Back | Next


Corpse Vision

Written by Kristine Kathryn Rusch


Joe Decker couldn't remember who poured him into the taxi that brought him to Le Café du Dôme. Either way, it had to be one of the Midwestern boys—gangly Jim Thurber or the new guy—whatsisname? William?—Shirer. Neither of them knew Decker had a room at the Hôtel de Lisbonne—him and everybody else at the Trib except that old stick Waverly Root. Of course, without that old stick, the paper wouldn't get out everyday for the ex—pats and tourists to read in their little Left Bank cafes. Some were saying—mostly the folks over at the Paris Herald—that an alcoholic wave was sweeping through the offices of the Paris Tribune, making it damned impossible to get anything out let alone a daily paper.

Like the deadbeats at the Herald could talk. What they said about the Trib applied to the Herald as well: Each and every day, a goodly proportion of the staff was insensate due to drink—half because it was there and half because it wasn't.

Joe Decker didn't drink when he worked. He drank after he worked, and then only because he didn't want to face his typewriter in that little room off Boulevard St. Michel. If anyone had told him he'd be writing hack in Paris while he was supposed to be writing his brilliant first novel, he would've laughed.

He'd come to Paris with $300, his typewriter, and a one tiny suitcase of clothes, figuring that, with the franc worth damn near nothing against the dollar, he could afford one year, one year of typing, one year of thinking, thinking, thinking. Six months later, he had 5,000 words of unadulterated horseshit and fifty dollars, barely enough to pay for the room which he was heartily sick of.

Besides, no one in Paris had heard of Prohibition or if they had, they thought it one of those crazy American ideas that would never work.

Oh yeah sure, it would never work. It had never worked him into a huge thirst, which he tried to slack on nights like this when he'd turned in his copy on some stupid tourist gala no one here gave a good goddamn about but which actually got sent home because the folks back at their parent paper, the Chicago Tribune, thought such things were the important goings-on in Paris.

He remembered heading down the twisty back stairs of the Trib building, the presses thudding, the air hot with fresh ink. Funny man Thurber had come along and Whatsisname Shirer, still all googly eyed because he hadn't seen anything like this back in Ioway or Illanoise or wherever the hell he was from, and they'd planned one drink, just one—and the next thing Decker knew he woke up in this taxi with a throbbing headache and a mouth that tasted of three-day old gin.

In his exceedingly bad French, he'd asked the cabby where they were going. The cabby just waved his hand imperiously and said, "Le Dôme, Le Dôme," and Decker wasn't sure they were heading to the Dôme because Thurber or Whatsisname had told the cabby to go there, or because the cabby, like every other French taxi driver, knew the Dôme was the place to take drunk Americans so that they could get home.

Decker's head was too fuzzy to conjure the words to get the taxi to the Hôtel de Lisbonne. Besides, he wasn't sure he had the scratch. The ride to the Dôme was gratis—or would be if he couldn't find a franc or two—because someone there would cover the fare, if not one of the patrons then one of the uniformed police officers who paced the beat near the taxi stand.

He would have to promise to pay them back. And he would pay them back. He had paid everyone back, which was about the only good thing he could say about himself at the moment.

Nothing he did was any damn good, not even the daily copy he wrote for the Trib. The words were fine, the prose was solid, the assignments stank. His friends were just as miserable as he was (although, as Wave Root said, miserable in Paris is like happy everywhere else), and there wasn't even a woman in the picture. Well, not a relationship woman. There'd been more than Decker's fare share of one—night women. He might have even had one tonight.

The thought made him search his pockets as the taxi pulled up on the Rue Delambre side of the Dôme. The café had been on this corner for nearly thirty years, but only since the War had it become a haven for Americans. Know-it-all Hemingway, the only one of Decker's acquaintances who had finished his novel after he arrived in Paris, called it one of the three principal cafes in the Quarter, and the only one filled with people who worked.

No one who worked was there now. The tables on the terrace were empty, the chairs pushed out expectantly. A glow fell across them from the café's open doors.

Decker staggered out of the taxi, handed the driver the lone franc he'd found in his front pocket, and had to grip the pole marking the taxi stand to keep from falling.

Not only did he have a throbbing headache, but wobbly legs as well. He had to stop drinking, that was all there was to it.


Decker still had one arm wrapped around the pole. He thought maybe the ubiquitous uniformed policeman had spoken to him, but he didn't see an ubiquitous uniformed policeman. Instead, he saw an elderly man sitting against the wall, beneath the awning that someone should have rolled up by now.

"Or are you one of those British gentlemen who prefer tea?"

The old man spoke the oddly clipped English that Parisians learned—not quite British upper—class, but not quite British lower class either. Continental English, Root called it. Incontinent English, Thurber always amended when Root had left the room.

"Water would probably help," Decker said, not sure he should let go of the pole.

"Water will help. Alcohol dehydrates the system. That is half of what causes the so-called hang over."

The old man put a deliberate space between "hang" and "over." It was those kinds of errors that Decker usually found funny. The French often mangled English idioms, like the time the editor at Le Petit Journal had introduced Decker to his assistant, calling the man "my left hand"—and not meaning it as any kind of joke.

"Monsieur," the old man said with a wave of a hand. "Une bouteille d'eau."

Decker was going to tell him that the waiters here never showed up when you wanted them, and certainly wouldn't show when there were only a few customers, but the waiter who appeared, happily prying the top off a bottle of water, contradicted his very thought.

Of course, the old man wasn't just French. He had to be a regular. French regulars were prized at places like this, places which the Americans had taken over, like they had taken over most of Montparnesse just south of the Luxembourg Gardens. It was essentially an extension of the Latin Quarter without being in the Latin Quarter at all. It had been that way since the 16th century when Catherine de Medici had expelled students from the university. They had set up shop here and called it Montparnesse.

Decker knew such things about Paris, indeed, he had become a font of Paris trivia in his two years at the Tribune, all learned with bad schoolboy French and only a modicum of charm.

"It would be nice if you joined me," the old man said to Decker as the waiter put down the empty bottle and a single, rather grimy glass.

"Easier said than done," Decker said, not certain he could let go of the pole and remain standing.

