© Mark Frankel
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Smith had arranged to meet me at three o’clock in the Brasserie Lipp on the Boulevard St. Germain. Apparently it was near his hotel.
“Try to get a corner table,” he’d said.
I’d been to the bank that morning and drawn the seven hundred thousand euros. It was neatly packed in bundles in the black brief case he had given me. They fitted perfectly. Smith was always a stickler for detail.
We’d been safe in Brazil for over ten years and had arrived in Paris just yesterday afternoon. When the cancer unit at Neuilly had contacted Lisette with the news that her mother’s condition was deteriorating rapidly, we’d taken the first flight out of Rio.
Despite Lisette’s protests, I’d insisted on accompanying her. After all, ten years had passed since I’d left England and my physical appearance was considerably altered. Surely they wouldn’t still be looking out for me after all this time?
We’d sat with the patient all night and had only just re-entered the apartment when the phone rang. I grabbed it without thinking, alerted too late by Lisette’s gasp of dismay. That’s what ten years of freedom does for you. Once we would have been on our guard immediately, but who else could it be? Apart from the hospital no one knew we were in Paris.
“Morning Billy,” said the instantly recognisable thin nasal voice. “Don’t hang up on me will you. I know where you are. Followed you from the hospital. Knew you’d turn up in Paris sooner or later when the French police tipped us off about Lisette’s mother.”
Blind fury at my own carelessness was soon replaced by bitterness, however. “Why don’t you leave me alone. It’s been over ten years now. Nobody cares any more.”
Lisette had overheard. White-faced, she’d rushed into the bedroom and started throwing things into a suitcase. I stopped her. It was too late for that, now.
“You know me, Billy. I’ve got a reputation to maintain. Jack Smith always gets his man – and the law doesn’t give a shit how many years it takes. But before you try to make a run for it, I’ve got a little proposition to put to you. You know the café Deux Magôts of course? I’ll meet you there at 12 noon. You can buy me lunch.”
“I’m not leaving Lisette while her mother’s dying,” I said. “How do I know this isn’t just one of your little traps?”
“You’re trapped already,” came the complacent voice of someone who knew he was holding all the cards. “I can pick you up any time.”
Smith was already there when I arrived, sitting right at the back of the interior. He looked smart in his charcoal grey suit, blue shirt and red tie. It seemed an eternity since I’d last seen him through the wrong side of prison cell bars in Brixton. ‘Gentleman’ Jack Smith they called him. He’d always dressed more like a bank manager than a detective sergeant in the Flying Squad. Ten years hadn’t changed him at all.
It had been a June day much like this one when we had all met at Guy Lombard’s Buckinghamshire estate to discuss the details of the robbery. Guy was like a second father. Mum had died giving birth to me - and Dad, the notorious Johnny Frisco, hadn’t survived a shoot-out on his last bank raid.
Guy was every inch the country gentleman; tall, silver haired and distinguished looking. He’d been a successful Shakespearean actor but his keen mind needed something more than a stage for stimulation. He had found it in crime.
There were five of us – Guy, Jim Wallis, Neale Miller, George Prescott the Securicor driver - and me, Billy Frisco. Prescott regularly collected the used notes from six different branches of Lloyds bank.
Everything went smoothly and the proceeds were stored away in a safe house, known only to Guy, but to be revealed to all of us when we planned to meet there in a month’s time. Then we all went our separate ways.
We’d hoped to get at least four million pounds. The newspapers claimed we’d doubled that but we didn’t allow ourselves to get too euphoric. These things were always exaggerated for insurance purposes, Guy said..
The Flying squad were livid, though. They were proud of their new, high-tech specialist team led by Detective Sergeant Jack Smith, and recent successes had been rewarded with fulsome praise in the press. But you’re only as good as your last case. Now, whilst the headlines screamed accusations of gross misuse of public funds, there were murmurings that someone’s head should roll.
But Smith was to prove a dangerous enemy. He was a vain man and we had humiliated him. It wasn’t in his nature to forgive and forget.
Prescott was hauled in four times for questioning. We’d taken the precaution of roughing him up when we left him and he stuck to his story. He’d been promised half a million quid and that was a big incentive for a man who was due for retirement.
Eventually, the time came for us to regroup. I’ll never forget the excitement of that early morning when we met at what turned out to be a remote coastal farmhouse. Guy had assembled long tables in a barn adjacent to the property and we spent the entire day counting and re-counting, stopping only for drinks and sandwiches, until we were all agreed on the final total. Even so it was hard to take in. We’d really hit the jackpot. It was eight million, seven hundred thousand pounds.
