N’existe Pas

For many years Bruce Sterling has been writing about the battle for freedom on the internet, a subject he first wrote about in the highly acclaimed book The Hacker Crackdown in 1992. In this book, Sterling predicts that the term “privacy” may already be obsolete, along with those who once thrived on violating the integrity of others. Like spies, the paparazzi, rumour mongers—who actually has the most to lose in this transparent world?

May 6 2014 Text: Bruce Sterling

“Surveillance is always a philosophical matter,” said the paparazzo to the spy.

The spy silently lifted one gloved hand, and beckoned at the waiter. The waiter pretended not to see him.

“So, what did you think, reading Baudrillard?” said the paparazzo.

“I liked his ‘Cool Memories’ well enough,” the spy allowed. “But how could he claim that ‘the Gulf War does not exist?’ Of course the Gulf War existed! Why else is Paris full of Arab refugees? The Gulf War has never ended for a single day.”

The paparazzo smoothed the short-cropped sides of his head, with both his elegant hands. Through the sheer force of peer-pressure, the paparazzo had taken on many of the attributes of his favorite prey: movie stars. He much resembled a young Jean-Paul Belmondo in some 1960’s gangster role, although his ceramic-capped teeth were entirely modern and shiny.

The paparazzo craned his long neck around the red leather back of his café bench. The waiter immediately oozed forward, a spotless white linen swaying on his forearm.

“Any action outside yet?” said the paparazzo to the waiter.

“Not yet,” said the waiter. “But they’re always here on Tuesdays—whenever they’re in Paris. Almost always, anyway. Like I said.”

“Then we’re waiting. Bring us two more,” said the paparazzo, with a resigned shrug.

The spy was a Franco-Russian double agent. Being a career spy, he normally dressed as a “gray man.” In spy tradecraft, a “gray man” was the statistical norm for any given place. A gray man was so visually common that he would pass beneath public notice.

Given the circumstances for Paris in the spring of 2014, however, the spy had rather lost his grip on the nature of local normality. In previous seasons, the spy had generally dressed and behaved like a Parisian bookstore clerk.

However, with French bookstores so visibly imperiled by radical changes in media, the spy had come to look much like some precarious, semi-employed website designer. So the spy had four days growth of beard, mismatched socks, and a wrinkled shirt of a color not found in nature. He also wore gloves for the sake of the fingerprints, but they were common, bicycling gloves.

“Life was much easier,” the spy confessed, “when the public know nothing about the Movie Star and the Pudding.”

“When nobody knew about them but you, and me, and Vladimir Putin, you mean.”

“Well, Putin and his Kremlin power clique are a kind of public, really. But the FSB paid like clockwork. That felt like a regular salary, almost! A real job!”

“I warned you not to buy a flat,” said the paparazzo. “We have enough money problems with dad’s elder-care facility. Every day the nurses there find some new way to screw us.”

“I don’t want to put our dad’s future at risk, but my flat was an investment,” said the spy humbly. “Am I never to have any home of my own, merely because I work in espionage? I discovered that apartment through my best political back-channels. The place was a steal.”

“Do you believe everything that NKM leaks through social media?” scoffed the paparazzo. “Nathalie is a high-tech investor! She doesn’t know one thing about Paris real-estate.”

NKM will be our next Mayor, though.”

“No she won’t! Anne Hidalgo will beat Nathalie up and down the streets of Paris like a stray dog.”

The waiter set down two fresh coffees, and deftly removed the cafe’s dog-eared copy of CLOSER magazine.

“I have never trusted Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, not for one single day,” said the paparazzo. “It’s because she’s onto us, that’s why. Do you see how she saturates Instagram with candid pictures of herself? Nathalie’s using selfies to put the likes of us out of business! How can you embarrass a political figure in French-language media, when she’s constantly exposing herself in global social media?”

“Nathalie looks pretty good on camera,” offered the spy. “Never as pretty as the Movie Star, but she’s all right. Maybe Nathalie is having a secret affair with somebody. Maybe we could expose that, and pick up some rent money.”

“Of course Nathalie is having an affair! She was a major power-broker in the court of Nicolas Sarkozy, where even the Justice Minister was pregnant! But who cares if NKM has some affair? Nobody cares! It doesn’t matter if you have a love affair, unless you’re stupidly pretending to be ‘normal,’ like the Pudding does.”

