addressed the stranger. "Now, who are you, and what do you want?"

"You may call me Mr. Cairo."

"Strange name. Now, what do you want?"

"I understand from some friends in the Russian community that you have a certain knack for, shall we say, acquiring things of value."

"You mean I am thief. I am, and a good one. As your Russian friends will tell you. What is it you want stolen?"

The man leaned forward. "There is a certain bauble that I wish to acquire. Have you ever heard about the Knights Templar?" 

Mike Kanner writes primarily historical fiction and has been published in several anthologies. He is currently working on a series of stories about World War 1 and a gothic novella. The bills are paid by lecturing on security studies at the local university. 



Nancy Soriano grew up in New York City and now resides in the Hudson Valley. She loves the darker side of art—and life. She is rediscovering her love of photography through her latest muse, her cat Zoey. 

In Association with Black Petals & Fossil Publications 2022