Date Published: 09-01-2022
Publisher: Endicott Street Press
Paris, 1954. Eli Cole, American attaché, wants only one thing: to avenge his wife’s murder. But the trail has gone cold. After two years, drinking to his beloved Liana’s memory is all he has left — until the secrets she took to the grave come back to shatter them all. A hidden photo, a Gestapo file, an unsent letter: these are some of the clues Eli must piece together if he is to understand Liana’s secret life, and her mysterious mission. But the clock is ticking. Powerful new enemies are out to give Eli a one-way ticket back to the United States — in a pinewood box.
With the help of Liana’s father and sister, an old war buddy come abroad, and a cunning teenage girl, Eli unravels the events that led to his wife’s death. But getting justice won’t be easy. The more Eli reveals of Liana’s secret past, the more his devotion to her is tested by her deceit. Can Eli allow himself to recognize the entirety of the woman he married? Will Liana’s last art piece, a spectacular glass tree, give Eli the assurance he needs to continue believing in the sanctity of love?
The Glass Tree is a fast-paced, unpredictable mystery, and it is also the story of one man’s attempt to untangle the complexities of betrayal, love and forgiveness.
I grabbed a pack of Lucky Strikes from my stash in the dresser and went back to Le Carre Rouge. Parisians always stick to the same café. I had one with Liana, where I never go. This place was more fitting. It was strictly bottom shelf. The regulars rolled their own cigarettes and there was always a table with a view of the traffic circle.
I knew what JP wanted. I remembered how I felt that first year. Living on hate, living for vengeance. When I wasn’t drunk, I was bothering the police, calling in favors with the French services. I had been with the Sûreté when they questioned suspects. I skulked around Communist meetings, trying to pass myself off as an American comrade. But I was always suspect, and nobody opened up to me more than the usual propaganda line. I followed the men the Sûreté took in for questioning. Some for weeks at a time. Nothing out of the ordinary. No hatchet men. They were family men, working men, functionaries of the party. Rallies, meetings, strikes, canvassing, campaigning. Nothing violent. No one told any stories over drinks. They were dedicated to their cause but did nothing to make me think they had killed one of the opposition and my wife.
There had been no doubt about what I would do when I figured out who had killed Liana. Unintended bystander or not, they would pay with their own life. I had my Colt 1911 wrapped in an oiled cloth in the closet.
The fire that burned inside me never went out, but after that first year of disappointment and false leads, after fellow attachés reported to me that they figured it for the work of Russian agents on orders from the Kremlin, my blood lust began to seep away, like rain on a bridge drying in the sun.
Liana became one of the many senseless deaths. She might have been in a car accident, she might have choked or fallen down the stairs. Undignified. Unlucky. Like so many GIs, she had been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
And now — had JP found a string to pull?
Even if he had it probably didn’t matter. I’d be shipped back to the States and debriefed any day now.
But maybe there was a way I could stay on, at least long enough to settle this.
I found JP at the same bar where he used to hang out when I was married to his daughter. He was sitting at a table playing la belote with friends or maybe enemies. I didn’t know. They looked like mechanics. The bar was in the Eleventh, not far from Pere Lachaise, a working-class neighborhood. No professors here. Or immigrants. Natives only. Some Algerians had been beaten on the street only a week ago. Where were all those loyal colonized subjects of France supposed to go?
When he saw me he got up and went to the bar. He ordered Suze. The barman poured two cloudy glasses of the yellow liquor. Besides being one of the cheapest drinks, it was disgusting. I sometimes ordered it despite the taste of bitter orange peels.
“What do you want?”
“To kill someone,” I said.
He looked into my eyes. His were red and puffy. “I don’t believe you,” he said, taking a drink. “But I’m going to need you. This time we finish it.”
I took a drink and waited for him to tell me what he had found out.
“Philippe — that is his name — is a professor at the Sorbonne and also a communist. And, it seems, so was Liana.”
I scoffed. “Don’t you think I’d know that?”
