Von Rumpel drinks from a bottle of skunked wine he has found in the kitchen. Four days in this house, and how many mistakes he has made! The Sea of Flames could have been in the Paris Museum all along—that simpering mineralogist and the assistant director laughing as he slunk away, duped, fooled, inveigled. Or the perfumer could have betrayed him, taking the diamond from the girl after marching her away. Or Levitte might have walked her right out of the city while she carried it in her ratty knapsack; or the old man could have jammed it up his rectum and is just now shitting it out, twenty million francs in a pile of feces.
Or maybe the stone was never real at all. Maybe it was all hoax, all story.
He had been so certain. Certain he had found the hiding spot, solved the puzzle. Certain the stone would save him. The girl didn’t know, the old man was out of the picture—everything was set up perfectly. What is certain now? Only the murderous bloom inside his body, only the corruption it brings to every cell. In his ears comes the voice of his father: You are only being tested.
Someone calls to him in German. “Ist da wer? ” Father?
“You in there!”
Von Rumpel listens. Sounds drawing nearer through the smoke. He crawls to the window. Sets his helmet on his head. Thrusts his head over the shattered sill.
A German infantry corporal squints up from the street. “Sir? I didn’t expect . . . Is the house clear, sir?”
“Empty, yes. Where are you headed, Corporal?”
“The fortress at La Cité, sir. We are evacuating. Leaving everything. We still hold the château and the Bastion de la Hollande. All other personnel are to fall back.”
Von Rumpel braces his chin on the sill, feeling as if his head might separate from his neck and go tumbling down to explode on the street.
“The entire town will be inside the bomb line,” the corporal says.
“There will be a cease-fire tomorrow. Noon, they say. To get civilians out. Then they resume the assault.”
Von Rumpel says, “We’re giving up the city?”
A shell detonates not far away, and the echoes of the blast shunt down between the wrecked houses, and the soldier in the street claps a hand over his helmet. Bits of stone skitter across the cobbles.
He calls, “You are with which unit, Sergeant Major?” “Continue with your work, Corporal. I’m nearly done here.”