LEX RETURNED home from his afternoon stroll on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in time for a nap and a refreshing half hour in the bathtub, accompanied by a glass of white wine. 

He dressed in black trousers, a white shirt with a thin black tie, a pair of Dr Martens, a black leather jacket, and a pork pie hat. He studied himself in the hallway mirror and nodded with approval. While the outfit had occasionally made him seem overdressed in Amsterdam, there wasn’t much chance of that happening in the city of Laurent, Lagerfeld and Laroche. 

The spring evening was dry and mild, and he decided to walk the two kilometres to the restaurant on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis. Was it Hemingway who wrote if you’re tired of walking in Paris, you’re tired of life? Lex thought. The scenery and atmosphere change with each new street and every corner you turn. And if your legs are up to it, you can walk forever without the risk of crossing your tracks. And if you, for some reason, want to stay hidden or anonymous, Paris is your town. To locate a ‘missing’ person in Paris must be a nightmare, although, as a private detective, with more time than money, he would welcome any paying client hiring him to do just that. 

Lex passed the massive arch of Porte Saint-Denis, and knowing his uncle was a stickler for punctuality, he arrived early at the restaurant. He waited in front of the red facade that, with its upscale appearance, seemed oddly out of place. He lit a cigarette and studied the busy street. Compared to many other parts of Paris, the Faubourg St. Denis neighbourhood seemed shabby and run down. It made him feel at home, but he wasn’t sure about his uncle. Maybe he was prejudiced, but from the look of it, men who wore suits and shirts tailored at Cifonelli and hand-sewn shoes from Aubercy seemed as rare in Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis as rocking horse droppings. Perhaps his uncle would compromise for the sake of the restaurant? He didn’t have to wait long for the confirmation. 

“Happy birthday, Alexander.”

“Good evening, Jules. How are you?” They shook hands.

“Hope you don’t mind me luring you to, let’s say, this ‘interesting and colourful’ part of town on your birthday, but the restaurant will make up for it. I’m confident you’ll find the art nouveau decor magnificent and the food excellent.” 

Jules held the door, and Lex followed him into the restaurant. A stained glass ceiling hovered about four metres above their heads, and white table cloths covered the numerous tables in the big room. Nearly all of them were occupied. A youthful-looking man in a traditional French waiter’s costume approached.

“Monsieur Lévy, how are you today?”

“Top of the world, Étienne. Especially as I’m here with my nephew.”

“Welcome, monsieur.”

“And Madame Lévy?”

“She is in Israel attending to a family matter.”

Lex hoped Jules wouldn’t reveal it was his birthday, as he envisioned the restaurant’s lights being dimmed while Étienne or some other waiter approached their table with the traditional dessert decorated with festive fireworks and the entire restaurant singing for him. His false modesty could do without the attention.  

“My nephew is thirty today, so you’d better be on your toes,” Jules said.

“Congratulations, monsieur. Table twenty-four is ready for you.”

They followed the waiter over the tiled floor to the back of the restaurant. He pulled out the table for one of them to access a seat on the red upholstered bench that ran along the entire wall. Lex caught a glimpse of himself in the big mirror and realised he was still wearing his pork pie hat. He hung it on a hat stand nearby. 

“You go in, Lex, so you can enjoy the mise-en-scène,” Jules said. 

Lex nodded politely to a young couple at the neighbouring table as he slid into the seat. He noted, with some satisfaction, that they’d reached the coffee part of their dinner. You could say many positive things about the French tradition of eating shoulder to shoulder with strangers, but Lex couldn’t think of any this evening. The table to the right was empty, and he hoped it would remain so. 

The waiter pushed the table back in place, and Jules lowered himself onto the seat opposite. He removed his heavy framed specs, fogged up the thick lenses with his breath, and cleaned them with the white napkin. He could be mistaken for Serge Gainsbourg with his thick, dark, curly hair, hooked nose, and big ears, although it was doubtful anyone would catch the French singer wearing a tie, silk or otherwise. 

“Edith Piaf used to dine at this table with her lover, Marcel Cerdan, the champion boxer,” Jules said. 

“I feel honoured.”

“I had the pleasure of seeing her here a few times back in the day, and it’s strange to think she was no older than I am now when she died.”

“Early forties?” Lex suggested.

“That’s kind of you, but I’ll be forty-eight this year.” 

The waiter interrupted with the wine card and menus and asked if they wanted an aperitif. Jules flipped the wine card open.

“It’s your birthday, and you’re my guest tonight. Relax and let me be in charge. Can you live with that?”

“I’m sure I can get used to it.”

“Let’s have a bottle of Chateau Siran 1953 Margaux and a big bottle of Perrier.”

“Very well, Monsieur Lévy.”

“And you can take the menus, Étienne. We’ll have the escargots, followed by the chateaubriand.” The waiter bowed respectfully and retreated with the wine card and the menus. 

“How is your apartment on Rue Norvins?” Jules asked. He took a particular interest in Lex’s accommodation, as his company Agence Immo Lévy had generously set him up in the beautiful two-bedroom apartment a stone’s throw from the Basilique du Sacré-Coeur.

“I love it—compared to my old apartment in Amsterdam, it’s like a palace.”

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