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The Marseille Caperby Peter Mayle
Shock has a chilling effect, particularly when it takes the form of an unexpected meeting with a man from whom you have recently stolen three million dollars’ worth of wine. Sam Levitt shivered and pulled his terrycloth robe closer around his body, still damp from an early-morning dip in the Chateau Marmont pool.
“Here.” The man on the other side of the table—smiling, tanned, immaculate—slid a cup of coffee across to Sam. “Drink this. It will warm you up. Then we can talk.” He leaned back and watched as that first infinitely welcome cup went down, then another, while Sam tried to gather his wits.
Sam was sitting with Francis “Sissou” Reboul. The last time they had met had been in Marseille, over a glass of champagne at Le Pharo, Reboul’s clifftop palace with a billionaire’s view of the Mediterranean. Sam, on assignment from an international insurance company, was hunting for several hundred bottles of vintage Bordeaux that had been stolen from the Hollywood home of Danny Roth, an entertainment lawyer with a weakness for fine wines. After a search that had taken him from L.A. to Paris to Bordeaux to Marseille, Sam had discovered the stolen bottles in Reboul’s vast cellar. And, being a man who preferred direct action to long and tiresome negotiations with the authorities, he had stolen them back. That, he had thought, was that. A nice, neat job, with no complaints likely from the victim. But here was the victim himself, in the garden of the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, behaving for all the world like an acquaintance who was trying to be a friend.
“Perhaps I should have given you some warning,” said Reboul, with a shrug, “but I only flew into Los Angeles last night—there’s some business I need to attend to here—and I thought I would take the opportunity to come and say bonjour.” He took a card from his top pocket and pushed it across the table. “You see? Here’s the little souvenir you gave me during our last meeting.”
Sam glanced down at the familiar sight of his own business card. “Well, Mr. Reboul . . .”
“Please.” Reboul waved a dismissive hand. “You must call me Francis, and I will call you Sam. More cozy, non?” He smiled and nodded, as though the idea of coziness were amusing. “I don’t want to waste your time, so let me get to the point.” He drank the last of his coffee and pushed his cup and saucer to one side with a manicured index finger. “In fact, the business that brings me to California is you.”
Reboul paused for a moment and gave Sam a conspiratorial wink before continuing. “I have a situation in Marseille that requires someone—ideally, as you will see, an American—with particular and rather unusual gifts. And judging from our previous encounter, it seems to me that you would be just the man for the job. What would you say to a few weeks in Marseille? It’s at its best this time of year, before the full heat of summer. I would make your stay extremely comfortable and, of course, very attractive financially.”
Suspicion fought with curiosity, and curiosity won. “Let me guess.” Sam returned Reboul’s wink. “Would I be right in saying that what you have in mind is not altogether legal?”
Reboul frowned and shook his head, as though Sam had suggested something faintly improper. “Legality is so difficult, isn’t it? If it were easier to define, most of the lawyers in the world would be out of business, which would be no bad thing. But my dear Sam, allow me to put your conscience at rest: I’m not proposing anything more illegal than a little harmless deception—and after your performance as a book publisher the last time we met, this would be child’s play for a man of your talents. A mere soupe de fèves, as we say in Marseille.” Reboul’s attention suddenly shifted from Sam to the woman making her way through the garden toward their table. “How delightful,” he said, smoothing his hair and standing up. “We have a visitor.”
Sam turned to see Elena Morales, dressed in what she called her client uniform of black suit and black high heels, and carrying a slim black briefcase, the businesslike effect enlivened by a discreet flurry of black lace visible beneath the opening of her jacket. She stood over Sam, tapping her watch and looking far from pleased. “Is this your idea of casual Friday? Or have you forgotten about the meeting?”
“Ah,” said Sam. “Right. The meeting. Give me five minutes to change, OK?” He was aware of Reboul hovering expectantly behind him. “Elena, this is Mr. Reboul.” Elena smiled and offered her hand. “From Marseille,” he added.
Reboul took Elena’s hand as though it were a fragile object of immense value, and with a practiced swoop bent and kissed it. “Enchanté, mademoiselle, enchanté.” He gave the hand a second kiss. Sam resisted the urge to tell Reboul not to talk with his mouth full.
“If you two will excuse me,” he said, “I’ll be back as soon as I’ve slipped into my bulletproof vest.”
Reboul pulled out a chair for Elena. “How pleasant it is to meet you. Forgive me for making Sam late, but I must have surprised him. The last time we met was in Marseille, and I don’t think he expected to see me again.”
