The Montparnasse Moon Shot
Busting in through art deco doors was how I’d come to imagine it. Café Aristarque would have fancy Parisian doors, huge. Over and over, I'd sketched this Rue Daguerre scene: graveyard haze swirled madly around the streetlamps, and I rambled up in a gunslinger’s ramble. Except at the get-go, Aristarque had a regular door. Chipped wood veneer, smudged glass, peeling MasterCard sign, same as the meat-and-threes back home on town square.
I twirled my cufflinks, fingered the Camels in my pocket. Aristarque’s door was all wrong, but the rest held right: silk suit and tie, full moon coming over Montparnasse. I skidded inside hot, right foot, left foot, plant and hold, showed the crowd my snakeskin boots. But there wasn’t much crowd, not near what Pop said herded in to see DeLune play. No party girls, no darkened corner booths, no pinball table. A dozen old-timers in corded sweaters groused watching a soccer match, blue team versus white.
The bartender glanced over my way, and his glance became a squint. “What would you have, my friend?”
English already, a solid break. “I’m Tapp Beaufort. Though folks in Winchester call me Tango Bravo.”
“Yep, Winchester, Tennessee. Over by the Air Force base. Long flight, I tell you what.” I held things there, assessed for reaction. Zip, or else somebody was a cool customer. “Make it a Coors.”
"No American beer," the bartender said as if a point of pride. His bald head shone as he poured me an Alsatian lager, wherever Alsace was. It tasted decent enough, if warm for serving. Anyway, here I was at last, Café Aristarque. Lair of Loup DeLune.
“He wore black,” Pop always started off. It would be Saturday pinball in the garage, me on a pile of Air Force Times, Chuck the Labradoodle at my feet, Pop in that bomber’s jacket Mom buried him in and talking his usual bangbacks and flip traps. Pop went at his pinball hard, about dry-humping a machine until it broke or tilted. “Hairiest bastard on this green earth. Tall, wiry as fuel cable. It’s like he appeared out of the mist from the cemetery way, shoes clack-clack-clacking down Rue Daguerre.”
“He did not,” I would say.
“I’m dialing you in straight. At the Delannoy, his eyes went the devil's own black, and his body uncoiled, and he writhed like a mad organist at her flippers.”
That October, Pop and his buddies took weekend leave in Paris, where the ace pinheads played. Before that night ended, Pop battled Loup DeLune in a match legend among the entire Ramstein AB mechanic corps. Back and forth the game went, on that classic Delannoy Space Warp Explorer, leads won and lost in wicked combos and Lazarus saves. DeLune came out the victor, his coup de grace a points-gobbling beast that arced high across the playfield again and again. Slow torture was how Pop told of the ball that did him in, and he’d given it a name.
The Montparnasse Moon Shot.
Ten o’clock at Aristarque. I fished for my Camels. Mom would tear into me if she knew I’d lit up, but DeLune didn’t put a ball in play without a Gauloise crooked in his mouth.
“No, no,” the bartender said. “Very large fines. Want to smoke? Outside.”
“For real?” I said. “It’s cold out.”
That earned a sympathetic frown but no ashtray. I sipped Alsace lager and said, “Word is you have some fine pinball here. And a fine player. Goes by DeLune.”
Double-barreled squint. “Of course. You seek Loup DeLune.”
In full-on French, that name rolled out fluid as gargled evil. "I might give him a run."
"There, I am sorry. He does not come for much time."
“Where’s your table, though? I heard you had an ’83 Delannoy.”
The bartender blew out a sigh, that ennui thing Pop warned about. “Better to show you,” the guy said. En route to a storeroom, he introduced himself as Michel, and he’d owned Aristarque going on thirty years. He remembered that night and the airmen drunk and hot to challenge the Loup. I explained how Pop kept sharp for a rematch, except he’d had what the doctor termed a major coronary event.
“My greatest sorrow at his passing,” Michel said. “He played with much verve.”
In the storeroom, Michel unveiled the lady--and a hand-painted 1983 Delannoy Space Warp Explorer was all lady--high-class and sleek. Her playfield’s alien kick line and astronauts in their NASA buggy were starved for wax. A flipper stuck out like a broken wing.
“A thousand euro to repair,” Michel said. “For what? So people lean against it and swipe their phones? Flipper is bad business today.”
