That year winter had been mild in Paris.
Farther to the North there was snow and I was glad to have been detoured from Berlin to Paris by an urgent phone call.
Vonelli was in trouble.
The taxi ride to Bastille took fifteen minutes. The driver didn't say a word. At 51 Rue Basfroi I climbed the stairs to Vonelli's apartment.
"Thanks for coming on such short notice."
"You caught me between jobs."
The art dealer knew well enough to not ask about those jobs.
Vonelli was a tough guy, so I wasn't ready for his collapse.
"She's gone." His head rested in his hands.
"Bella and she won't be coming back, unless I give someone something I can't give them."
"Who's them?" I was starting to sound like an owl.
"I know the name." The exiled African prince was an expert at low-level kidnappings and never demanded more in ransom than what the 'sucker' could afford to lose, however Vonelli was no 'pigeon'. He knew 'people'.
"Snap out of it." I yanked Vonelli to his feet. "You have a photo of Bella?"
Vonelli pulled out a naked shot from the Piscine Deligny. The girl was pretty and young, but his being with her wasn't a crime in France.
"I got another from Kroutchee." He handed me a picture.
Bella was prettier in lingerie.
"She's not scamming you?" I trusted no one.
"No, she loves me." Vonelli had more heart than me.
"And how much does Kroutchee want?" This deal was a question of easy math.
Vonelli said a number and gave me an address where to get the cash.
2 Avenue Gabriel.
"You think I have that kind of money?"
"No." I muttered a swear and left the apartment.
I hated the US Embassy and Vonelli's team was happy with the shortness of my visit.
They were still fighting the Cold War and picked up the case. It was light, then again, $50,000 US doesn't weight much.
I thought of my plan.
Kroutchee operated with a tight crew; two tough mecs and a blonde model. One man carried a gun, but they preferred to drug their victims.
I needed back-up and phoned Brial. The music producer came from the South of France. He knew how to keep his mouth shut and I told him to meet me in the Marais.
"How you like my car?"
"A little too obvious."
I sat down at the cafe and order an expresso.
When I mentioned 'Kroutchee', Brial said, "I know where they hang out. The Chat Noir."
"I know it."
In fact everyone in Paris knew it.
It was a popular cafe on the Boulevard St. Germain.
Jist hold the money. Half is his, if everything worked out in the end.
"And if it doesn't?"
"We'll burn that bridge when we get to it.".
Afterwards I went to Bastille and shot a pistol.
Marcel asked if I want 'un flingue'.
"Non." Guns complicated matters. "But thanks for offering."
I called the number Vonelli had given me. A Swedish girl told me to go to Le Privilege. Someone named Black Jack would meet me at the bar.
"Cool." Le Privilege was the chicest club in Paris.
Black Jack was waiting for me. I ordered a gin-tonic. The bartender poured a double. Claude liked me the way most men like him liked men like me.
The entire crew was at the table; Kroutchee, the blonde and a Finnish tough guy, plus a junkie.
"Where's the money?" Kroutchee cut the chase.
"Where's the girl?" My drink went down smooth.
"I bet." I eyed the blonde. She was out of her depths, but men like Kroutchee were good at getting women to do what they didn't want to do.
"Not with your life." Kroutchee snapped his fingers for another drink.
I had eyes in the back of my head.
Black Jack poured something into my drink.
A knock-out punch.
I just hoped it was nothing pharmaceutical.
Kroutchee's tough Ulf was a pretty Finnish boy.
My head lowered to the table.
Whatever it was was good.
Ulf's laugh was the last thing I heard over Chic at the Privilege.
I sort of remembered Ulf and Black Jack carrying my body up stairs.
Three flights and they didn't drop me once.
Someone stuck a needle in my arm.
After that moe blackness.
I woke next to a warm body.
Bella was better in real life than photos.
Then Kroutchee entered the room.
"Where the money?"
"The money to keep me from doing bad to Bella."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"You will soon."
Ulf liked a knife. Black Jack came from the ghetto of Paris. To him this was only a job.
Neither of them saw Brial, as Kroutchee shrieked at me.
"I am a piano player. I will play you like a tango."
Ulf lifted me to my feet.
Brial came through the window.
The fight lasted a few seconds.
I caught Ulf on the stairs. He asked for mercy. I didn't like having a knife to my neck and kicked him down the stairs. He made it to the ground floor without stopping.
Black Jack I gave a free pass.
Kroutchee wasn't as lucky.
I made him play piano.
He hit a High C after I closed the cover on his fingers.
Brial got rid of the blonde. He liked ice queens.
I freed Bella.
She was very grateful.
"Anything you want."
I could think of one thing, but said, "Get dressed."
Vonelli was a friend and friends didn't colect rewards from the girlfriends of friends.
Brial drove us to Rue Basfroi.
Bella asked me up.
I said, "Maybe another day."
"What about the money?"
I gave him half.
$25,000 was reward enough for me.
And I made my train at Gare Du Nord.
Like all the trains leaving from that station it was heading North.
FOTOS BY ARTHUR GORDON 1985