Guy deposited my share in an offshore account and headed for Brazil. I planned to join him in a week or two. It was to be later than we thought.
Prescott finally cracked and did a deal with Jack Smith. As a reward for his co-operation he was promised a reduced sentence and a new identity. The rest of us got thirty years each. Guy was tried and convicted in absentia.
Jim and Neale had their sentences reduced when they agreed to give up their share of the money but I said I’d rather rot in jail. That’s when I really got to know Smith. He never missed his weekly visit.
The thought of being locked up for 30 years finally got to me though and by the end of the second year I’d decided it wasn’t worth holding on to a life that was just a living death. So I went on hunger strike. Of course, they force-fed me but after a few months of this I was still deteriorating and knew it couldn’t last much longer.
One morning, I awoke up to find myself in a room in the prison hospital, hooked up to saline drips and God knows what else. I also had my own personal guard, sitting yawning in a chair by the window.
I was there for several days while they pumped vitamins into me. Then, as I was starting to get my strength back, I had a surprise visit from my ‘mother’. A nurse brought this grey haired old lady, hobbling on a stick, into my room one day and left her there under the watchful eye of the guard. We left with me dressed in the guard’s uniform. Guy told me afterwards he’d always known his ‘Scottish play’s’ witch’s outfit would come in useful one day.
Madame Maillot, whose late husband had been an old friend of Guy, lived in a small house behind the Sacre Coeur in Paris. For the time being I would stay with her until I recovered my strength. Before long, I became totally captivated by her daughter, the dark and lissom Lisette, and just six months later we were married in a small church in Montmartre. I used the name John Wilson but later, we repeated our vows in Buenos Aries under my real name.
During the following ten glorious years, Lisette gave birth to our two sons, John and Christophe. They were now Brazilian nationals and staying with close friends whilst we were out of the country.
Guy was uneasy about the trip from the start, however, and had insisted on meticulously planning every detail himself, just like the old days. Only when he felt he had covered every possible contingency, did he finally bestow his blessing.
But we had reckoned without Smith. I wondered what possible emotion could motivate a man to show such tenacity. I was soon to find out.
Over his beer and sandwich, Smith put his proposition. My share from the robbery had been a million. He wanted half of it. He was due to retire soon with only his pension to show for it. Internal politics and jealousy at his successes, plus one or two unfortunate blots on his record, had conspired to prevent his well-deserved promotion, so he had been casting around for an additional source of income. Half a million quid, sensibly invested, would do him nicely. He’d always fancied trying his hand at writing. Thirty-five years in the police force had given him a few stories. With no family to share the money with he’d retire to Paris and have a shot at it. He could live the sort of life escaped criminals like me enjoyed. As far as the French police were concerned he had either missed me or it was a case of mistaken identity. I could clear off back to where I had come from.
Smith had brought two identical black brief cases with him. If I didn’t agree to his deal he would have me picked up in the morning and held for extradition. Alternatively, I would take one of the brief cases away with me and pack it with the half million pounds sterling in Euro notes. He would fill the other one with old newspapers. We would meet and exchange briefcases.
If it had been anyone but Smith, I would have assumed this was some kind of sick joke. I couldn’t see the point of going to all that trouble. But Smith was adamant. He had read it in a detective story and wanted to see how it worked in practice. Imagine - a detective sergeant in the Flying Squad reading detective stories! Smith was full of surprises.
So I finally had my answer. I now understood his motivation; he must have been planning this for years. But could you trust a bent copper? Did I have any choice? I felt very alone and wished Guy was here to advise me.
“Thought you’d see sense,” he said.
To flatter his ego I congratulated him on trapping me after all this time.
He leaned forward confidentially. “I’ll share the secret of my success with you,” he said. “I’m probably going to use it in a story, anyway. “It’s called ‘Patience’. First you gather together all the suspect’s contacts and you apply the four infallible concepts – births, deaths, marriages, hospitals. Then you sit back and wait. Nearly got you when the French police passed on a picture of the Maillot daughter’s marriage - but they sent it too late. Soon as I recognised John Wilson I was on a plane but you’d already left for Rio. “It was a long wait but the hospital tip-off finally nailed you.”
And now a week had passed. I had the money and Smith had made the final arrangements. Lisette had been with her mother when she died and the funeral had taken place. There was nothing to keep us in Paris, now – except Smith.
It was a fine summer’s day when I emerged from the metro station at Odéon and walked slowly along the Boulevard St. Germain beneath the shade of the giant plane trees. Groups of brightly-dressed tourists chattered animatedly in assorted languages above the noise of impatient traffic.