The old man had a croissant in front of him and, despite the hour, a cup of coffee. He wore a proper black suit but no hat, which looked odd in the thin light. His hair was a yellowish white, speaking of too many hours in cafes around cigarette smoke.

As Decker lurched closer, using tables and the occasional chair to maintain his balance, he realized that the old man's beard was yellowish brown around his mouth. His fingers were tobacco stained as well. But he held no pipe and no cigar or cigarette had burned to ash in the tray in the center of the table.

Decker made it to the table and sank into the chair the old man had pushed back for him. It groaned beneath his weight. He tugged his suit coat over his stained white shirt. He had to look as filthy as he felt.

The old man poured water into the glass. The water looked clear and fresh despite the fingerprints on the side of the glass.

"You are an American newspaper man, yes?" the old man asked.

"Yes," Decker said, not that it was a hard guess, given their location.

"Joseph Decker, the American newspaper man, yes?" the old man said.

It gave Decker a start that the old man knew his name. "Is there another Joe Decker in Paris?"

The old man ignored the question. "I have a story for you, should you take it."

Everyone had a story for him. Usually it was the kind of thing tourist rumors were made of, like why there were no fish in the Seine. But the old man didn't look like someone who would give Decker a song and dance.

Of course, Decker wasn't yet sober, so he had to assume his judgment about all things—like the kind of man the old man was based on how he appeared—was probably flawed.

"It's two a.m.," Decker said, "and—"

"Three a.m.," the old man said.

"Three a.m.," Decker said with a flash of irritation, "and I'm drunk. If you're serious about this story thing, we'll meet here tomorrow when I've had a chance to sleep this off, and we can talk then."

"I do not go out in the daylight," the old man said.

Two years ago, Decker would have rolled his eyes. But by now, he'd seen and heard everything. There were guys on the copy desk who didn't go out in the daylight either, saying it hurt their precious eyes.

Decker went out too much in the daylight, seeing things that sometimes he wished he hadn't.

He flashed on her then, body crumpled beneath Pont Neuf, feet dangling over the edge of the walkway along the banks of the Seine, pointing toward the river.

He closed his eyes and willed the image away.

"And that is why I do not," the old man said. "You see them too."

Decker opened his eyes. The old man was staring at him. The old man's eyes were blue and clear, not rheumy like Decker had expected. Maybe the old man was younger than Decker thought. He'd met a number of those guys in Paris—men in their forties who could pass for someone in their eighties by their clothing, their white hair, and their gait.

"I don't see anything, old man," Decker said.

"Nonsense," the old man said. "It is why you drink."

"I drink because I'm lonely," Decker said. Because he kept writing the beginning to that damn novel over and over while Know—it—all Hemingway sat in this very café with his stupid notebook and scribbled story after story, book after book. Decker drank because he hated writing puff pieces for the folks back home, puff pieces about touristy restaurants and American musicians and writers like Know—it—all Hemingway. Decker drank because the stories he wanted to cover "would discourage the tourist trade from coming here." He drank because Paris wasn't the answer after all.

"You drink," the old man said, "because it closes your mind's eye. I have watched you. You see too much."

"You've watched me?" Decker was getting more and more sober by the minute. "You're following me?"

"If you recall," the old man said with the patience people reserve for drunks, fools, and children, "I arrived before you did. But I must confess that I have been waiting for you."

"Me and all the other American hacks," Decker said.

The old man smiled, revealing tobacco—stained teeth. The smile was friendlier than Decker expected. "Admittedly, you American hacks, as you say, are dozens of dimes—"

Decker winced.

"—but I, in truth, have been waiting for you."

Decker drank his water. It did clear his head, although he wasn't entirely sure he wanted his head cleared. "What's so special about me?"

"You see," the old man said again.

This time, Decker did roll his eyes. He drank the last of his water, and stood up. "Old man, I'm so damned drunk that this conversation isn't making sense. How about I meet you here tomorrow at midnight, and I promise to be sober. Then you can tell me your story."

"It is your story," the old man said.

"Whatever you say," Decker said, taking the bottle of water and heading north.

He had a hell of a walk—at least for an exhausted drunk. Normally he wouldn't have minded the jaunt up to the twisty little streets near the Sorbonne. The Hôtel de Lisbonne was on the corner of Rue Monsieur-le-Prince and Rue de Vaugirad. All he had to was walk the Boulevard St. Michel toward the Seine and he'd be in his bed in no time.

But he usually avoided the Boulevard St. Michel. He avoided a lot streets in Paris, at least on foot. The old man was right; Decker saw things. But he usually attributed those things to drink or to too much imagination.

The soldiers he always saw marching through the Arc de Triomphe wore no uniforms he recognized. They marched in lock-step, their heads turned side to side as if they were little tin soldiers with moving parts.

But he didn't always see the soldiers there. Sometimes he saw a flag that he didn't recognize with a Fylfot in the middle. The Fylfot, an ancient elaborate cross, was supposed to ward off evil. But he somehow got the sense that the Fylfot itself—at least as used here—was the evil.

On the Boulevard St. Michel, he saw students rioting in the streets. The students were grubby creatures, with long hair and carrying signs that he did not understand. Sunshine shone on them, although he only saw them when it was dark.

Because of these visions, he studied Paris history, and found nothing that resembled any of it. The soldiers were unfamiliar, just like the flag, and the students too filthy to belong to any modern generation. He could dismiss such things as figments of his imagination.

But the woman—she had been real.

He had touched her, her skin cold and clammy and gray from the elements. Her eyes had been open and cloudy, her lips parted ever so slightly.

He had found her six months into his trip to Paris. Shortly after, he had wandered into the offices of the Trib, such as they were, and offered up his services.

Novelist, eh, kid? The man at the copy desk had asked.


You know how many novelists we get here, hoping for a few bucks? At least two a day. Sorry.

I have experience . . .

Those fateful words. I have experience. And he did. From his college newspaper to the Milwaukee Journal—yes, he had been a good Midwestern boy, once too, a boy who didn't like near beer. A boy who actually had dreams for himself.

Five thousand words of horseshit later, stories about the tourists (Mr. and Mrs. Gladwell arrived this afternoon on a trip that has taken them from their home in Lincoln, Nebraska, to New York City through London, and now here, in Paris, where they are staying at the Ritz . . . ), stories about everything except the woman, crumpled beneath Pont Neuf.

