The Dangerous Edge - Five Nights in Paris: After Dark in the City of Light - John Baxter

Five Nights in Paris: After Dark in the City of Light - John Baxter (2015)

PROLOGUE. The Dangerous Edge

His words were shapely, even as his lips,

And courtesy he used like any lord.

“Was it through books that you first thought of ships?”

“Reading a book, sir, made me go abroad.”

WILFRED OWEN, It Was a Navy Boy

Long before I decided to leave Australia, in the 1960s, I felt the desire to escape. Year by year, it crept over me like a thrilling sickness.

Some footloose friends also wanted to go abroad, but their horizons extended only to such tropical paradises as Bali. I set my sights on England and, in time, California.

Three factors forced the final break. Two were TV commercials. International airlines had just identified Australia as a rich new market and were upping their promotional efforts.

The first, for Pan Am, began with a telephoto lens peering down a runway. At the far end was a Boeing, lumbering toward us as it built up speed for the takeoff.

“At this moment,” murmured an insinuatingly seductive voice, “in New York, the lights are going on along Broadway. Meanwhile, in London … ,” and so on, through capsule evocations of Tokyo, Buenos Aires, Paris.

By then, the Boeing was swelling to fill the screen. “In this world,” concluded the voice, “there are many places to go; many cities to see.” And just as the plane roared overhead, came the clincher. “Now is the time,” it said. “Now, when the heart says ‘Go!’”

The second commercial, created by BOAC, later British Airways, was, by contrast, seductively soft-sell. For commentary, it offered simply a reading of John of Gaunt’s anthem for England from Shakespeare’s Richard II.

This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle,

This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars

No roaring jet liners for the Brits; just scenes of villages, cities, lakes, woods, and fields, ending—a brilliant touch—with a man on a bicycle wobbling away down a leafy lane to “this earth, this realm, this England.”

But I said there were three inspirations—and the third, perhaps the clincher, was nothing like the other two.

My wife of the time had a girlfriend from school. She’d recently married, so we invited the couple around for dinner. As my wife explained before they arrived, Annie had always been the wild one: the first to smoke, the first to play hooky, the first to lose her virginity.

In person, she certainly filled the eye: a little too much cleavage, perfume a bit overpowering, more hair than one was used to seeing in conservative Sydney. But undeniably a dish.

Her husband, Rob, was quieter. Big, casual, confident, soft-spoken; Robert Mitchum, I thought. He never quite said what he did for a living, but obviously it paid well. And he’d traveled to all the places I wanted to see.

Over dinner, I quizzed him mercilessly. What was New York really like? Had he been to Tokyo? London must be wonderful. And Paris?

“I’ve spent time there,” he acknowledged.

I pressed for details. Where did he stay? What places did he visit? Notre Dame? The Louvre?

“For instance,” I concluded, “last time you were in Paris, what was the first thing you did?”

He and Annie exchanged a look of collusion, one of those “Shall we tell them?” glances, with a half-grin, that often precede revelations.

“Well,” said Rob, “if you really want to know, I knocked off the Patek Philippe watch exhibition.”

I blinked. “Knocked off … ?”

“John, mate,” he grinned, “I’m a thief.”

And he was. A very good one, as it happens—the leader of a crew of shoplifters that targeted high-end stores all over the world. For the next few hours, he explained and demonstrated some tricks of his trade: the techniques of distraction and misdirection, the elements of performance, the art of it. The well-brought-up, law-abiding Catholic boy in me deprecated his way of life, but the larger part—the adventurer-in-waiting, the reader of crime fiction, the admirer of film noir—was seduced. After that, it was only a matter of time.