I was twenty minutes early and hoping the lunchtime crowd had started to thin out so I could get the corner table that Smith had requested. Sure enough, Lipp’s was half empty.
I sat and carefully stood the case on the floor so that it rested against my leg, as instructed. The waiter approached and I ordered a glass of water and told him I was waiting for a friend.
Outside, a guitar player had finished his performance and collected some money from the tables, but when he tried to enter the brasserie, he was stopped by a decisive shake of the waiter’s head.
Smith arrived at exactly three o’clock and sat down opposite me, placing his case on the table against the wall. Apart from no buttonhole in his lapel, he looked like he was dressed for a wedding.
“Deux demis, s’il vous plaît,” he told the waiter before nodding approvingly in my direction. “This one’s on me,” he said and then sat there silently examining the pictures on the walls until the beers arrived. “To a life of leisure,” he said, raising his glass. He took a long swallow before indicating an old black and white photograph on the wall by our table.
“That’s Hemingway, you know; came here often. Used to order cervelas – that’s a sausage like a heavy, wide frankfurter split into two and covered with a special mustard sauce; one of Lipp’s specialities. Makes me feel hungry just thinking about it.”
He licked his lips but the laugh had sounded nervous and for the first time I noticed his eyes were glistening. Could it be that Smith was actually capable of human emotion?
He reached for the case by my leg. “I’ll trouble you for the key,” he said.
I handed it to him and he winked.
“You don’t mind if I just go and check it?”
He stood up and I watched him walk past the bar through the door marked Telefon/Toilette.
I looked around the brasserie, thinking of all the famous writers and painters who had once sat here. Who would have thought that a hard man like Smith had always cherished the secret hope that he might some day join their ranks.
The subject of my thoughts eventually re-emerged through the door and dropped a coin into the saucer on the bar. He resumed his seat, carefully placing the case under his chair.
“Glad you decided to see sense,” he said. “Avoids a lot of unpleasantness.”
“What about your precious reputation?” I sneered. “Doesn’t it bother you that officially Jack Smith failed to get his man this time?”
His cold blue eyes fastened on mine for a brief moment then he gave a short laugh like a bark. “I got something better, didn’t I?”
Somehow I managed to keep control of my emotions. I wasn’t proud of my life of crime but at least there was always a sense of honour among thieves. A bent copper was somehow different.
An old, grey-haired lady in a voluminous black silk dress had come into the brasserie carrying a tray of white lilacs tied into small bunches. She had circled the other tables and now approached ours, her ravaged face squinting at us.
“Lilas, messieurs? Pour bon chance.”
Lipp’s was always sympathetic to lilac sellers. They were the only street vendors allowed inside their cherished establishment. It was said that Madame Lipp’s mother had been one of them, but that was probably just a rumour started by people who didn’t like Madame Lipp.
Smith shrugged and reached into his pocket. “Suppose it is my lucky day,” he said.
In her eagerness to take the proffered coin, the old lady stumbled against the table. The strap around her neck gave way and the entire tray tipped towards the floor, scattering bunches of lilacs in all directions. Ever the gentleman, Smith leapt to his feet and began picking up the flowers whilst I re-attached the strap to the old lady’s tray and replaced the cloth that had been draped over it.
“Oh, messieurs! C’est très, très gentil,” cackled the old crone.
Smith finished his beer and stood up, retrieving the briefcase from under his chair. He hesitated, testing the weight. My heart was thumping so loud I was afraid he might hear it. Then he reached across the table and grabbed the other case.
“I’ll take this one as well. Wouldn’t want to spoil the set, would I?”
I should have known better than to expect Smith to trust anybody.
“Well Billy, I’ll say goodbye then. Just drop these into the hotel’s safe deposit then I think I’ll go for a nice, leisurely stroll around the Luxembourg Gardens. Look me up, next time you’re in Paris.”
When he had gone, I walked quickly towards the door. A cab pulled up and a grinning Guy opened the door for me.
“Did he take both of them?”
I nodded. “You were right; suspicious bastard, but luckily he didn’t know about the spare under your tray.”
Guy tapped on the driver’s window. “ Charles de Gaulle. Vite! - s’il vous plaît.”
He lifted the briefcase onto my lap. “Well - let’s have a quick look – just to make sure.”
I took the spare key out of my pocket and opened the case, making sure the lid concealed the contents from the driver. The 700,000 euros lay there just as we had packed them that morning.
Guy breathed a long sigh of relief. “Let’s hope that was my last performance,” he said. “Getting too old for this kind of thing.”
I took my last look at Paris as the cab picked up speed. Lisette would be waiting at the airport and Guy’s plane would soon be on its way back to Rio de Janeiro. It was good to be going home.