Somehow he made it to the Hôtel de Lisbonne without seeing anyone, real or imaginary. The front desk was empty, so he reached over it and grabbed his key.

As he climbed the dark narrow stairs to his room, he heard a typewriter rat-a-tat-tatting. Someone was working on something, maybe a short story, maybe a novel, maybe a freelance piece for Town and Country.

He unlocked his room and stepped inside, then stared at his own typewriter, gathering dust beneath the room's only window. A piece of paper had been rolled in the platen since sometime last month, with only a page number on the upper right hand corner (27), and a single lowercase word in the upper left.

 . . . the . . .

As if it meant something. As if he knew what he was going to do with it.

The paper was probably ruined, forever curlicued, although it didn't matter. If he finished typing on that page, he could pile the other twenty-six pages on top of it, flattening it out.

If he sat down now, nearly sober, the old man's words still echoing in his head (You see them too), he would write:

The woman discarded at the foot of the bridge looked uncomfortably young. Her brown hair was falling out of Gibson Girl do, now horribly out of fashion, her lips painted a vivid red. Part of the lip rouge stained her front teeth. If she were alive, she would turn away from him, and surreptiously rub at that stain with her index finger.

He looked away from the typewriter, from that little accusatory "the." The description of the woman did not fit with the bucolic piece he had been writing, a memoir of Germantown Wisconsin in the days before the war, when he had been a young boy, and his father was still alive, tinkering with his new Model T, his mother tutting the dangers in the new-fangled machinery, the bicycle he himself had built from a kit, with the help of the man who lived next door.

Those were the kind of books people read now, memories of times past, not bloody, dark stories about dead women on Paris streets.

Decker took off his suit and hung it up, although he didn't brush it out, like he should have. He lacked the energy. As he pulled off his shirt, he realized the stains were worse than he had thought. Long, brown stains up front, looking like blood.

He was thinking of blood, though. He wasn't going to let his imagination win.

Besides, he still had one clean shirt. He needed to take the bundle to the laundry, along with his suit, so that he could look pressed and sharp again, instead of rumpled and disreputable.

He left his undershirt, boxers, and socks on, and tumbled onto the bed, the saggy mattress groaning beneath his weight. The bed hadn't even stopped bouncing by the time he had fallen asleep.

* * *

She was there in his dreams, her rich brown hair piled on top of her head, with a few curls cascading around her face. She sat on the edge of the bridge, feet dangling over the Seine, leaning back toward the road. Her eyes smiled, her lips—a perfect cupid's bow, just like the drawings she mimicked—rouged darker than her cheeks. The makeup softened her living face, making her seem as unreal as the women in the advertisements.

While her hair was old—fashioned, her clothing was not. No buttoned down shirtwaist for her with a long skirt that fell to her ankles. She wore a black skirt that grazed her knees, silk stockings with a perfect line up the back, and a blouse so soft that it seemed almost indecent. Around her neck, a simple St. Christopher's medal, and a delicate gold cross with a tiny diamond in the center. A gold band on her right hand, a band she twisted when she saw him approach, a frown creasing her lovely forehead.

He stopped beside her. She was American—he knew that without asking—and he held his reporter's notebook in his left hand, a pen in his right.

Her face shut down when he asked her name. And then her eyes clouded over, and her mouth opened ever so slightly.

The St. Christopher's medal disappeared and the gold ring too. But the expensive necklace, the gold cross with a diamond in the center, remained, as if it were her calling card.

He woke up thinking about it, twisted to one side, the bottom of the cross bent slightly as if she had fallen on it against the stone walkway.

She had worn no stockings when he found her body, and the sensible shoes, made for walking in a strange city (he knew that as clearly as if she had told him) had been replaced by thin heels, the kind flappers wore with their knee-length dresses and opera-length pearls.

He woke up thinking of the difference between the smiling girl in his dreams and the dead woman on the walkway, her skin cold against his fingertips.

He stared at his typewriter, his fingers itching to finish that sentence.

 . . . the . . .


The woman discarded . . .


He got dressed, and stumbled out of his room, ostensibly searching for breakfast, but really on his way to get another drink.

* * *

Still, that day, he made it to midnight without taking a nip from the bottle he kept at the bottom of his desk drawer. He didn't take the glass of wine offered with dinner, nor did he drink the shot of vodka offered to him by the White Russian he'd met while waiting for the American tourists he was supposed to interview in Le Procope.

He arrived at the Dôme exactly at midnight, sober as a judge. Decker had pressed his suit and worn his last clean shirt, mostly as an apology for the way he had looked the night before.

He hadn't examined himself in the mirror until this morning, but even then he had looked a fright—his hair standing on end, his nose bulbous, the capillaries in his cheeks bursting from too much drink. His eyes were red rimmed and he knew his breath was bad enough to kill any small rodent unfortunate enough to cross his path.

So he cleaned up, although no one at the Trib noticed, except Whatsisname Shirer, the kid from Ioway or Illanoise. Whatsisname Shirer had raised his eyebrows, but hadn't made a single remark, smart ass or otherwise, and so no one else seemed to notice.

Thurber was busy making up the news. Root was working, trying to get someone at the copy desk to expand the notes his so-called reporters had turned in. Most everyone else was so bleary-eyed that they would think they were imagining Decker in his spiffed up clothes and slicked-back hair.

Alcoholic wave indeed. It had become an alcoholic ocean, and he was seeing it for the very first time.

The Dôme had customers this night, at least a dozen sitting on the terrace, with more inside. The interior was grayish blue from all the cigarette smoke—it looked like a fog had blown through Paris and gotten stuck only inside the Dôme.

Outside, a group of men crowded around one of the tables. Decker recognized some of them from the transatlantic review. They spoke earnestly to each other, one of them shaking the stem of his pipe at a bespectacled man in an American felt hat.

Decker avoided them, just like he'd taken to avoiding Know-it-all Hemingway. Instead he circled to the other side of the terrace, near the taxi stand. This evening, one of the ubiquitous uniformed policemen paced, hands clasped behind his back.

The Dôme seemed normal, not like something out of a painting, the way it had the night before.