“This ain’t right,” I said. Double-shift savings blown on the suit and airfare. A genuine Delannoy in lock-up. “She’s solid-state guts. I can fix her up. Not like new, but she’ll play a game. All I ask is parts money and help finding the Loup.”
Gerard squinted again. The king of squints.
I wore myself out the next morning, fetching parts on sneaky low rises in Montparnasse. Nobody at the vintage hardware stores recognized DeLune, not by his handle or the sketch I showed around, him leaping claws-out from his corner booth. I told everyone to forward Loup tips care of Michel at Café Aristarque. Should anyone happen upon DeLune in the shaggy flesh, they were to growl, “Tango Bravo sends his regards,” those words, like that.
Michel helped roll the Delannoy to her place by the jukebox. Plugged in, she gave a whiff of ozone and sang a calliope over her electric hum. I didn’t have the bands and circuits to get Saturn kicking, and her broken flipper thrashed late if at all, no matter my tinkering.
I’d grown to understand Pop was ninety-nine percent full of crap. He claimed to have piloted or co-piloted every air vehicle Uncle Sam had, to include the dirigibles and U.F.O.-grade stuff. Pop, a ground pounder’s ground pounder. He dotted in bogus acronyms like J-Triple R-Q and HTTP and KATC. That last one was a radio station out of Colorado Springs. But the Moon Shot never changed a bold lick when he got going, never. And now I was testing thumper-bumpers on the Delannoy from his story.
The regulars, Michel's cousins, a bunch of them, latched on to my DeLune sketch taped behind the bar. “Not so tall as you draw,” this cousin Gaspard said. “Not such a lion’s mane.” “Handsome, though,” Michel said. “The finest dresser in the arrondissement.” Now and then, a regular pointed out what relay or switch needed work, but mostly they carried on in high-speed French over some joke I couldn’t catch.
Word among Michel’s cousin network was a grizzled mystery man of remarkable height and beard haunted the tables at Barbacane, an American-style pub there off Place de la Bastille. “Go,” Michel said. “Go, my friend. Find Le Loup.”
The Bastille. On the Metro ride north, I whispered that over and over, the Bastille, a medieval supermax all Count of Monte Cristo. My mind revved and throttled, imagining a street duel in the shadows of a craggy prison, me crouched in that gunslinger stance. Somebody at Barbacane would run out a Delannoy and extension cord, and there we would play, Tango versus Loup.
Atop a fair mountain of Metro steps, I discovered Place de la Bastille didn't have a Bastille anymore. The Parisians tore the castle down to make room for more Paris, restaurants, and apartments, and another traffic circle bustling. Dudes hawked purses off blankets primed for a fast bundle-and-run. Vendors sold flea market watercolors along the sidewalk. Some sweet art, too. Probably they’d had formal training.
Barbacane was right where Michel drew it on his map. Tie, hair, smokes: check, check, and check. I strode inside, gave my snakeskins plant-and-hold. American-style the pub wasn’t, with pop music America long forgot about, and vinegar flanking the ketchup. Boar meat ground into sausage. Straight pig, that was American sausage. Barbacane did have serious pinball, these student types working horror movie titles.
I had a sweat and shin splint going, so I grabbed a table and did recon over a lager. Half-starved, I ordered that boar sausage. It came with fries and the fries with mayo, and hell, it tasted pretty good.
When Pop hadn’t bragged on top-gunning jets, he bragged on being Ramstein base pinball champ. One day, Pop swore, he’d pull chocks and join the pro circuit, just we watch. The circuit paid five times minimum what Uncle Sam did. New carburetor money always swallowed the travel fund, or else a wrist sprain. Sometimes, he reeled off the wild stuff French people cooked to eat, snouts and tails, bugs, fish every which way, even pickled.
Maybe Pop got the Loup first, but I got him on weird-ass sausage.
I wide-stepped it over to the machines, snakeskins scuffing tile. Then my game did the talking, crushing high score on a zombie apocalypse title, calling out which undead jag-wagon got biffed down next. This student type Véronique watched the massacre. She was off-the-chain exotic, with raven hair highlighted purple. Nashville, she dubbed me--Nash-veel-luh--even after I mentioned going by Tango Bravo. She could call me anything, how her accent French-kissed a word.
