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by Cliff Simon with Loren Stephens
“Cast dismissed,” said Monsieur Thierry. Those were the words that all of us in the Moulin Rouge company looked forward to hearing after a grueling evening—two shows in July: one at 9:30 pm and one at 11:30. We wouldn’t go back to one show a night until the middle of November when the tourist season in Paris was officially on hiatus, and the busloads of Asian tourists had dwindled down to a trickle instead of a tsunami.
I took a quick shower to wash off the sweat and residual makeup, threw on a pair of jeans, T-shirt, tied a bandana around my head (it was the 1980s) and headed across the Place Blanche to Café Le Palmier for a beer and a croque madame with some of the other expat cast members. I needed a chance to get rid of the adrenalin pumping through my body after five hours on stage. My legs were still shaking from the nonstop kicks, splits, turns, and jumps. Even for a twenty-six-year-old in tiptop shape, the routines were punishing.
The Palmier was as good a place as any in Pigalle to unwind, trade a few jokes, and watch the late-night scene across from the Moulin Rouge, before heading back to my flat on Rue de la Victoire.
I scanned the crowd and immediately noticed a stranger sitting at an inside table at the café with a group of the Moulin Rouge dancers. Dressed in an elegant business suit, he was engaged in friendly banter, intermittently smoothing back his black hair like a character straight out of The Godfather, except that he was French, not Italian. I could tell that he was as tall as I was with broad shoulders and a trim physique. I walked over to his table and one of the English showgirls introduced us.
“Monsieur Jean Paul, this is Cliff Simon from Johannesburg, South Africa. He’s a principal at the Moulin. He’s only been here since April, but the choreographers pulled him out of the chorus in no time at all.”
“You’ve got the kind of looks Jacki likes.” He was referring to the club’s owner, Monsieur Clerico. I had never met him, but I heard that he sometimes stood at the back of the audience to watch the show. It struck me as odd that Jean Paul spoke about Monsieur Clerico with such familiarity. I wondered if they were in business together.
After our introduction, Jean Paul latched on to me like chewing gum on the bottom of my shoe. (He never told me his last name. I think it might have been Caboche.) I remember thinking. Why is he getting so friendly with me? What does he want? He also took a passing interest in a fellow South African and Moulin principal, Gavin Mills, but not in the way he zeroed in on me.
Jean Paul used to show up at Le Palmier every few days. One evening I was sitting next to him. He had his back to the wall and kept glancing out the front window. He didn’t like sitting at one of the outside tables on the Place Blanche. Looking back on it, I think it might have made him feel too exposed. We had a good view of the cars parked across from the café. I saw a guy checking out a car, and one of the girls from the Moulin was leaning over the car. It looked a bit odd.
I said, “What’s going on out there?”
“I just gave the girl the keys to my Porsche to get something out of the trunk.”
Then someone else started fiddling with the door handle of his Porsche. Jean Paul bolted out of his chair, ran across the street and grabbed him. He started shouting, hitting the guy, and in less than a minute, the guy ran off. I saw Jean Paul open the trunk of his car; he took something out and then walked back to Le Palmier. Sitting back down, he was hardly out of breath. I waited a few minutes, not saying anything. He was acting nuts, fidgeting with his car keys, his eyes darting around the café. He gulped down the glass of wine he had left on the table. Then he muttered, “Nobody can touch my fuckin’ car.” I had never heard him swear like that. Was this the real Jean Paul? He had always presented himself as a real gentleman—calm, cool and collected.
A week later, Jean Paul signaled me over to his table at Le Palmier. It was about two o’clock in the morning; the ashtray in front of him was full of cigarette butts and he had already had a couple of drinks. He said, “Do you want to come out with me, Cleef? I want to take you somewhere special.”