“I’m sure he didn’t. I know all about what happened in Marseille—he told me,” said Elena. “Actually, I hired him. I’m with Knox, the insurance company.”
“So you are business colleagues?”
“Now and then. But we’re also . . . friends. You know?”
Reboul’s eyes twinkled. “Lucky man. Perhaps you could help me persuade him to take on this little job for me. Even better—perhaps you would come with him.” He patted her hand. “That would give me great pleasure.”
Elena was aware that Reboul was out to charm her. She was aware, too, that she was rather enjoying it. “Where is this little job?”
“Marseille. It’s a fascinating city. Let me tell you about it.”
When Sam returned to the table, his bathrobe exchanged for a suit and tie, he found Reboul and Elena in animated conversation. It was his turn to stand over Elena, tapping his watch and looking smug.
Elena looked him up and down and grinned. “Very smart. Pity you forgot the socks, but that doesn’t matter. We’d better go. Where did you leave the car?” Turning to Reboul, she said, “We’ll see you back here this evening, then. In the restaurant at 7:30?”
Reboul inclined his head. “I shall count the moments.”
Sam waited until they had joined the traffic on Sunset to head over to Wilshire before he spoke. “So what’s happening this evening?”
“Francis is taking us to dinner, so he can tell us all about the job.”
“He invited me to Marseille. And I’m tempted. More than that—I’d really like to go. I have a load of vacation time due, I’ve never been to the south of France, and Marseille . . .”
“. . . is at its best this time of year.” Sam pulled over to pass the bright pink Hummer dawdling along in front of him. “He doesn’t waste any time, does he?”
“He’s cute. And such a gentleman. You know something? I’ve never had my hand kissed before.”
“It’s against U.S. health and hygiene regulations.” Sam shook his head. He knew from past experience that Elena was blessed with a whim of iron: once she had made a decision it was pointless trying to change her mind. And besides, he had to admit that having her with him would make the job a great deal more fun—if he decided to take it.
Meanwhile, they had the meeting to get through, and that certainly wasn’t going to be fun. They were seeing Danny Roth to tie up the loose ends remaining from the recovery of his stolen wine and its shipment back to the States. There was also the matter of Sam’s substantial finder’s fee. Even though this was to be shared between Roth and Knox Insurance, Sam anticipated trouble: reluctance to pay at best, outrage and refusal more likely. He pulled up outside the tinted glass cube that was the headquarters of Roth and Partners (those being his mother and his accountant) and cut the engine. “Are you ready for this? Don’t expect too much hand-kissing.”
They were met in the reception area by Roth’s executive secretary, the tall, regal, and incompetent Cecilia Volpé, who retained her job thanks to her influential father, Myron, one of the handful of powerful, anonymous men who ran Hollywood behind closed doors.
Cecilia swayed toward them on four-inch heels, brushing her mane of tawny hair from her forehead, the better to run her eye over Elena’s outfit. “Love the shoes,” she murmured. “Louboutin?” And then, remembering her duties, “Mr. Roth has a very busy schedule today. Will you be long?”
Sam shook his head and smiled. “Just as long as it takes to write a check.”
Cecilia considered Sam’s reply for a moment before deciding it was not to be taken seriously. She returned his smile, revealing several thousand dollars’ worth of exquisitely capped teeth. “If you’d like to follow me?” She turned and swayed off down the corridor, her skirt clinging to a pair of buttocks, toned to perfection, that seemed to have a life of their own, twitching with every step. Sam was mesmerized.
Elena’s elbow dug into his ribs. “Under no circumstances are you to make any comment. Keep your mind on your work.”
Cecilia left them at the doorway of Roth’s office. He was sitting with his back to them, the dome of his hairless head gleaming in the sunlight that flooded the room. He swiveled around, taking the phone from his ear, and looked at them through narrowed, unfriendly eyes. “Will this take long?”
“I hope not, Mr. Roth.” Elena sat down and took some papers from her briefcase. “I know you have a very busy schedule. But there are one or two matters that we need to clear up.”
Roth jerked his head toward Sam. “What’s he doing here?”
“Me?” said Sam. “Oh, I’ve just come to pick up my check.”
Roth assumed a shocked expression. “Check? Check? Sure you don’t want a goddamn medal as well? Jesus.”
Elena sighed. “The finder’s fee, Mr. Roth. It’s here in the insurance contract.”
And there they stayed for almost two hours while Roth picked his way through the contract, line by line, disputing all but the most harmless clauses, his behavior just this side of apoplectic.