Because Decker was concentrating on its normality, he almost missed the old man, sitting at the same table, his back against the café's glass windows. Another man sat with him, younger, sharply French with his narrow face, black hair, and up-to-the-minute gabardine suit.

Decker wandered over toward them, as if they weren't his destination at all. When he reached the table, he pulled out the only other chair and sat.

"You're lucky I remembered," he said.

"I knew you would." The old man wore the same suit. His eyes were as clear as Decker had thought. "You have not had a drink."

Damn that incontinent English. Decker couldn't tell if the old man had asked a question or made a statement. "I told you I'd be sober. You told me you had story."

The younger man stared at Decker as if he thought he was rude. Maybe he was.

"I said, I had a story for you." The old man emphasized the last two words.

Decker looked at the younger man. "Maybe some introductions would be a good place to start."

"Maybe not," the old man said. "We shall perform the—how do you say?—niceties after we have determined what disturbs you the most."

"What disturbs me the most," Decker said, "are people who waste my time."

He shoved the chair back, about to stand, when the old man touched his arm. The old man's skin was cold. In spite of himself, Decker shivered.

"Americans are impulsive," the old man said to his companion. "And somehow they have come to embrace a lack of politeness as if it is a virtue."

"Look," Decker said, almost adding "old man" like he had done last night when he was drunk. That had been rude, but not intentionally rude. "I deal in hard, cold facts. The first hard cold fact you learn about damn near anybody is his name, which you're not willing to tell me. So I'm not willing to stick around. See ya, pal."

This time he did stand. He was going to repeat the same walk he'd made the night before, up the Boulevard St. Michel. Maybe he should walk around the Luxembourg Gardens instead, meander instead of go directly.

He was nearly to the group of transatlantic review writers when the old man said, "The students, they will be in the street tonight. And tomorrow, the flag will fly over the Arc de Triomphe."

Decker stopped in spite of himself. A shiver ran down his spine. He hadn't told anyone about those waking dreams. Not even when he was drunk. Probably not even when he was black-out drunk, since he got quieter and quieter—a man who knew how to keep secrets, Root used to say, when he was the one who poured Decker into a taxi.

Decker pivoted. He walked back to the table, as the old man had known he would. But the old man did not smile like a man who had won an argument. Instead, he remained grimly serious. The younger man continued to stare.

"The soldiers leaning out of the Hôtel de Ville, do you not notice how blond they are?" The old man's voice was soft.

The other man watched Decker avidly, as if everything depended on his response.

The Hôtel de Ville was Paris's city hall. And he'd only seen soldiers there once, in the middle of a summer afternoon, as heat shimmered on the boulevards and he sat outside, trying to find a bit of air in a city not used to extreme warmth.

"They wore helmets," Decker said, knowing that was an admission.

"But they were fair-skinned, no?"

"Stocky," he said, wishing he hadn't responded. But that was what he had noticed, how stocky and square they were, as if the uniforms they wore with their unrecognizable helmets made them as solid as a boxer in the beer halls near Milwaukee.

"And they wore this symbol on their arms." The old man pushed a piece of paper forward with a Fylfot drawn on it.

In spite of himself, Decker sat back down. "Who are they?"

"A nightmare," the old man said. "One we pray we will not have. But our prayers will be for nothing. Because only strong nightmares leach backwards."

"Backwards?" Decker asked, thinking of the woman. Was that a backwards nightmare? He had seen her six months after he arrived—years ago now—and he dreamt of her every night, awakening from those dreams unsettled.

"The soldiers," the old man said. "They are little boys now, playing with battered tin soldiers from before the War. If, indeed, they are healthy enough to play. Most are hungry. Some are starving."

Decker frowned. Even when he was sober, Decker didn't understand the old man. The old man spoke nonsense. But a nonsense that Decker found enticing, in spite of himself.

"Starving?" Decker said. "Then why don't you do something?"

"Why don't you?" the old man asked. "Your country pushed for reparations. Your President Wilson. Somehow he knew how to cure the world. He made it sicker."

"Congress never ratified that treaty," Decker said, wondering why they were talking about the Treaty of Versailles conference from six years ago, from before he even arrived in the City of Light.

"And that makes it all better, no?" the old man said. "Leadership provided by your president here in Paris failed at home, so the fact that the other countries—"

"Grand-pére," the young man said, touching the old man's arm. "That is enough. He is not responsible for his country's follies."

"They are all responsible," the old man said.

Decker was frowning now.

"You were telling me about soldiers and little boys," Decker said, trying to get past this confusion. "Soldiers, little boys, and backwards nightmares."

"They are not nightmares," the younger man said. "They are visions. The future, haunting us here and now."

Decker frowned. "The future?"

The young man nodded. "Events so powerful they reach backwards to us. We have seen the soldiers for generations now. We have not understood them until—what is it you call it?—the Peace of Paris."

"You understand it now?" Decker asked.

"We understand that they are Germans."

"Marching into Paris." Decker snorted. "Are you hoping for this?"

Three men from nearby tables stared. Most everyone here served in the War or had lost someone who had.

"No," the younger man said, holding up his hands. "It is the worst kind of tragedy. But we do know, from the students who are also a vision leaching backwards, that Paris herself will stand."

"The students." Decker wasn't going to ask any more and he wasn't going to reveal what he had seen. He was assuming the younger man meant the grubby students he had seen some nights as he walked up the Boulevard St. Michel.

"St. Sulpice stands. Notre Dame stands. Le Tour Eiffel stands. In the distance, away from the shouting, you can see Sacré Coeur. The bridges remain. If the Germans were to destroy Paris, they would bomb the bridges so that no army could follow. Then they would destroy the monuments to destroy our souls."

Decker couldn't resist any longer. "How do you know the students appear later?"

"They are less solid."

"You can't touch them?" Decker asked.

"No," the younger man said. "You have not tried?"

He had avoided everything. He had avoided the students and the soldiers and the flags. He heard the whispery voices, and figured they had come from his own drunkenness.

"Can you touch current nightmares?" Decker asked.

"Only reality," the old man said.

Her skin, cold against Decker's fingers. So she had been real. Had he spoken to her once? Holding his notebook? Wanting to know who she was?

Why would he have spoken to her? He wasn't yet working for the Trib. He was playing at being a famous writer, the American James Joyce, yet to publish his Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man.