“Nobody’s ‘normal,’” mourned the spy, rubbing his unshaven cheeks with his gloved fingertips. “I look very ‘normal’ for a guy my age in Paris now, and just look at the state I’m in.”

“You have hit on a profound truth there,” said the paparazzo. “Once you start surveilling everybody in a population, it’s obvious that normality is a myth.” The paparazzo sipped dense black caffeinated poison from his demitasse. “How do we know that anyone has ever been ‘normal’? Forget Facebook, and Google, and their heaps of so-called ‘big data.’ This is a basic issue of ontology. We have no formal proof that ‘normality’ exists. Outside of mere user statistics, of course.”

An American tourist entered the café, with his laden backpack slung from one burly shoulder. He was gripping the hand of a shy Parisian Arab girl, who trailed along behind him, in a pleated skirt and ballet shoes. The two lovers bustled into the bentwood chairs of a cafe table nearby. They began an intense flirtation in English.

Wisely noting that the lovers were entirely rapt, the spy recommenced the discussion. “I believe that I have you there,” he said. “Spies and paparazzi are never paid to reveal ‘normal’ things. All issues of bourgeois morality aside, it can’t possibly be ‘normal’ for the Pudding to have an affair with the Movie Star. After all, the Pudding was supposed to be having an affair with the TV Presenter. She was his official girlfriend all along—and she’s an investigative journalist! If that situation was ‘normal,’ then why would Putin be paying us to tell him about it?”

“It’s because Putin himself is abnormal,” said the paparazzo triumphantly. “You see, once, Putin was just a normal, everyday Russian spy—like yourself, basically. But then Putin became a Head of State. Putin became an intimate friend with Qaddafi and Berlusconi, the craziest skirt-chasers in all modern politics. That’s why Putin dumped his drab and faithful wife of thirty years, and took up with that Central Asian Acrobat.”

“The Central Asian Acrobat ought to be a much bigger deal in the press than the Movie Star is,” said the spy thoughtfully. “I can’t understand why her sex appeal is so under-played. Did you see how fantastically limber the Acrobat is? She wins Olympic medals, for heaven’s sake. She’s a creature of utter fantasy.”

“The problem is no one can spell her name,” said the paparazzo. “Search engines don’t like Cyrillic lettering.”

“The Central Asian Acrobat may simply be out of our reach,” the spy agreed.

The waiter arrived. The American backpacker and his Arab girlfriend ordered two hamburgers and a banana split.

“The NSA has tremendous reach, though,” said the spy. “The NSA must have obtained a million candid pics of the Central Asian Acrobat. Why don’t they ever leak those pictures, and embarrass Putin? I don’t understand how those NSA people think.

“The NSA just doesn’t need the cash like we do,” said the paparazzo. “The NSA has a brand-new Puzzle Palace in Utah that’s ten kilometers across. Anyway, Snowden has just outed the NSA. Now that their own dirty underwear is all over the Brazilian press, it’s obvious that the NSA are just a bunch of nerds and geeks. They have no street smarts in the NSA, not like you and me, here in Paris. They’re all mathematicians.”

“Speaking hypothetically,” said the spy, “suppose I could exploit my Russian contacts, and pass you some really hot pics of the Central Asian Acrobat. How much could we make off that coup?”

“With Putin right in the frame of the shot?” The paparazzo plucked at his cuffs of his neatly ironed denim shirt. “Not as much as you think. The Central Asian Acrobat is a member of the Russian Parliament. She and Putin have all kinds of excuses to be seen together.”

“Give me a rough financial figure, just to work with on the ground,” the spy begged. “Suppose that’s the best paparazzi pic possible. It’s Putin half-naked on a rampaging stallion, with the Acrobat right behind him, in her spangled trapeze costume.”

“Half a million euros, world rights and residuals,” said the paparazzo promptly. “But don’t ask me to front that scheme for you. I don’t want to spend the rest of my brief life checking my teacups for polonium poison.”

The spy shrugged and made a disappointed moue.

As their silence stretched within the café chatter, the French spy fell into a deep, brown study. As a veteran double agent in the European espionage world, he’d long since given up the dismal task of calculating risk. Any working spy got used to some modicum of everyday discretion. Spy work was very much like the normal double life of a closeted gay.

