M. Moreau is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside a silk suit and a smile that will melt all your doubts.
He is English, despite the French name, but nobody in this part of Paris holds that against him. Fluent in French, he can make small talk in more than a dozen other languages. Rumor says he’s descended from a Count who fled during the Revolution; he has about him something of the air of an aristocrat in exile.
He bought the tiny corner bakery two years ago, and moved into the apartment upstairs with his business partner, a balding, nondescript little man in glasses and a battered fedora. From the narrow balcony with its wrought-iron railing, they can look down on the wide canvas awning and the bustling sidewalk below. Summer evenings after the big ovens are shut down and the chairs stacked on top of the café tables, you can see them up there, leaning together over a bottle of wine and a chessboard as the warm sunset light spills like peach syrup melting over the rooftops, gilding the Seine.
Downstairs, the walls are lined with reproductions of famous paintings. Classic movie posters hang on the wall behind the pastry counter – Casablanca, some early James Bond films, and right by the door a big poster of Steve McQueen in The Great Escape. In the morning the doors open at six, and classical or old jazz music floats out into the street. Enticing aromas promise wicker baskets overflowing with long golden baguettes, trays of hearty loaves and flaky croissants and pastries filled with summer fruit. By seven the tables are set out under the awning, and early shoppers can sip rich espresso from delicate cups or savor a light, foam-crowned cappuccino with just the right dusting of cinnamon.
“Life’s too short for bad coffee,” Moreau will say, and he’ll catch your eye and grin like you’re sharing some profound and delightful truth known only to the two of you. At which point you’ll likely forget whatever it was you were supposed to be doing, or wherever else you’re supposed to be.
He’ll spend the morning behind the pastry counter, flirting with the morning regulars. By noon he’s working the outdoor tables, meeting the tourists, and before he’s done he’ll know everything about every one of them; he’ll recommend the perfect restaurant for a special anniversary, a wine-tasting at some gallery it’s a crime more people haven’t heard of, a fantastic art exhibit only open two more days and right around the corner. He’ll charm fussy children with effortless sleight-of-hand tricks, and he’ll make sure everyone knows where to find the best homemade gelato. And he’ll be moving on to the next table before anyone realizes he’s told them nothing of himself.
Long-time regulars remember an air of melancholy, the first year he arrived. Only an impression, like a shadow seen from the corner of your eye, vanishing when you turn to face it. The slightest inquiry, the merest look of concern or question and he’d blind you with that smile, the one too dazzling to be honest, too bright not to be covering something darker. But something eased at last in him, and Paris in the summer gentled him after that first spring; they watched him relax into it, the rhythm of the city, the bustle of happy tourists along the sidewalks, the galleries and the promenades and the street artists and the children throwing bread to fat pigeons.
Rumor says that he was married once, but if Mme. Moreau existed she is gone, now. A plane crash, it is said, or some similar tragedy one speaks of in whispers; he never speaks of her at all, and by now most have learned not to ask. Some sorrow lingers still, each November when the leaves turn and the first snows come. His partner sticks closer, then, and frets openly when Moreau’s eyes unfocus, looking into something past.
But he lights up again with the December whirl, decorating the building and the cakes and every delicate cookie with the excitement of a child.
He leans over the counter now, dark hair falling into his eyes, utterly absorbed in recreating Munch’s “The Scream” in colored icing on a vast sheet cake. His partner hovers anxiously.
“You can’t rush art, Bob,” Moreau says, and Bob sighs like they’ve had this conversation before.
“Well, Mme. Charcot can. Or her butler can, anyway. Pompous fellow, if you ask me.” Bob shakes his head. “Wouldn’t even stay for a complimentary espresso, last time he was here. Never trust a man who turns down free coffee. He’s on his way now.”
“All right, all right, relax.” Moreau looks up with that disarming grin, that sparkle in his impossibly blue eyes that no one can stay angry at, not Bob, not Mme. Charcot’s butler, probably not even Mme. herself. “Did you get the -”
“It’ll be here when Alex gets here.”
“Is this a working visit?” Moreau asks lightly.
There are other questions people have learned not to ask.
Bob only smiles. “She says you’ll love this one.”
She’ll be here by evening, a tall woman in a leather jacket, wavy dark hair shot with honey and a smile like a knife. He sends the rest of the staff home early on days when Alex comes to town. She appears every few months, disappearing after a day or two. Sometimes they disappear with her, and the little bakery stays closed for a week, maybe two.
The few staff he keeps are loyal and discreet; he pays them well to notice nothing, and speak of less. Speculation runs wild, though, when the lights stay on all night in the upstairs apartment, or when foreign visitors arrive. They take unpredictable vacations, the two of them. Always they return with stunning photos, but they slide away from telling stories of where they’ve been.
Someone will remember, deep into such speculation, the construction workers coming and going in the month before he arrived. They’d been from out of town, and shared no details, but it is commonly accepted wisdom that the little bakery is riddled with secret passages and hidden tunnels leading God knows where. Every year in January, when the nights grow long and boring and restless, a few children try to sneak in after hours and find them.
Moreau and his partner seem more amused than anything else by all this; anyone caught in the act is sent away with a basket of pastries and a stern lecture about the flaws in their planning, the intriguing injunction to leave such things as breaking and entering to the professionals.