"Ah," the old man said, peering into Decker's face. "Something precipitated your visions. You did not see them when you first came to Paris."

Decker looked at him. The old man's skin was papery thin, his eyebrows so bushy they seemed to grow toward his scalp.

Paris had been clean. Paris had been pure. Truly the City of Light, all beauty and glistening stone, history calling to him.

Not like Milwaukee. Milwaukee had turned dark, especially near the lakefront. He had seen corpses of sailors, washed against the rocks, their uniforms still sodden with the waters of Lake Michigan. He had screamed the first time, and people had run to him, not to them, not even when he pointed . . . .

He shook his head. He did not want to think of this. He did not want to remember it, how each street had something, someone, who sprawled along a road or had been shot on apartment steps or had been squashed flat by a new—fangled motorcar.

Sometimes two, sometimes three per block. He had walked with his eyes closed, and his mother—his beautiful tiny mother—whispering that he had to do something else, something that took him away from death.

Write your novel, she had said. I will tell people of my son, the famous writer.

And she had given him all of her pin money, money he knew she relied upon to get away from his father.

His father, who drank.

"What was that precipitated these visions?" the old man asked. "A drink, perhaps. You like your drink."

Decker stared at him, feeling his gaze go flat with anger.

"No, it could not be drink," the younger man said. "Or he wouldn't continue drinking. It's got to be hereditary. Let me see your hands."

Decker closed his hands into fists. He didn't want these people to touch him. He looked at the old man.

"You said you had a story for me."

"I have a city of stories, if you're willing to listen," the old man said. "But first, we must see the root of your vision."

Decker stared at him, then slowly, reluctantly, extended his right hand.

* * *

He had first seen her on the Champs Élysées, a vision in white. She looked like the old world blending with the new, her Gibson Girl hairdo, the wide-brimmed hat (with ribbons trailing it) that she carried in her left hand. Her dress was narrow, with a flip just near the knees, her stockings perfect, her shoes solid, old-fashioned, buttoned-up leather.

He had seen no Parisians woman dressed like that—mixing styles. Parisian women had their own style, a lot more fluid, a lot more suggestive, and all of them wore cloche hats (if they wore hats at all). She smiled when she saw him, a broad, wide American smile, the kind that held nothing back.

He tipped his hat to her. She laughed and continued onward as if she had known they would see each other again.

Of course they had. She had been looking at the sights, such a tourist, and he had been moving from park bench to park bench, staring at the monuments.

He had talked with her on Pont Neuf, more than once. She had laughed and flirted and never once told him her name. No one seemed to want to tell him names.

The thought disconcerted him for a moment, and the image of her laughing face wavered. He heard voices all around him, male voices mostly, and the air filled with tobacco smoke. An old man was peering at the palm of his hand as if it held the secrets of the universe.

And then she was back, looking at him sideways. She was holding his hand, palm up, as if she could see his future in it. She was young, enjoying Paris. He hadn't enjoyed Paris until her. Not like this—climbing the Eiffel Tower and going to Versailles to see the gardens, wandering through the Louvre, and eating bread and cheese for lunch in the Tuileries.

And he wrote. How he wrote. The novel, abandoned, he didn't care about Lincoln. He wrote instead about—

. . .the woman, discarded, like abandoned laundry at the base of the bridge. Her killer, dark, darker than anything Edgar Allan Poe could imagine in his darkest Rue Morgue dreams. The man carried her from the bridge itself, down the side, preparing to dump her in the Seine when someone called out. . .

He looked up, saw the younger man staring at him with something like horror, the old man with eyes full of compassion.

"Corpse Vision," the young man said. "You have Corpse Vision."

* * *

Decker wasn't sure he wanted them to tell him what Corpse Vision was, although he had a hunch he knew.

The memories scrolled backwards—like the nightmares the old man had mentioned—the first homicide call on the police beat, near one of the speakeasies by the lakefront. The dead man wore spats and a snazzy hat that blew toward Decker in the wind. He caught the hat, knew enough to carry it back to the detective, and as he did, his foot brushed the corpse, his ankle actually hitting the dead man's elbow.

A little bit of nothing—a bit of a shiver, a bit of a chill—but not much more until he returned to the Journal's city room. He found a typewriter and banged out his recollections, handing the paper to the copy desk for expansion. He went back to the desk to type a few impressions, like he used to do, for the novels he would someday write. But first, he rested his cheek on his fist and closed his eyes.

Spats rose from the sand, backwards, like a Charlie Chaplin film being rewound, shaking his fist at someone near on the docks. A flash of a knife, a dropped bottle of gin, some money clanging against the wood, and Decker opened his eyes, terrified of his waking dream.

The next morning, he went to the lakefront as follow—up, at least that was what he told himself, and instead, he saw the sailors, washed up on the rocks, the air cold off Lake Michigan, and two little boys, standing in the middle of the corpses, fishing.

That was when Decker screamed. The last time he screamed when he saw a corpse.

But not the first time.

The first time—Lord, he'd been ten. On his grandfather's farm. His father had come back from the stream, looking grim, the female barn cat following him, crying plaintively. Decker should have followed his father, but he was already afraid of the man. So he went to the stream, saw the tiny kitten corpse on one of the rocks, touched it—the cold damp fur—and turned.

The man behind him had no eyes. He was tied to a tree, his skin filled with holes, birds sitting on his shoulders and pecking at his face.

Decker had screamed and screamed. His father had come first, pulled him away, told him he was a baby—he knew it was spring and every spring, his grandfather took the pick of the litter for barn cats and drowned the rest so the farm didn't get overrun with cats.

Someday, his dad had said grimly, this'll be your job.

But Decker only dimly heard the words. Instead, he stared at the dead man tied to the tree, the birds taking chunks out of his face as if he were a particularly delectable roast. Decker wanted to bury his own face in his dad's chest, but he knew better.

He also knew he needed to gather himself, to stop being so upset, but he couldn't. He couldn't. He sobbed and sobbed and finally his dad picked him up like a sack of potatoes and slung him over his shoulder, carrying him back, Decker hiccoughing, his father whacking his butt with every single hitched breath.