“No,” he replied bluntly. “I don’t. As an American there are things you couldn’t understand. The motives of a French woman are not the same as in your country. She couldn’t sacrifice who she was for promises.”
“She wasn’t like that.”
“But she was, wasn’t she? You’ll need to accept that. Accept she was not the perfect wife you thought she was. She was independent, she had a life she didn’t share with you. Maybe she would have…” He stopped.
This was more than he’d said to me all at once the whole time I’d been his son-in-law.
He went back to his table and recovered his cigarette from the ashtray.
“Osval had a 15-year-old daughter. The police report has nothing about her.”
“I have a friend on the force. She’ll be seventeen now, an adult. Maybe she knows something.”
“And if she doesn’t?” I asked. “Do we break her arm?”
JP smiled. “We’ll see.”
“Let me do it. Just stay in the car with your tool kit.”
JP shrugged. “The downstairs neighbor in her building knows me anyways. I’ll pick you up at noon. I’ve watched her. She never leaves the apartment before two. She’s a dancer at Le Coq Gaulois, or maybe a putain.”
I nodded and finished my drink without coughing.
“She should be alone, the mother leaves with the husband, or whatever he is, around ten. They part ways at the corner. I think she works for the post.”
“I don’t know. Wears a cheap suit and hangs around Les Halles market.”
“Maybe it would be better to talk to the daughter at work.”
“Who knows who’ll be watching there. Better alone.”
I left the bar and walked toward the metro. It was the kind of day I might have strolled through the flea market at Porte de Clignancourt, or the bookstalls along the Seine on the Left Bank. Maybe afterwards a drink with Liana on St. Germain or over the bridge to the Ile Saint Louis for a café. Someone at the Embassy said they’d seen Picasso and Hemingway there. What it must have been like in Paris before the war.
When I got to the metro stairs I changed my mind and headed toward the Sorbonne. I hadn’t been there in a long time. It was a lively part of Paris. Busy with students, those born just before the war.
I walked into the building where Liana had her classroom. I hadn’t spent much time here. Occasionally I came in to meet her after class. It was always so bustling, so alive. Maybe it had too much, too much temptation. It occurred to me that I might find him here. The professor Liana found more exciting than me, who fit her academic mind better. Maybe she even loved him more. I pushed the thought away.
I found her old classroom and cracked the door. It was full of kids listening to a lecture. I went in and took a seat at the back.
It took me a few minutes to figure out the subject. Someone’s textbook read Abstract Expressionism. Liana was part of this. Part of the new wave of art. The museums were full of Jackson Pollock and Helen Frankenthaler now. Liana painted and sculpted in experimental ways; the work resembled nothing of the subject. This was the future. I had encouraged her to turn tradition on its head, even if I preferred the old stuff. Giant paintings of battles, dogs with pheasants in their teeth and stags hung for dressing. I didn’t understand the canvases of colorful blotches. It was lost on me. But Liana was passionate about it. The old stuff was overdone, belonged to the past, she’d say. Maybe that’s what I was.
If she hadn’t been killed, would we still be together? Or would she have left me? How long would I have played the sap? Maybe she would have come back to me on her own. Maybe I would never have needed to know about Philippe.
I left the class. Her office was in another building, a half block away. I took the stairs to the fourth floor. They had given me the little name plaque with her things. There had also been a memorial for her at the school’s graduation that year. All the students had stood, there was a chorus who sang La Mer. The professors all shook my hand afterwards. Including, I supposed, Philippe. I didn’t remember. Maybe he’d had the decency not to. I doubted it, the fucking douche.
I knocked on the door. Her office was occupied by “Prof. Alois Courtemanche” now.
An older gentlemen answered in a tweed jacket. How stereotypical.
“I’m sorry to disrupt you.”
“Come in, come in,” he said. “You are Liana’s husband.”
“I remember seeing you now and then. I was so sorry,” he said shaking my hand. “Someone with so much vitality, so much energy. And the way she understood art. What it could do, could mean.”
I just looked down, nodding.
“She is missed here,” he went on. “By everyone. It is an honor to have her office.”