I followed the student types outside for a smoke, everybody rubbing their arms against the cold. I passed around the DeLune sketch of him creeping furtively through a parlor window.
“Nice,” Véronique said. She lifted her head when she dragged on her cigarette, exhaled the same way.
“I’m fixing to whoop on him. On an ’83 Delannoy, cream of the fricking cream. Me and him would be throwing down now, except he’s like gone to ground.”
“To ground,” Véronique said.
“My plan is, put him away first ball. Go shock-and-awe before he starts in on me.”
Véronique tugged loose the DeLune sketch and stabbed her onyx fingernail on his snout. “You should draw for comic books,” she said. “If this gargoyle walks by now, we would run screaming for the gendarmes.”
Sure, I amped the hair factor, and his ears spread bat-like, and the teeth gnashed crooked. Over the years, I’d sketched DeLune poised atop a Delannoy or emerging from cemetery mist, always crackling with menace. Pop examined each drawing, requested a tweak or two, and declared, “That’s him, boy. That’s DeLune.”
What Véronique needed was context, so I shared Pop’s story and the Loup’s ruthless Moon Shot. Then I was telling her about the first game I beat Pop and how he blamed losing on his trick wrist; about his funeral and working in the same tool shop he did.
“Nashville the artist,” Véronique said, “and your father the novelist.”
One Saturday, I'd asked Pop how come the internet had zero trace of DeLune, him a supposed wizard’s wizard. How come Pop took no pictures that night.
“You break red getting photo evidence,” Pop said. He scanned the garage, all conspiratorial. “Here’s the sitrep. Some of why the crew and me were in the country remains A.F. top classified, K.9. level zulu quatorze. Suffice it to say the Loup don’t have no given name that he lets on. No street address.”
“You made that up,” I said.
“Tango bravo, fox one,” Pop hollered and smacked the plunger.
“He’s not real,” I said.
“Take it from me, boy. He is real enough.”
What was real: Pop’s cars went through bum carburetors like he did restored machines, and him a certified mechanic. On my Paris map was a mayo stain that earlier, when stared at a while, resembled DeLune in his perma-snarl. Now, it just looked like a stain.
Michel phoned me at the Metro stop. “My friend,” he said over TV sports in the background, “important news.”
I sniffed at my suit. It was developing an odor, and on top of everything, I'd caught that ennui business. “Sir,” I said, “you swore up and down my sketches were DeLune. I got people not even thinking he’s human.”
“I own that, drawing him fierce. But I’m wondering why you sent me all over Paris after the boogeyman.”
“Yes,” Michel said. “Your drawing, this is caricature. Excellent in skill, but the fangs, such claws? No, it is his eyes. You capture their essence to perfection. Near our lady, his eyes turned the abyss that you draw.”
DeLune. I’d sketched his eyes in charcoal until their heartless depth simmered the devil’s black. Pop’s every telling, the devil’s own black. I’d tried drawing for comic books. Tried, crashed, and burned. Comic books, graphic design, concert posters. An art school in Georgia nixed me twice off a single application, no apparent reason other than rolling harsh.
“I’m run ragged,” I said. “You ever do see DeLune, say Tango left his regards.”
“But this is the news I bring! Tonight, Gaspard has a cigarette. A gray-bearded man appears on Rue Daguerre. Lean, this man, well-dressed, a jealous rage when he speaks of our Delannoy. He demands to buy her, for ten thousand Euro in banknotes. Banknotes, friend Tango.”
“Bearded?” I said. “Not a goatee or soul patch?”
“Yes, you see it. This man leaves his card with an address in Pointoise. The Musee Flipper Mondial. I slap this bar and cry, ‘Gaspard, you meet Le Loup!’ To Pontoise, my friend. To Pontoise, or you know only regret.”
I heard the Delannoy chime a tune. So close, she seemed to sing. So close.
The Metro didn’t run as far north as Pontoise. That long a haul went on the RER line, and I missed the next train deciphering the ticket dispensers and platforms. It took forever until I reached Pontoise, its mess of apartment blocks swirled in graffiti. My feet rubbed near raw, I skipped any plant-and-hold into Aux Courtaud.