Otherwise, the spy knew well that most any dreadful thing could happen to him, at any time. It was like a random shell landing on a poilu at the Siege of Verdun. One shell might well have your own name written on it, but you had to get on with the general battle.

The espionage world had one central motto: They Shall Not Know. The everyday citizens of any state should never participate within the covert process.

But, sadly, even that ancient, velvet curtain was badly moth-eaten in 2014.

It was entirely obvious that Assange, and Snowden, and Greenwald, and Poitras knew more about world espionage than anybody else ever had. Yet they were not spies at all. They were all otherworldly, keyboard-tapping computer geeks, down to the last man and woman. Especially Assange.

The spy happened to share a birthday with Julian Assange. Like any obsessive celebrity fan, he was seriously bothered by the Australian’s very existence. Assange was vividly eccentric encryption maniac who was lurking in a minor Third World embassy like a potted plant.

The spy didn’t much mind being arrested, poisoned or shot, but he was beset with clotted nightmares of ending up closeted in his overpriced Paris apartment, just like Julian Assange. With streaming media, jpegs in plenty, a Tor dark-market, a Bitcoin hoard and maybe a Tumblr accountbut with no physical way out the doors or even the windows.

What a hellish, Sartrean vision! It was as if the fierce gravitational power of digital espionage had turned the universe inside out, and shrunk it to the size of an Internet-wired walnut.

The paparazzo gave the spy an alerting kick under the table. “Their bodyguard just arrived,” he said.

The bodyguard was a Corsican, wearing a striped shirt, cargo pants and a loose linen jacket. The bodyguard had aviator shades and a Bluetooth earpiece. He was so over-built from martial-arts gym-work that his arms hung from his rock-solid frame like the dangling limbs of a gorilla.

The Corsican bodyguard nodded knowingly at the waiter. Then he staked out a red booth, half-obscured by the cafe’s many white-painted iron pillars.

The bodyguard sat within the booth are reached somberly into the pocket of his linen jacket. He drew out a paperback copy of Michel Houllebecq’s poetry book, “Le sense du combat.”

“Are you sure that guy is really their bodyguard?” said the spy to the paparazzo. “Wherever did they hire him?”

“They’re not French, you know,” the paparazzo said. “They probably found him on the Internet.”

“Well, no wonder we couldn’t find their hotel room, then. They must have shacked up together in some AirBnB.”

“At least we have a clear sign that they’re coming here,” said the paparazzo, lifting his shoulder-bag. “It’s a Tuesday, and that’s just a thin poetry collection he’s reading. So I bet the two of them will be here any minute. I’ll nail them outside on the pavement when they leave the taxi. Then you snap them inside here for the intelligence services.”

The spy nodded, and polished the tiny lens of his aging Nokia with a paper café napkin. “Some concepts of purity and order are still at work in our society, despite what Houllebecq says.”

The spy rose to leave, then sat again in dismay as the glassy café door opened. “Oh no.”

A tall Parisienne sidled into the place, alone. She wore a suede Versace dress studded with brass, and her long mane of dyed red hair was cinched with a gold Hermes scarf. She strode through the clustered tables, chattering into her new-model Samsung Android.

“Hello boys,” she said, seating herself with the spy and the paparazzo. She propped her phone into an empty glass ashtray.

“Hello there, Johanna,” said the paparazzo, putting his best face on it. “How did you know we were in here?”

“Foursquare,” said Johanna. “How have you two boys been? You never answer my emails.”

“I completely left the web after the Snowden revelations,” said the spy. “I only use encrypted ICQ messages now.”

“As for me, I moved strictly to Facebook messaging,” said the paparazzo. “Because it’s all about faces with me.”

“Then it’s good that we’re all here face to face,” said Johanna briskly. Her French had a pronounced Swedish accent, while the roots of her dyed red hair were blonde. “So, did you hear the latest about the Pudding and the Movie Star?”

“That’s been splashed all over the tabloids now, Johanna,” said the paparazzo patiently. “It’s not just the three of us and Vladimir Putin any more. Every housemaid and soap-opera fan knows.”

“Well, I have fresh news you haven’t yet heard.”

