In Paris, the
last days of autumn; a gray, troubled sky at daybreak, the fall of twilight
at noon, followed, at seven-thirty, by slanting rains and black umbrellas as
the people of the city hurried home past the bare trees. On the third of
December, 1938, in the heart of the Seventh Arrondissement, a
champagne-colored Lancia sedan turned the corner of the rue Saint-Dominique
and rolled to a stop in the rue Augereau. Then the man in the backseat
leaned forward for a moment and the chauffeur drove a few feet further and
stopped again, this time in the shadow between two streetlamps.
The man in the back of the Lancia was called Ettore, il conte Amandola--the nineteenth Ettore, Hector, in the Amandola line, and count only the grandest of his titles. Closer to sixty than fifty, he had dark, slightly bulging eyes, as though life had surprised him, though it had never dared to do that, and a pink flush along his cheekbones, which suggested a bottle of wine with lunch, or excitement in the anticipation of an event planned for the evening. In fact, it was both. For the rest of his colors, he was a very silvery sort of man: his silver hair, gleaming with brilliantine, was brushed back to a smooth surface, and a thin silver mustache, trimmed daily with a scissors, traced his upper lip. Beneath a white wool overcoat, on the lapel of a gray silk suit, he wore a ribbon holding a silver Maltese cross on a blue enamel field, which meant he held the rank of cavaliere in the Order of the Crown of Italy. On the other lapel, the silver medal of the Italian Fascist party; a tipped square with diagonal fasces--a bundle of birch rods tied, with a red cord, to an axe. This symbolized the power of the consuls of the Roman Empire, who had the real rods and axe carried before them, and had the authority to beat with the birch rods, or behead with the axe.
Count Amandola looked at his watch, then rolled down the rear window and peered through the rain at a short street, the rue du Gros Caillou, that intersected the rue Augereau. From this point of observation--and he had twice made sure of it earlier that week--he could see the entry of the Hotel Colbert; a rather subtle entry, only the name in gold letters on the glass door, and a spill of light from the lobby that shone on the wet pavement. A rather subtle hotel, the Colbert, quiet, discreet, that catered to les affaires cinq-a-sept; amours conducted between five and seven, those flexible hours of the early evening. But, Amandola thought, a little taste of fame for you tomorrow. The hotel commissionaire, holding a large umbrella, left the entry and headed briskly down the street, toward the rue Saint-Dominique. Once more, Amandola looked at his watch. 7:32, it said. No, he thought, it is 1932 hours.
For this occasion, twenty-four-hour time, military time, was obviously the proper form. He was, after all, a major, had taken a commission in 1915, served in the Great War, and had the medals, and seven lavishly tailored uniforms, to prove it. Served with distinction--officially recognized--in the purchasing office of the Ministry of War, in Rome, where he had given orders, maintained discipline, read and signed forms and letters, and made and answered calls on the telephone, his military decorum scrupulous in every way.
And so it had remained, since 1927, in his tenure as a senior official in the Pubblica Sicurezza, the department of Public Security of the Ministry of the Interior, set up by Mussolini's chief of national police a year earlier. The work was not so different from his job during the war; the forms, the letters, the telephone, and the maintenance of discipline--his staff sat at attention at their desks, and formality was the rule in all discourse.
1944 hours. Rain drummed steadily on the roof of the Lancia and Amandola pulled his overcoat tighter, against the chill. Outside on the sidewalk, a maid--under her open raincoat a gray-and-white uniform--was pulled along by a dachshund wearing a sweater. As the dog sniffed at the pavement and began to circle, the maid squinted through the window at Amandola. Rude, the Parisians. He did not bother to turn away, simply looked through her, she did not exist. A few minutes later, a black square-bodied taxi pulled up to the entry of the Colbert. The commissionaire hopped out, leaving the door open, as a couple emerged from the lobby; he white-haired, tall and stooped, she younger, wearing a hat with a veil. They stood together under the commissionaire's umbrella, she raised her veil and they kissed passionately--until next Tuesday, my beloved. Then the woman climbed into the taxi, the man tipped the commissionaire, raised his own umbrella, and strode around the corner.
Excerpted from The Foreign Correspondent by Alan Furst Copyright © 2006 by Alan Furst. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher
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