“Thank you. I feel like I didn’t know this part of her very well.”
“Please, sit down.”
I sat and he pulled out a bottle of schnapps from his desk drawer and took down two teacups from the shelf behind him. After pouring in a dash, he handed me one.
“This place, to me, was just where I lost her every day,” I started. “I should have been… I wish I had been a bigger part of her art.”
Alois watched me over his teacup, a strange look on his face. His eyes were blue and a little watery.
“But I think you were. I think you were a big part of her art. The school has a permanent collection you know. Can I show you something? Do you have time?”
“Yes, of course.”
He finished his drink and smacked his lips. I set my cup on the desk and noticed a small bronze sculpture of a man sitting with a book. The sculpture had been there when this was Liana’s desk.
“Done by a professor who died during the war. It kind of lives here. This was also his office.”
“A dark chapter for France. The Gestapo came and took him one day. He was never seen again. I understand you were in the army?”
“The Tenth. The occupying force her father used to say.”
The man chuckled. “Yes, we French are very patriotic. And for some, even when it was Vichy.”
We took the stairs to a courtyard and crossed it to another gray stone building. In the basement he unlocked a room and flipped on the lights. It was a gallery of sorts. Objects under glass or freestanding and an array of paintings. I followed him to the far wall.
“Did Liana ever show this to you?”
“No,” I said, mesmerized.
On a white table stood a glass tree, maybe three or four feet tall, on a wooden base with a drawer. I was sure it was meant to be a Black Walnut. They were Liana’s favorite. Something to do with a place her parents had taken her as a child and the tree had become her solace.
There were two trunks at the base that twisted into one. The branches were hollow, with the tips of each branch open, like the end of a straw. The glass reflected different colors, muted but noticeable, hints of green, rust, light blue and beige. They felt familiar somehow.
Alois pulled out the drawer. Inside was a flat reel-to-reel recorder. He pressed a button and the tapes turned. Liana’s voice came out of the speakers. At first I thought she may have been reading a book. But the sentences didn’t make sense. It was a jumble of words.
“What is she reading?” I asked.
Alois just shook his head slightly.
I recognized the words somehow. The intonation of her voice. She wasn’t reading random words. They came from somewhere else, someplace meaningful to her.
He pushed the drawer in and the words became a hum, echoes, musical almost, escaping through the branches.
Alois said nothing but looked at the piece with me another minute. I was awestruck.
“I wanted you to see it,” he said, opening the drawer and turning off the tape.
I followed him out and he locked the door.
“Thank you,” I said. “I’m really at a loss for words.”
“Come back anytime,” he said, shaking my hand.
I had the feeling he didn’t want to talk anymore. Something had changed and he was uncomfortable now.
At the front steps he gave me another tight-lipped smile and walked away.
What didn’t he want to say? What, I wondered, was he doing during the war? Probably teaching here. Life went on in Paris despite shortages and hardships.
At the corner of the building, I turned and walked deeper into campus. I used to feel out of place here. It was such a different world. Everyone was young and hopelessly pessimistic.
Now I felt like everyone’s father. Not jealous anymore. They didn’t have Liana. None of us did. Instead, I could look at them for what they were. Hadn’t I brought the light back into the world for them? That’s what they told us anyways. Our sacrifice was for their generation. And here they were.
I sat down on a bench and watched the students. I smoked a cigarette and pictured Liana’s glass sculpture and the sound it made. What did it mean? Why had she never shown me?
I finished the cigarette but didn’t get up. To move from this spot was to rejoin the world outside. To get back to the black tunnel leading… where?
About the Author
Michael J. Manz lives in Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley and is a rare bookseller by trade. Except for a few years spent in Chicago, he is a lifelong New Englander. The only place he’d rather be, at least some of the time, is Paris, where he has been known to wander the streets in search of old bookshops, great cafes and forgotten bars.
He is the past organizer of the Protagonists and Procrastinators writers’ group and has from childhood been scratching away at some kind of story or another.
Michael holds a BA in English from Keene State College.
The Glass Tree is his first novel.