I sat in the passenger seat of his metallic brown Porsche 930 Turbo. The interior was beautiful cream-colored leather, all hand-stitched. We drove into a neighborhood near the Arc de Triomphe. Parking in front of a club, there were a couple of older men standing outside. Jean Paul led me to the front door. There was a red rope in front of the door, which was locked, but there was a glass portal so that someone on the other side could see who wanted to enter. The door opened. A man in a tuxedo exclaimed, “Ah, Monsieur Caboche. Bon soir.”
Gray-haired men were sitting on banquettes, drinking and smoking, and there were gorgeous young girls dancing with one another to show off their bodies. The waiter ushered us to a banquette, and within seconds, and without a word from Jean Paul, whiskey bottles were brought to the table. The waiter knew exactly what Jean Paul wanted. It was obvious that he was a regular at the club. Over loud music, he pointed to the dance floor. “Nice girls. Which one do you want?”
I surveyed the dance floor. “Those two look pretty cool.”
Jean Paul tapped someone on the shoulder and instructed him to invite the girls over to our table. They didn’t hesitate. We poured drinks all around and finished off three bottles of whiskey in less than two hours. By this time, I was feeling light-headed.
Jean Paul announced in English, “Come on. Let’s take these girls home with us.”
I said, “I’m in, but where do you want to go?”
“To your apartment.” I thought that was strange. I wondered, Why don’t we go to your place? but I didn’t say anything. I suspected that he must have had his reasons, and I knew that he wasn’t about to explain himself. Not then, anyway.
He squashed the girls into the pony seat in the back of the Porsche. The girls were laughing and carrying on. To them this was all a big adventure and they were at the club to pick up rich guys. They probably thought they had made a big score. Both girls were in their early twenties, dressed in revealing outfits.
I cranked the window open; the early morning summertime air felt refreshing and cleared my head. Jean Paul drove fast. We arrived at Rue de la Victoire. I opened the heavy wooden doors into the courtyard, and we climbed two flights of stairs to my apartment. With each step I asked myself, Why does Jean Paul want to come to my place? Does he want to know where I live? Does he want to see how I live? And if so, why? I was beginning to feel paranoid, but I had enough confidence in myself to figure a way out if I fell into a trap. Two years in the South African military taught me how to take care of myself.
My studio apartment had a bed and a huge sofa which pulled out into a second bed. I fell into my bed with one girl, and Jean Paul went at it with the other girl on the sofa. We were all laughing and checking one another out. None of us got any sleep. At about five o’clock in the morning, Jean Paul announced, “Okay girls, why don’t you just fuck off?”
I was shocked at the way he was speaking to them. I said, “Jean Paul, I’m a gentleman. We should at least take them home.”
“No. I just want them to fuck off.”
The girls asked us to call them a taxi. He repeated himself. “No just fuck off. Get home on your own.” They got dressed and left the apartment. I was cringing, and feeling very sorry for them. Jean Paul was acting like a pig, but I was curious to see what he would do next. I have to admit that I was both attracted and repelled by his crass behavior.
“Cleef, let’s go downstairs and get some steaks.” There was a butcher shop next door, which was already open for business. The butcher knew me so he picked out two beautiful filets mignon. Jean Paul prepared them for us on my two-burner stovetop; we ate, and then he left. I sat looking out my window at the pink, morning sky thinking that this had been a very surreal night. I had an inkling that stranger things were about to happen between Jean Paul and me.
“Cleef, I want to take you somewhere tonight.” I thought, Jesus Christ, here we go again, but I was up for another escapade despite having just done two shows at the Moulin Rouge. We drove to the Rue de Rivoli near the Place de la Concorde. Jean Paul parked next to the colonnade. We downed a few tequilas quickly at a crowded bistro. I was feeling drunk from the booze and a bit fatigued. During the first show, one of the inexperienced chorus boys had gotten in my way, and I had fallen off the stage—the second time this had happened—and my arms and legs were pretty badly bruised up.