His mother came into his room that night when he screamed again, the dead man alive in his room as a vision, running from men Decker dimly recognized. They would catch the dead man, carve him up, tie him to the tree, and laugh when they told him the birds would get him. They laughed. And Decker recognized the laughs.

But that wasn't why he screamed. He screamed at the sunlight afternoon invading his dark room, the trees no longer there leading down to the stream, the bank where he'd happily played just a few years before.

His mother had come and shushed him. She had cradled him as if he were still a baby, and rocked him, but she said nothing.

Except when she thought he was asleep, she went back to the room she shared with his father—You promised, she said.

I did not send him down there, his father said. He went on his own.

You should have watched him.

You coddle him.

He doesn't need to see.

At his age, I was drowning kittens. I had killed chickens and butchered pigs. I fished. You deny him childhood.

That isn't childhood, she said. See what it has done to you.

You used to love me, his father said.

Before the darkness ate you, she said. Before it ate you alive.

* * *

"You could spend your whole life in escape," the old man said, again misusing idioms. It was the odd choice of words that brought Decker back to the Dôme, not the fact that he wanted to be back.

The men from the transatlantic review had left. In their place, a group from the Herald. One of the reporters tipped his hat to Decker, who nodded. He couldn't for the life of him think of the man's name.

"Each place will be new and fresh until death," the old man said. "Then you will see—and in Europe, there is much death to see."

"I'm not seeing corpses," Decker said before he could stop himself. Not that he admitted anyway. He drank too much to remember what he saw. And what he did remember the old man called backwards nightmares.

"You are not looking," the old man said. "You have deliberately blinded your most important eye."

Decker was getting a headache, and he was starting to wish for a drink. This had been a mistake. He didn't like being sober, not any more.

"You lied," Decker said. "You said you had a story for me. This whole meeting has been nothing but gibberish."

He stood, conscious of how odd he felt. He didn't want to be near these men. He didn't want to be at the Dôme. He wanted to talk to his mother, and she was thousands of miles away, probably worrying about him, like she did. She worried.

She thought he could outrun the family curse. The old man just said he couldn't.

Decker didn't want to think about any of it.

"We will be here tomorrow night," the old man said.

"I won't," Decker said.

"Unless you finish the story," said the younger man.

"We would love to read it," the old man said.

"Sure," Decker said. And he would love to start over, that fresh bright attitude he had brought to Paris so far gone that he couldn't even remember how it felt.

Maybe he could recapture it somewhere else. He had heard nice things about Vienna. There was another sister paper in Geneva—or maybe that was a sister to the Herald. United Press operated out of most countries.

He could leave in the morning. He didn't need the language skills. He hadn't had all that many in France. Besides, French was the language of diplomacy. He spoke it just badly enough for people to take pity on him.

He was going to go speak it badly now at the nearest bar he could find. He would speak it until he couldn't talk any more, until he didn't think about all the things the old man had brought back into his mind. He would be so bleary-eyed drunk that maybe he wouldn't even dream.

* * *

But he made the mistake of stopping in his room first. He wanted more cash, which he found rolled up in his socks in the bottom drawer of the shabby bureau. Anyone would know to look in the sock drawer for money. It was a testament to how honest the staff was at the Hôtel de Lisbonne that no one had stolen his stash.

How honest or how lax. He couldn't remember the last time they cleaned his room.

He wiped a finger over the typewriter, removing dust. His eye caught the edge of that paper.

 . . . the . . .

He sat down, xxed out the "the," and typed:

Sophie Nance Brown, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Harcourt Brown lately of Newport, Rhode Island, in what the police initially reported as a bungled suicide attempt.

(Although, he thought, how could it have been bungled if she did indeed die?)

The body, discovered by an American tourist, fell on the walkway beneath the Pont Neuf. A witness claimed she had jumped off the bridge's wide stone railing, laughing as she fell.

But the American tourist contradicted these things, saying no one could have seen her fall. He found her at 7 a.m. Any witnesses would have had to been on the bridge in the middle of the night.

The American also pointed to her missing stockings and mismatched shoes. Her traveling companion, one Eleanor Rose Stockdale of Battle Creek, Michigan, said Miss Brown had never traveled anywhere without her St. Christopher's medal and her grandmother's solid gold wedding ring, both missing.

Police now believe Sophie Nance Brown is the third victim of a killer who play tricks on investigating officers. The witness who claimed she had fallen matched the description of a man seen carrying an unconscious woman to the base of the bridge around midnight.

Anyone with information about this most interesting case should contact the Prefect of Police.

Decker stared at the words. The paper did indeed come out of the platen curled, but he didn't care. The story was good enough for the Trib, if it published crime news like that (which it did not, afraid it would scare the tourists). But the story wasn't really good, just good enough.

He had written the facts as he had been trained. But that wasn't what he knew.

What he knew was this:

The woman discarded at the foot of the bridge looked uncomfortably young. Her brown hair was falling out of Gibson Girl do, now horribly out of fashion, her lips painted a vivid red. Part of the lip rouge stained her front teeth. If she were alive, she would turn away from him, and surreptiously rub at that stain with her index finger.

She had turned away from him and wiped at the stain, the very first time she had seen him. Sophie Nance Brown, of Newport and Westchester and points south. Sophie Nance Brown with the laughing eyes, who said she had come to Paris for the adventure.

But her index finger was broken, bent backwards at an angle painful to look at, even now, when he knew she could feel nothing.

She had felt something. She had felt too much something when she went to the bridge after a long dinner on the Right Bank with friends. She wanted to feel the breeze in her hair, look at the moonlight over the Seine. She asked her traveling companion, Eleanor Rose Stockdale of Battle Creek, Michigan, to accompany her, but Eleanor Rose, a sensible girl, had heard that nice people did not stand on the bridges at night and had declined.

Later, Miss Stockdale would say she thought saying such things would discourage Miss Brown, but other friends said nothing discouraged Miss Brown when she set her mind to something.

Miss Brown had met a young man who had captured her fancy. Her interest in him was what she wanted to discuss with her friends at dinner. Knowing him had caused an ethical dilemma for her, especially since she was so far from home. He lived alone in a solitary room in one of the more disreputable hotels near the Sorbonne.

Miss Brown worried that she was too old—fashioned for the new morality, but too young to press the young man into something less exciting, something more permanent.