The hostess claimed to have no idea about werewolves, perky about it, but she said Aux Courtaud was famous for its pinball and chopped steak if I wanted to see for myself.
It was on then, something. The hostess got me a Coke no charge and waved over her matron-looking boss. The owner lady knew full well about that card. For what sounded an overstayed welcome, her brother Rafale DeLune ran his museum from the basement.
Rafale DeLune. A beastly ring. Beastly, yet refined. The sister described him as silver-templed and throwing away his children’s inheritance on a pinball obsession. She pointed none-too-gently at a stairwell sign for the Musee Flipper Mondial with its basement door shuttered for past touring hours.
The sister knocked hard, and poking a head out normal-height was a guy with an urbanite scarf and bristly stubble going.
“Hey,” I said.
Rafale ushered me downstairs, along a habitrail taped on the floor. The cellar was jammed with classic-title machines and framed pictures of Paris café high times.
“I’m fixing an ’83 Space Warp Explorer myself,” I said. “But you knew that already.”
“An exquisite table.”
“Yep, a Space Warp Explorer, all systems go but for a shorted flipper and dead bumper. Saturn.”
I braced for anything, a toothy scowl, a war bellow, us grappling hand-to-hand. What happened was Rafale chirped and hustled down the habitrail into a spare room. Around when I wondered if he’d beaten it out the back, he trundled in saying “Allô” and carrying a mother lode of spare parts.
“Sir,” I said, “let’s drop pretenses. Tonight, in Montparnasse, you offered to buy that Delannoy for ten thousand Euro.”
“Impossible,” he said. “My heart should treasure this title, but I have nothing such Euro to pay. Please, send photos of the finished machine. I display them with honor.”
Photos. The Loup’s old flame, and he wasn’t raving to see her. Rafale was lighting a pipe and checking his tables for dust. That and a museum with signage and tour route seemed overly public for a secretive mist-lurker.
“Sir,” I said, “I’m betting you’re not Loup DeLune.”
Rafale kept sorting his spare parts. “Such a nom de scène. Too long since I hear it.”
“A nom of what?”
“My cousin Michel, a true man of flipper. Once the semi-pro. I remember he kept a Delannoy at his café.”
“Aristarque,” I said.
Rafale brightened. “You know it?”
Despite the hour, things were going strong when I made it back to Café Aristarque. The regulars celebrated me and my stock parts with a victory round.
I fell onto an open stool. “You had me going,” I told Michel.
He poured me a lager. “From tonight, my beer is only ever free for the great Tango.”
“Sir, did I piss you off?”
“Sins of the father,” Michel said. “Beyond atoned for. Look at our Delannoy! What in Paris shines brighter?”
True that. She sparkled and purred, and her alien dancers kick-lined for the stars, and her astronauts tooled around in their space buggy, everyone having the time of their lives. Last I’d seen a grin like theirs, Pop was laid out in his casket and smiling at the hereafter.
I said, “Did you even play Pop?”
“I tell you this,” Michel said. “That night, your father broke my damned machine.”
I couldn’t decide to laugh or what, so I drank lager and let the Space Warp Explorer sing. Come morning, Saturn would be a cosmic hazard again, though her wayward flipper would forever remain lady’s choice.
The thing was, it didn’t feel like Pop had much sinned. He flamed out hard, but he’d been here. He’d made it another canvas painted over with slick talk and acronyms. Easier than admitting the truth, I guessed. And his crowning glory.
A lie. A lie as art. It got me thinking about the comic book people and what I could submit as a portfolio. A grand bust-in through grand doors. A scooter chase across Paris. The Eiffel Tower flashing and me hot-footing it after Loup DeLune up an iron maze of stairs. Hang gliders. Dungeon hideouts. Guard boar. A showdown at the Louvre courtyard, with flintlocks and everyone dressed to the nines.
The Montparnasse Moon Shot. In my version, I would work in more Véronique.
About the Author
Robert Mangeot’s short fiction appears here and there, including Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, The Forge Literary Magazine, Lowestoft Chronicle, Mystery Weekly Magazine, Mystery Writers of America’s Ice Cold, and the Anthony-winning Murder Under the Oaks. When not writing, he is Vice President for the Southeast chapter of MWA. When not doing any of that, he can be found wandering the snack food aisles of America or France.