We got back into the Porsche. Jean Paul gunned the engine and the Turbo hissed as it picked up speed. The street lights looked like streaks of tensile wires. The tires made a thumping sound as they hit the cobblestones. I caught a glimpse of the gilded statue of Joan of Arc astride her prancing horse, carrying a waving flag as if to urge us on to some unknown destination or into battle.
We should have been arrested but there were no police cars around at that hour. We hit the open road at about 240 kilometers an hour. The tall trees created a natural arch over the road, and it was pitch black, the lights of Paris fading behind us. I had no idea where we were going. We were traveling too fast for me to read the blue and white road signs. Jean Paul kept his attention on the road. He couldn’t break his concentration by talking to me. Or he didn’t want to. We drove in silence for forty-five minutes. I calculated that we were about one hundred kilometers outside Paris by this time. And I had no way of getting back to the city if things got dicey.
I could only see as far as the headlight beams. We seemed to be in the middle of the French countryside. Jean Paul swerved off the road and drove down a gravel driveway. In front of us was a huge stone wall with a wooden gate. He honked his horn a couple of times; a slot in the wooden gate slid open and a guard peered out at us. Then the gates swung open revealing a magnificent chateau with a parapet and manicured lawn. In the center was a marble fountain with a wood nymph holding an urn. Citroens, Mercedes, and Rolls Royces were parked in the driveway. Most of the license plates ended in 75, indicating the owners were from central Paris. My car, a second-hand Fiat Ritmo, would have looked very out of place here. But Jean Paul’s Porsche fit right in.
I followed Jean Paul into the chateau. There was music playing, a dance floor, and waiters passing food among the well-dressed guests. It looked like a very exclusive, private club. Jean Paul snapped his fingers and a waiter ran over to him.
He turned to me. “Cleef, what do you want to eat?”
“A hamburger.” He gave the waiter my order, and told me to wait for him. Then he disappeared upstairs. I had a drink. No one approached me, and since I hardly spoke any French and had no idea who anyone was, I just looked around wondering what would happen next, and was I going to have to bolt into the darkness.
This was the second time Jean Paul had taken me to a members-only club. I couldn’t figure out what message he was trying to send me, or what he wanted from me, but I was intrigued.
After an hour, Jean Paul came downstairs carrying a briefcase. “Let’s go.”
“But I haven’t finished my drink.”
He jerked the drink out of my hand, and downed what remained in the glass. “Let’s go.” I knew not to ask him what was in the briefcase, or what had gone on upstairs.
We drove back to Paris—again there was no conversation between us. He dropped me off at Rue de la Victoire and disappeared.
The next evening at dusk, the time of day when the French say the light is such that you cannot tell if the beast in front of you is a dog or a wolf (entre le chien ou le loup), I told my buddy Gavin about this episode. He looked worried, which is unlike Gavin because he is usually pretty crazy and up for almost anything. “Listen, Cliff. This guy could be in the Mob. I’ve heard he’s an arm breaker and a bag man. He’s probably setting you up to work for him. Watch out. He’s got a bad reputation on the street. And before you know it, they’ll be asking you to carry drugs in and out of the country. You know what the French say, ‘Lie down with dogs, and you’re going to get fleas.’ Man, I’d stay out of this if I were you.”
Gavin was acting like my big brother. And then just for effect he said, “You want to see your twenty-eighth birthday, don’t you?”
“Yeah, but I also wouldn’t mind making some money on the side. I’m not going to get rich dancing at the Moulin.”
A few weeks later, I came into Le Palmier after a show. It was August. Jean Paul was sitting alone. He ushered me to sit with him. When a few other dancers approached our table he told them not to sit with us. It was obvious he wanted to speak with me privately.
He twirled the half-filled red, white and blue ash tray in front of him, and drained his wine glass. Then he popped the question and everything between us up to this point fell into place. I realized that he had been testing me—taking me to private clubs to gauge my temperament and personality. Whether I could keep quiet, and not ask any questions.
“Cleef, can you get diamonds from South Africa?”