The spy and the paparazzo exchanged glances, interested despite themselves. “What is it?”

“He dumped her.”

“Johanna,” said the spy gently, “everybody knows that the Pudding dumped the TV Presenter. That news ran on her own TV channel.”

“The Pudding has dumped the Movie Star, too,” said Johanna triumphantly. “The Movie Star is devastated. She’s telling all of her friends.”

“Can that be true?” said the spy.

Arching her swanlike brows, Johanna showed the spy and the paparazzo the SMS message, on the broad, finger-smudged screen of her Samsung Galaxy.

“So, you’re still her friend now?” said the paparazzo. “After all this?”

“Of course I’m her friend!” said Johanna, offended. “You think the Movie Star turns up her nose at me, just because I was a Folies Bergère dancer? The Actress is a committed Socialist! She has solidarity with all us working women in French entertainment.”

“Does that include Carla Bruni-Sarkozy?” said the spy doubtfully.

“You boys may not know this,” said Johanna forthrightly, “but everybody who knows Carla, loves her. She’s the best of the lot of us!”

“That’s because Carla’s already been seen naked in every glossy magazine on the Continent,” the paparazzo groaned. “Carla blew out the fuse for political sex scandals. My business has never been the same since Carla arrived on page one.”

“Carla Bruni was a wonderful First Lady of France,” Johanna insisted, scowling. “I’ve been on her yacht. She made me a pina colada with her own two hands.”

The paparazzo gestured at the waiter, who arrived as if on wheels. “Bring our lady friend here a pina colada.”

The waiter leaned down confidentially. “The two of them are about to arrive. It’s all happening just like I told you.”

“I know that! Bring the Swedish dancer her coconut drink.”

The waiter left.

“I don’t know how you French people can be so polite, and also so rude to each other,” said Johanna. “Imagine the nerve of the Pudding, dumping the Movie Star with an SMS! He even told her to give her secured Blackberry back to the Surete. Karl Lagerfeld knows the whole story. Karl’s furious about it.”

“The Movie Star must have bragged about sleeping with the French head of state,” said the spy. “I mean, somebody leaked the affair, and it sure wasn’t us. As long as it was just the three of us, telling the Russians, everybody was happy.”

“That’s what happened with Monica Lewinsky,” the paparazzo nodded. “The girls always run their mouths behind the scene, and then they blame men in the media for making it obvious.”

The waiter sidled by, bearing fragrant hamburgers for the American backpacker and his Arab girlfriend.

The paparazzo placed his denim elbows squarely on the café table’s darkly polished depths. “The truth is, there is no further distinction to be made between ‘surveillance’ and ‘media’. ‘Media’ is merely the democratized form, whereas ‘surveillance’ is the more politically structured form.”

“I think you have that backwards,” said the spy, responding thoughtfully. “It’s actually ‘mass media’ that is politically structured these days, while ‘surveillance’ has become our looser, more tribal, more truly humane form of expression. Because the discourse of covert surveillance spreads laterally. It’s like the networked discourse of a literary movement.”

“But literary movements are the very opposite of any democratic discourse,” the paparazzo objected. “Literary movements are an elite form of discussion which is closed to the mass readership.”

“‘Closed’? Not one bit of it!” the spy declared. “Believe me, as a Russian agent, I can promise you: anyone who surveils a literary movement knows that they never shut up! Dissident intellectuals are endlessly wailing, and complaining over trivia, and tearing their hair over their petty, personal jealousies … Oh, what’s the matter, Johanna?”

“It’s all just so sad,” said Johanna, wiping carefully at her dampened eye makeup. “Until I met the Pudding, I never wanted to be involved with any secret Russian spies.”

“Oh come now, I’m no more Russian than he is,” the spy objected, pointing at the paparazzo. “Anyway, Sweden has spies, too.”

“Do they pay anything?” said Johanna. “I mean, the Swedish spies?”

“Well, no,” the spy admitted. “Compared to the Russians? Not even a can of herring.”

“That’s such a shame,” said Johanna. “I’m really broke. Paris is so expensive these days! Finding an apartment is terrible.”

“That’s for sure, sister,” confirmed the spy. “Even the Movie Star and the Pudding had to borrow her best friend’s apartment. They had no other place to find a quiet spot to share the sheets.”