Instead of listening to her, Miss Brown's friends teased her "mercilessly." They laughed their way through dinner, interrupting her, until she grew angry, threw down her napkin along with a few francs and left the restaurant, heading for the Pont Neuf.

The Pont Neuf was suggestive, Miss Stockdale said, because Miss Brown found it romantic.

Miss Brown stood in the center of the bridge, peer out over the Seine at the famed lights of Paris, thinking that no woman should stand in such a spot alone. The light played with her old—fashioned hairstyle and her modern clothing, her ankles nicely turned out, the skirt accenting her shapely legs.

He had noticed that. He had noticed the contradiction from the start.

Decker paused, his wrists aching. He had them bent at an odd angle. His headache had cleared for the first time since he started drinking in Paris.

He wasn't writing news any longer—or at least, he wasn't writing news that he recognized. He was writing something else, seeing something else, something he didn't want to think about.

The pages had piled up on the small desk beside his typewriter. The voice was odd. It wasn't his, and it wasn't exactly the voice of impartial journalist. He was edging into something else, something his editors would disapprove of—"worried" and "thinking" and "noticing"—actual viewpoints, which were not allowed in the dispassionate prose of journalism.

Decker rolled another sheet of paper in the platen, ready to type that damning "the" again, ready to leave it, and count all of this as an aberration.

Instead, he continued:

He had watched her since she got off the boat. She wore a wide brimmed hat with a red ribbon, fanciful and old—fashioned. Her clothing hinted at a girl who wanted to break out of the old ways, but her hair spoke of a girl who cherished what had come before.

Almost Parisian. Modern, yet grounded in the past. He loved his city, and he wished others would as well. But he did not love the tourists, particularly the American ones, with their loud braying laughter and their lack of manners.

Although they grew their women tall and beautiful in America. Solid women, with high cheekbones and flashing eyes.

He followed her to her hotel, then watched her, meeting her first on the Champs Elysées, then finding her in the Tuileries, regaling her with stories of his novel—every young man in Paris these days had a novel—his notebook clutched in his hand . . . .

Decker stopped. Those memories, the things he saw, they weren't his? He frowned, trying to see something else, trying to remember when he had first met her. The date—

He dreamed of her. He dreamed of her, after he had found her. Six months into his stay in Paris.

Six months.

But he had never seen her, touched her, laughed with her. He hadn't really encountered her until he saw her half-naked foot hanging off the walkway, her shoe dangling over the sparkling waters of the Seine.

Only it wasn't her shoe. The killer changed the shoes. That was his little joke. He tossed her sensible shoes in the water and gave her little Parisian heels, delicate shoes that he had bought just for this purpose . . . .

Not Decker. Him,

Etienne Netter, whose apartment in the Seventh Arrondissement had been in his family for six decades. His parents long dead, his mother distressed when he came home from the War with "haunted eyes."

"But at least I am home, Mother," he said plaintively, when so many young men had not come home. She had not seen what he had seen, how the blood turned French fields into mud, all for the sake of a few meters of advancement that would probably be lost the following day.

They said the Americans changed it all, with their energy and their numbers and their willingness to get killed. The Americans, big and hearty, like their women, who were stupid but lucky and somehow managed to end the war.

They liked him, these American women. They thought him their pet Frenchman. They thought his accent "quaint," his smile "romantic," his desire to write novels "almost American," even though the French had been writing novels before America was a country.

He charmed them, relaxed them, promised them he would show them the sights—and he did. He did. He showed them their own venal faces in the Seine before he raised their skirts, ripped off their stockings, and proved to them that French men hadn't lost all of their dignity in the trenches.

His mother, before she died, said he had lost his soul on the battlefield, that he had come home a shell, not a man at all, filled with dark compulsions not French. She tried to take him to church, but he would not go, not even to her funeral, after she had died, stepping in front of one of the automobiles that she so despised for ruining the lovely streets of Paris.

Stepping—that is what he told the police. She had lost track of where she was in the conversation, and she had stepped—

But she had not stepped. She had stumbled, after a shove, after she called him a monster, and said she wished he had died on the battlefield along with his soul.

Sometimes he thought she was right. He had seen the darkness coming for him those early days in the woods, lurking beyond the tanks and the flying machines, past the machine guns with their rat—a—tat—tats and their spray of bullets, the bodies falling, falling, falling in the mud. Beyond that, the darkness rose over the fields and extended across Europe, and he saw it coming toward him, then filling him, until there was no room for anything else.

He could pass on the darkness—he had done so with that beautiful American—but as he watched the hope die in her eyes, he remembered how that felt, and he could not, he would not, let her live with that. So he took the life from her, knowing (although she did not know) that it was no longer worth living.

He had taken her St. Christopher's medal because it should not touch darkness. He had left the medal and the ring she wore in the poor box at Notre Dame. He did such things, venturing into churches only for that, then escaping before the darkness polluted them as well.

Sometimes he thought he should have stumbled in front of that automobile instead of sending his mother there. Sometimes he thought he should have died, just as she said, in the mud—and—blood soaked fields, along with his friends. Sometimes he thought.

And sometimes, he did not.

Decker could not look at what he had written. He stacked the paper inside one of his folders and tied it shut with a ribbon, just like he used to tie the pages of his novel inside the folder, proud of his day's work.

This day—this night—he was not proud. He was spent.

He had seen things he had hoped to never see again.

Corpse Vision, the old man's grandson had called it.

Whatever it was, Decker despised it, much as the man he had written about, this Etienne, had despised the darkness in himself.

* * *

As Decker walked to the Dôme the following night, the folder under his arm, he saw the darkness lurking. It hid in the shadows, wearing uniforms he did not recognize—that symbol the grandson had drawn—marching in lock—step.

Nightmares seeping backwards.

But Etienne had been a nightmare seeping forward.

Decker winced. He did not want to think about it.

He hadn't had a drink in three days. His alcoholic wave was over.

He also hadn't been to the Tribune in three days. He wondered what Root would think, what Thurber would say. Maybe they were already searching for him, although no one had come to his room at the Hôtel de Lisbonne—or if they had, he had been too absorbed to hear their knock.