He put his hands in his jacket pocket, and as was his habit, fiddled with a set of keys. The expression on his face didn’t change, nor did the tone of his voice. He could have been asking me if I thought it was going to rain tomorrow.
I asked, “I presume you want diamonds smuggled out of South Africa?”
He nodded. “I have people in Paris who will give you two to three million francs. Then you’ll go to South Africa with the money and bring the diamonds back—uncut, of course. Can you do this, Cleef?”
I was way in over my head, but I was willing to play along to see where things might lead. “Well, I know of people who have gotten diamonds out. I’ve never done it, of course. I suppose you’d fly charter from Johannesburg to a small airport in Angola or Nigeria where the security is lax. And from there, you’d work your way north, and eventually catch an international flight back to Europe—Paris or London, maybe.”
“And how large a haul would three million francs buy in uncut diamonds?”
“About a tin cup full. You’d put them in a briefcase and carry them with you at all times. Better than putting them in your luggage, which could be inspected by customs at Heathrow or Charles de Gaulle.”
“And what would I get paid if I agreed?”
“Ten percent. You’d make somewhere between three hundred thousand and four hundred thousand francs, depending upon the negotiated price beforehand.”
(In dollars that would have been about $80,000 at the time, which was 800,000 rand, enough to buy a palace in Johannesburg or a mansion on the beach in Capetown.) It sounded tempting, and I wasn’t morally averse to smuggling diamonds. I would never have agreed to ferrying drugs out of South Africa, but who was I hurting by bringing in diamonds or any other gemstones or precious metals? The term “blood diamonds,” had not even been coined at that time, and I was ignorant about the treatment of blacks in the mines or how terrible the conditions were.
Jean Paul hardly blinked when he said, “You won’t know where the money comes from. All this is handled anonymously to protect the ‘bank.’ And my people are interested in only one thing—cash for diamonds. If you get caught, you are on your own, and they’ll want their money back, and they will stop at nothing to get it. Don’t even think about running off with the money. That’s not going to happen. They’d kill you first. Do you understand me?”
“What happens if I get stopped at an airport and the customs officials confiscate the diamonds and put me in jail?”
“They want the diamonds or the money. If they don’t get one or the other, you are responsible. Do you understand me?”
“I’m on my own.”
“Exactement.” He slid his hand down his silk tie and everything went back to normal as if none of this conversation had taken place. He touched me on the shoulder. “Do you want a whiskey?”
My head was spinning. I thought about all the money I could make. Before we parted, Jean Paul said, “Think about it. You’ve got to let me know soon.”
It was early September. I had known Jean Paul for two months, and was now a principal at the Moulin Rouge. I had plenty of money in my pocket, a beautiful apartment, and lots of girls, both at the Moulin, and elsewhere. I had no earthly reason to accept Jean Paul’s offer except that it was dangerous, and I still had not had my fill of living on the edge. But I saw no point in sticking my head in the alligator’s mouth, as it were. I had a lot of living to do, and I didn’t want to end up floating in the Seine River.
I didn’t know how Jean Paul would react, but I told him I couldn’t accept his proposal. I said, “It’s way too risky. I don’t want to dive from a cliff without a safety net if something goes wrong. And eventually something will go wrong.” I waited for his reaction. He just shrugged his shoulders.
“You sure? I can have the money in your hands in twenty-four hours.”
“I’m sure.” And then I smiled. “I’d like to make it to twenty-eight. My birthday is tomorrow.”
“Eh bien. So be it, Cleef. We could have worked well together. But there is always someone else out there. By the way, Happy Birthday.”
I never saw Caboche again. I returned to South Africa and ended up getting the lead in a daytime soap opera, “Egoli: Place of Gold,” as the suave entrepreneur, Mitch Mitchell. Years later, Gavin told me that the police and the FBI were monitoring Caboche’s activities, and he ended up serving an eight-year jail sentence. And who knows? They might have been watching me, too. I’ll never know. What I do know is that I have “dined” on this story many times.