He’s outside waiting on the last few tables when she runs her scooter up onto the sidewalk. The afternoon sky is mottled, dull purple clouds broken by patches of clear blue; the sun slants between thunderheads, casting golden light across the street. He tips an imaginary hat in her direction as she chains the scooter to the railing, disregarding the sign forbidding it. She brushes against an older gentleman at a corner table as she pushes open the patio gate.
Moreau watches her approach with a disapproving look and a slight shake of his head; she stops halfway across the patio.
“Are you serious?”
“Not here,” Moreau says quietly. “He’s a good customer.”
“You’ve gone soft.”
“I have to live here, Alex.”
“You don’t have to.”
“Moving’s a hassle.” He shrugs, with his best you-got-me grin. “New town, new contacts, new police commissioners to bribe -”
“This one’s clean.” His smile fades. “And it was expensive.”
“And that’s why you’re still holding onto it?”
“It’s not about the name.” At her raised eyebrows, “Well, okay, maybe a little. But I like it here.” Softly, with a touch of weariness that only reaches his eyes, “I don’t want to have to run again.”
She turns back to the corner table with a theatrical sigh. “Pardon, m’sieur.” The older gentleman looks up; her eyes dance, but the wide smile is slightly forced as she holds up a slim leather wallet. “I think you dropped this?”
There are those who will swear, when they’ve drunk enough, that the two men in suits who appeared three days after she left the last time were Interpol agents. Asking questions about money laundering, and thoroughly examining every one of the reproductions on the walls. But if they were, they didn’t find anything on Moreau or his mysterious visitor, and they haven’t come back.
The sky opens, then, despite the patches of sunlight lingering; rain spills across the walkways, sparkling in the late afternoon light, and the seated patrons reach for umbrellas to be on their way. A few make for the inside tables. Others, including Alex, duck under the awning.
Moreau disappears, returning moments later with Bob and trays of little espresso mugs, to warm those who remain. “On the house,” he says, smiling like they’re all sharing some grand adventure, as the water sluices off the canvas.
The storm is brief, but most of the customers have left by the time it ends. Not many see the long black limo pulling up later that evening, or the elegantly dressed older woman who steps out.
Moreau’s whole face lights when he sees her; they embrace, and he kisses her cheek; she takes his face between both her hands, studies him for a moment and says, with an expression almost of surprise, “You look well.”
He grins, wide and strangely vulnerable; it is a different look, on him. “You have mail?”
“I do. Where is - ?”
“June!” Bob is already coming outside, waving, a tray of tiny mugs balanced in his other hand.
Moreau bends down then to greet the small dog beside her, nosing about the pavement for pastry crumbs. “Hey, Bugsy.”
Bugsy licks his hand excitedly, then bounds off to chase a pigeon. June pulls a sheaf of envelopes from a large handbag, and he looks at each, noting with a fond smile half a dozen familiar styles of writing. “I guess they miss me?”
“Of course we miss you.” She lets him guide her toward one of the little café tables, waits while he dries the chairs with an elegant linen napkin. The sun flashes on the surface of puddles left by the brief rainstorm.
“How was the bachelor party?” he asks, pulling out a chair for her to sit while Bob sets three espresso mugs on the table.
“Diana loved it.” The three of them exchange conspiratorial looks. “Right up until she realized you’d set everything up. Then she spent about twenty minutes yelling about how if Kramer found out and traced the gifts or the catering orders back to you, and you got yourself arrested for throwing her a party, she’d find a way to get inside and strangle you.”
His eyes widen in mock innocence. “I was careful! I emailed all the orders from a secure server, and routed the cash through four different accounts, and - have they set a date yet?”
“Yes, but I’m not allowed to tell you when.” He pulls a face, and she laughs. “She’s convinced you’ll get caught trying to sneak back into the country for the wedding.”
“Would I do a thing like that?” His face turns wistful. “You might mention that Paris makes a very romantic honeymoon destination.”
“She did mention plans for a trip abroad,” June says. “Although I think she’s picturing you on a beach in Tahiti somewhere.” She pauses. “We all worry, you know.”
“I know,” he says. And then, “Is Peter -?”
“He’s fine,” she says. “Misses you, still. But he’s not going to get in any trouble. It’s been two years; if Kramer meant to try to go after him, he’d have done it already.”
They are quiet for another long moment; finally she says, “Are you happy here?”
“I’m all right,” he says, like it’s something he only just realized. “It’s Paris.” He waves a hand. “And it’s - a place to stop moving. For a while.”
Her smile fades, and they share a long quiet look of understanding. “Byron didn’t decide to get out of the life all at once, one day,” she says. “Well, he told me he was, but I told him not to make any promises he couldn’t keep.” She pats his hand. “He kept running little jobs on the side, to keep his skills sharp, he’d say. But they were farther and farther apart, after a while. And he was all right with that.”
Moreau nods slowly, looking past the front of the bakery and down the street, at the people walking home in the evening light. “This could be home,” he says quietly.
Bob and Moreau share a look. And, “Alex is here,” Bob tells June. “Brought us a job. We’d love your advice, of course. Just to keep your skills sharp …”
June smiles again, fondly, but with a glint of something that might be mischief in her eyes. “Why, you only had to ask …”