The waiter arrived with Johanna’s pina colada. She tilted her long throat back and savored a hefty gulp.

“I wish I’d known you boys back when the Pudding and I were a hot item,” said Johanna, tossing aside her pink straw and thumping her tall glass to the tabletop. “It all would have been so easy to arrange.”

“Google wasn’t inside the smartphones back then,” shrugged the spy.

“Well, I have a Google smartphone now. So if the Pudding was in bed with me again, I could take all my own selfies. All you two boys would have to do is act as my publicity agents.”

“What’s in that for me?” the paparazzo objected. “I’m being de-skilled, dis-intermediated and rendered precarious! Do you think us photographers want to be more like musicians? Forget that.”

Johanna fell silent, sulking.

“Wait a moment,”said the spy. “Now that you mention it, Carla Bruni is a musician. The reason Carla met Sarkozy in the first place, was because they were discussing musical property rights on the Internet.”

“I never knew that,” Johanna marveled. “Carla Bruni always finds a silver lining in everything. She’s so good-hearted!”

“A new idea is coming to me,” said the spy. “My idea is something like movie piracy, but … Suppose that Johanna takes up with the Pudding again? Not a real Pudding, but an identical replica. A copy, an impostor.”

“You mean, we find an actor to play the Pudding?”

“Exactly. An impostor, as a digital media duplicate of the Pudding. Then we supply everything the Russians want to see. Candid snapshots, intercepted love messages. Half-nude pics by the swimming pool. Tender partings at the train station …”

The paparazzo thought it over. “You’re proposing that we just invent an international sex scandal.”

“No, no! The idea is that it might well be a scandal, but it never really is a scandal. Because it’s secret! We keep our fake story completely quiet, except for the Russians. Then the Russians pay us. Nobody knows a thing, and we just keep the money.”

“What’s my percentage?” Johanna demanded.

The paparazzo rubbed his chin. “Well, Johanna, you’re not risking much here. You were the Pudding’s mistress for three years, and nobody ever knew that.”

“That’s not true! Suppose your fake news leaks out? Then I’d be in all kinds of trouble for being the Pudding’s mistress. Worse yet, I wouldn’t even be his real mistress.”

“She’s right, my concept is too far-fetched,” said the spy. “It would probably be much easier for us to discover the Pudding’s new, actual mistress. After all, if the Pudding has dumped both the Movie Star and the TV Presenter, then he’s bound to have some new girlfriend, somewhere here in Paris. After all, the Pudding is the Pudding.”

“I hope that it’s not Carla Bruni,” said the paparazzo.

Johanna stiffened. “That’s not possible! The vows of marriage are sacred to Carla!”

“I was kidding, Johanna, relax.” The paparazzo rolled his eyes, then drummed the tabletop with his fingers. “I like the concept quite a lot—philosophically speaking. All we would really need is some credulous Russians with a bankroll. Your scheme would be like a little theater production.”

“I’m not sure we have the talent to pull that off,” said the spy, glancing at Johanna as she emptied the dregs from her glass. “I wouldn’t want our effort to have the cheap look-and-feel of one of those crazy political paranoia websites.”

“Nobody believed the real story about the Pudding and the Movie Star, either,” the paparazzo pointed out. “The real is always more fantastic than a fake, because a fake requires some plausibility. Who would ever believe that the President of France would hide his face inside a bike helmet, and then motor-scooter over to sleep with an actress? Then he sent out his state body-guard to buy them croissants, every morning! It’s those little details in the narrative that kill me.”

“I could do all that,” said Johanna. “I’m a good actress. I never got my chance to prove it, but I could have been Garbo, or Bergman, or at least Anita Ekberg. The Pudding told me so himself.”

The paparazzo glanced knowingly at the spy. “A real charmer, the Pudding.”

“I could easily find myself a new lover who looks just like the Pudding,” Johanna announced. “All middle-aged left-wing French ex-hippies look like the Pudding. I wouldn’t even have to tell my lover that he was a stand-in for the Pudding. I could just have a real-life extra-marital affair with him. So he would look and act totally convincing.”

The paparazzo blinked in astonishment. “You really do have a cinematic talent, Johanna. Of course, that’s a spectacular Situationist simulacrum of an affair, instead of a real love affair, but who cares? Nineteen sixty-eight was ages ago.”