When they were finally through, Cecilia was summoned to escort them to the elevator. “Wow,” she said, “he normally doesn’t spend that much time with anyone. He must really like you guys.”
Elena turned up the air-conditioning in the car and settled back in her seat. “If I needed another excuse to get out of town, that was it. The man’s a monster. I’ll tell you something—Marseille’s looking better and better.”
“Well, let’s see what Reboul has to say.”
“Don’t even think of turning him down. I’ll twist one arm, and he can twist the other.” She leaned across and kissed Sam’s ear. “Resistance will be useless.”
Elena and Sam were late as they hurried along the corridor toward the elevator that would take them down to the Chateau Marmont restaurant and dinner with Francis Reboul.
They had been delayed by Elena’s competitive urge, a desire to wear something that, in her words, would show Reboul that French women weren’t the only babes in the world. After several false starts and considerable discussion, she had chosen a dress that was very much the style of the moment: black, tight, and short.
As they waited for the elevator to arrive, Sam put his arm around her waist, then allowed his hand to slide gently down to the upper slopes of the finely proportioned Morales derrière. His hand stopped, moved farther down, stopped again.
“Elena,” he said, “are you wearing anything under that dress?”
“Not a lot,” she said. “A couple of drops of Chanel.” She looked up at him and smiled her most innocent smile. “It’s that kind of dress, you know? There’s only room for me.”
“Mmm.” Sam was saved from further comment as the elevator doors opened to reveal a man wearing a blazer and brick-red trousers, with matching brick-red face. He was holding a half-empty martini glass, which he raised to them. “Going to a party out there in the garden,” he said. “I thought I’d get some practice in first.” As the elevator came to a stop, he drained his glass, put it in his blazer pocket, straightened his shoulders, and set off, weaving slightly.
Reboul was already at their table, champagne bucket at his elbow, going through a sheaf of papers. At the sight of Elena he leaped to his feet and took her hand, confining himself this time to a single kiss and a murmured “Ravissante, ravissante.” Elena inclined her head prettily. Sam rolled his eyes. Their waiter poured champagne.
Reboul was a man for whom the word dapper might have been invented. Tonight he was resplendent in a black silk suit (the tiny scarlet ribbon of the Légion d’Honneur a nick of color on his lapel) and a shirt of the palest blue. A dazzling white handkerchief, also silk, was tucked into the cuff of his jacket. Like many fortunate Mediterranean men, his skin welcomed the sun, and his smooth, light-mahogany complexion provided a most flattering contrast with his perfectly white, perfectly trimmed hair. Even his eyebrows, Elena noticed, had received the skilled attentions of a master barber. Beneath the eyebrows, his brown eyes twinkled with good humor. He was living testimony to the joys of being rich. “A toast,” he said, lifting his glass. “To the success of our little venture.”
Sam paused, his glass halfway to his mouth. “I don’t want to spoil the fun,” he said, “but I like to know a lot more about my little ventures before I get too excited.”
“And so you shall, my dear Sam, and so you shall.” Reboul passed the wine list across to Sam. “But first, could I ask you to choose some wine for us? I seem to remember that you have an eye for a good vintage.” This was accompanied by a raised eyebrow and a conspiratorial nod of the head, as though Reboul were sharing a secret.
It was the first time he had referred—albeit not too directly—to Sam’s theft of several hundred bottles of the wines he had taken such trouble to acquire. And from his air of general benevolence, and the smile on his face, he appeared to find the incident amusing. Was that really how he felt? Perhaps now was not the moment, thought Sam, to pursue the subject. Without looking at the wine list, he pushed it to one side. “I hope you don’t mind,” he said, “but I’ve already arranged the wine. I have a little cellar here, unfortunately nothing like yours, and I chose one or two bottles you might find interesting. There’s a Châteauneuf-du-Pape—but a white Châteauneuf-du-Pape—and one of our local wines you may not have tried yet: the Beckstoffer Cabernet from Napa. How do they sound?”
Reboul looked up from the menu. “Formidable. And now, dear Elena, what should I eat? Women always know best. I am in your hands.”
Elena patted his arm. “Leave it to me.” She studied the menu for a few moments. “Soupe au pistou? Maybe not—I guess you get plenty of that at home. The seafood is very good here, so you could start with crab cakes and a purée of avocado . . .”
Reboul held up his hand. “Say no more. I have a passion for crab cakes. I would kill for crab cakes.”
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