This time, Decker arrived before the old man. Decker sat at the old man's table, sipping coffee and eating ham, cheese, and bread, much to the disapproval of his waiter, who wanted to serve the coffee long after the meal was done.

Know-it-all Hemingway sat in a corner, scribbling in his journal. He did not look up as Decker came onto the terrace, and Decker did not call attention to himself.

But as he looked at Hemingway now, he saw something that startled him—an insecurity, a fear, so deep that Hemingway might not have known it existed. Superimposed over Hemingway—like a ghost in a Dadaist painting—was an old man with a white beard and haunted eyes. He hefted a shotgun and rubbed its barrel against his mouth.

Decker looked away.

The old man—his old man, not the spirit surrounding Hemingway—sat at the table, his grandson beside him.

Decker didn't ask where they came from. He didn't remark on their silent entrance. Instead, he handed the folder to the old man.

The old man untied the folder, opened it, and scanned the pages, handing them one by one to his grandson.

Decker read upside down, embarrassed by the words, their lack of cohesion, their meandering viewpoint. When the grandson saw the name Etienne Netter, he stood.

"My thanks," he said and bowed to Decker. Then he walked away, leaving the pages beside Decker's plate.

Decker did not touch them. The old man picked them up and put them back in the folder, which he tied shut, making a careful bow.

"It is more than I could have hoped for," he said. "You have saved lives."

Decker shook his head. "I didn't do anything."

"This man, this Netter, he is a new breed. You have heard of Jack the Red, no? Saucy Jack?"

"The Ripper," Decker said. "Decades ago. In London."

"The first of his kind, we think," the old man said. "If there had been one such as you, perhaps he would have been stopped."

"He was stopped," Decker said. "He only killed five."

"That we know of," the old man said.

He set the papers under his own plate, then extended his hand. "I am Pierre LeBeau. I run Noir, the central newspaper in the City of Dark."

Decker couldn't take the misstatements any more. "City of Light," he said. "We call Paris the City of Light."

LeBeau nodded. "Light has its opposite. You have seen the dark. You write of it. You know what is coming."

"Only because you tell me that it is," Decker said. He sipped his coffee, pleased that his hand remained steady. "How come I've never seen your paper?"

"As I have said, you kept your most important eye deliberately closed." LeBeau put his hand on top of the folder. "The paper has grown since the War. Before, we were a single sheet. During, we ran four. After, we grew to five, then ten, now eighteen. We need an English language edition. We will start with four pages on the expatriate community."

"More meeting the boat," Decker said. "More puff pieces."

"No puff, as you say," LeBeau said. "Warnings, perhaps. Stories that do not run in your Tribune or the Herald, things only hinted at in the fictions your friends write for the transatlantic review."

"Who would read it?" Decker asked, surprising himself. Normally he would ask about pay before readership.

"People like my grandson," LeBeau said.

"Where did he go?"

"He will take Etienne Netter and extinguish his darkness. Then he would help the police find justice."

"He'll kill him?"

"No," LeBeau said. "But this Netter might wish he were dead when my grandson has finished with this. For Netter will realize what he has done and why, and with the revival of his soul, he will feel remorse so painful that death will be the only way out. Yet death will be impossible for decades. It is our smallest but best measure of revenge."

Decker felt a chill run down his back. The conversations with LeBeau, as circular as they were, were beginning to make sense.

"We will pay triple what you earn at the Tribune for the first six months," LeBeau said. "Raises every quarter thereafter if you continue to perform."

"Perform?" Decker asked.

"You must follow the darkness," LeBeau said. "See where it will lead."

"And if I don't?"

LeBeau smiled. "I shall buy you your next drink. You will become one of the—what do they call it?—casualties of the licentiousness of Paris. There will be no novel, no more hack work as you call it, no more typing. Only drinks, until one day not even the drinks will work. You will go to a sanatorium, and they will try to help you, but you will be one of the hopeless ones, the ones who has rotted his mind and his body, but has not managed to destroy the vision that has haunted you since you touched that kitten decades ago."

It no longer surprised Decker that LeBeau knew so much about him. Nor did LeBeau's description of his future surprise him. Decker had seen it already, as his father drank more and more, until finally his grandfather drove his father away to "a hospital" where they would "help" him. No one had ever seen him again.

His mother would not speak of him. She had lived too close to his darkness. She feared it for her son.

But running from it hadn't worked. He had simply become a drunk in Paris instead of in Milwaukee. Even if he had no magic vision, he had a future like the one LeBeau had described.

And the writing had taken away the urge to drink.

Even if the things he wrote had chilled him deeper than anything else.

"I never met her, did I?" Decker asked the old man. "Sophie. I never did meet her."

LeBeau looked at him. "You met her. Her spirit, after she had died. She wished she had been with you instead of this Etienne. She used your similarities to pull you in. She wanted him stopped. She did not want him to harm anyone else."

It sounded good. Decker wasn't sure he believed it, but he wanted to. Just like he wanted to believe that Noir existed, that he would be paid three times his Tribune salary, that his Corpse Vision actually had a purpose.

"I suppose I can't tell anyone what I'm doing," he said.

LeBeau shrugged. "You can tell," he said. "They will not believe. Or worse, they will not care, any more than you care for them."

LeBeau glanced at Hemingway, still scribbling in his notebook. Decker looked too. Hemingway raised his head. For one moment, their eyes met. But Hemingway's were glazed, and Decker realized that Hemingway had not seen him, so lost was he in the world he was creating.

They were all creating their worlds. The expatriate reporters with their chummy newspapers in English, hiding in a French city that did not care about their small world. The novelists, sitting in Parisian cafes, writing about their families back home.

And the old man, with his darkness and nightmares looming backwards.

Decker already existed in darkness. He could no longer push it away. He might as well shine a light on it and see what he found underneath.

"I'll take four times the salary," he said, "and a raise every two months."

The old man smiled. "It is, as you say, a deal."

He extended his hand. Decker took it. It was dry and warm. They shook, and Decker felt remarkably calm.

Calmer than he had felt in months.

Maybe than he had felt in years.

He did not know how long Noir would be in his future. But he did know that his tenure there would be better than anything he had done in the past.

Anything he had seen in the past.

He opened his most important eye, and finally, went to work.

* * *


Back | Next