Johanna preened. “So, what cut do I get?”

“Why don’t you go find your substitute Pudding in a can, and loop him in first? Then we’ll talk some business.”

Johanna sniffed. “Ha! It would be easier for me to go find myself a couple of decent spies. Suppose I find myself some American spies, instead of you two amateurs? Americans have got plenty of dollars to offer a girl like me.”

“The Americans don’t spend their dollars to spy on their own NATO allies.”

“Tell it to Angela Merkel.”

The backpacking American tourist rose from his round table, abandoning his companion. He loomed before the spy and the paparazzo, with his fists on his hips.

“I couldn’t help overhearing that,” he said, in bad French.

The paparazzo looked the American up and down. “So, what business is it of yours?”

“It’s libel, that’s what! Your cheap café anti-Americanism is completely unjust and unfair! If the NSA happens to be ‘tasking’ Angela Merkel’s Internet Service Provider, that’s by no means the same as them ‘spying on Angela Merkel.’

“So what’s the big difference?” said the paparazzo.

“Well, if you’re Russian friend here would move over, I’d be happy to sit and explain that! It’s technically complicated, but these are very important legal distinctions in international statecraft.”

“I’m not Russian,” the spy protested.

The American sat at the table’s red leather bench. “Well, you may be of French nationality, but you’re still a Russian asset. So you’re FSB in my book, you Marxist clown.”

“That allegation completely distorts my situation!” said the spy, sweating. “Yes, I may pass certain materials to Vladimir Putin on occasion—but he’s not a spy, or a Marxist either. Putin is a democratically elected head of state! He’s not FSB any more than George Bush was CIA when he was President of your own country.”

“Why don’t you ask your girlfriend over here?” Johanna suggested. “She looks so lonely, sitting there all abandoned.”

“Aicha has nothing to do with all this.”

Johanna sturdily rose, fetched up a bentwood chair, set it down with a thump, and beckoned. The Arab girl came over reluctantly.

“Should I pay our bill now?” the Arab girl said to the American, in French. “Our waiter looks so confused.”

“Oh, never mind the banana split,” said the American, crossing his burly arms. “That waiter’s obviously been bribed by our new friends here.”

“Well, then,” said Aicha, looking doe-eyed at the spy, the paparazzo, and the dancer, “are you waiting for ‘them’ to come here, too?”

“Of course we are waiting for the two of them,” the paparazzo admitted. “That’s what this is all about.”

“Well, are the two of them coming here, or not?” said Aicha.

Everyone turned, and looked at the American, expectantly.

“Look, your guess is as good as mine is,” the American agent said, removing a pair of RayBan shades from his tartan hiking shirt. “My latest situation-briefing said their relationship looks pretty ragged. They might be on the rocks.”

A gloomy silence fell over the crowded table. One by one, the paparazzo, the spy, the dancer, the Arab girl and the American agent all glanced at the Corsican bodyguard. The bodyguard was fiddling urgently with the flat black lozenge of his smartphone. He was visibly distracted and upset.

The waiter skidded forward. “So, is everyone happy here?”

“I need something ‘on the rocks’,” said the paparazzo glumly. “Bring me a J&B.”

“Me too,” said the American. Johanna ordered a second pina colada. The spy demanded a Black Russian. Aicha, emboldened by this wave of demands, asked for a flute of champagne.

“I didn’t think Moslems would drink,” said Johanna to Aicha.

“I’m not a Moslem at all,” said Aicha, adjusting her rimless glasses. “I’m a Syrian Arab Christian.”

“You must have an interesting story to tell,” said Johanna.

Aicha looked meek. “Well, I’m a writer. So I used to think I did have a story. It’s a horrible, bloody story … but nobody’s interested. I told every reporter I could meet, I told all the activists, all the NGOs … Nobody pays any attention to me. They don’t even read my Arab poetry.”

“So, you’re a poet?” said Johanna.

“What did you think,” said the Syrian poetess with a touch of asperity, “that I’m a pretty actress, I’m some sexy model? Of course I’m a poet! I’m a committed Syrian dissident! I was a Facebook blogger during our Arab Spring, but that was all under my nom de guerre, of course. That’s why I’m still alive. I barely made it here to exile before the Syrian Electronic Army got me.”

“Did you ever write anything that was famous?” said Johanna eagerly. “I hardly ever get to meet famous authors.”

“Well, under my own name, I’m best known for writing the rock lyrics for my brother’s heavy metal band. They’re the biggest metal band in Damascus.”

“So, is he French, your brother?” said the paparazzo.

“We had heavy metal music in Damascus!” said the Syrian poet, wounded. “Nobody understands that any more. In Damascus, we had everything you have, we had couture shops, better cafes than this … My famous brother had a Mercedes sports car.”

“So what are you doing here with this American?”

“He’s CIA,” Aicha shrugged.

“I’m not!” the American insisted. “I’m ‘Defense Intelligence Agency.’“

Everyone at the overcrowded table looked blank at this distinction.

“We’re Pentagon at the DIA, and we have nothing to do with the CIA,” said the American. “We’re very capable at the DIA! More so than the CIA, because the DIA has never been involved in any public scandal. The American public loves and trusts the Armed Services. The American military is lots better trusted than the Congress, or the main stream media, either.”

“Oh come now,” said the spy to the dissident. “How can you even associate with this Yankee aggressor? Don’t you know what happened when their army invaded Iraq?”

“Of course I know all that, Iraq is just next door!” said the Syrian. “In Damascus, we could only wish that some Coalition of the Willing would invade our country now! We would even put up with you French invading us. Please, go right ahead! In Syria, we’ve been speaking French ever since the Sykes Picot agreement! If you French want to invade Syria like you just invaded Mali, have at it!”

“Did France invade Mali?” said Johanna wonderingly. “Where is Mali?”

“I’ve got a Google map here on my iPhone,” said the American. “Let me show you Mali. It’s just south of the smoking wreckage of Libya.”

“Mali is three times as big as Sweden. Mali has more people than Sweden,” said the Syrian poet.

“You sure know a lot about this,” said the paparazzo. “For a girl your age.”

“I earned a masters degree in international relations,” said the poet tartly. “Because I actually read books. I don’t just hang out here in French cafes, listening to spies and journalists.”

“What do you read when you want to relax?” said Johanna.

“She always reads other dissidents,” the American interrupted. “She reads all the bleeding-heart chicks from every nation.”

“No, I don’t,” Aicha objected. “I like to read Marie Darrieussecq.”

“Really?” said Johanna, brightening. “She’s my favorite French novelist.”

“Even the dumb Canadians like Marie Darrieussecq,” said Aicha. “Her new novel is better than they say.”

“I heard it’s not as good as the novel about the pig.”

“The new one’s about a pig, too.”

Johanna was visibly pleased to hear this. “You don’t say! Us émigré girls always know lots more about French culture than anybody in France does. Life was great when an Italian woman was our Premiere Dame, and I can’t wait till a Spanish woman named ‘Hidalgo’ is the Mayor of Paris. Would you like to come over to my place, and play some dance records?”

“Sure,” said Aicha.

“Wait a minute,” the American objected. “The two of them could be showing up here at the café, at any minute. You can’t just run off, right in the middle of our surveillance stake-out.”

Aicha touched her glasses and looked searchingly around the café. “The bodyguard’s gone.”

“I think he just went to the men’s room,” said the paparazzo.

“Do you have a place to stay in Paris?” said Johanna to Aicha.

“Almost,” said Aicha. “Those Arab suburbs are not exactly ‘in Paris.’ Anyway, I want to bring my brother the rock star here to Paris. And also my Mom and my Dad.” She nodded at the American. “That’s why I work for him. I need the papers.”

“I know of a place that might be perfect for your family,” said Johanna. “It needs a little interior-design work, but it’s spacious and I know it’s available.”

Aicha’s eyes widened. “Really?”

“It’s pretty close to the big Paris fish market. So it does smell a little.”

“We love eating fish in my family,” said Aicha. “Whenever we visit Beirut, fish is all we eat.”

“Also, it’s close to a graveyard.”

“If it’s a Christian graveyard, we’re Christians. We’re fine with that! If it’s holy ground, we won’t be complaining!”

“And, also,” said Johanna slowly, “well, maybe I shouldn’t mention this, but, during the Occupation of Paris, this flat was a notorious interrogation and torture chamber of the German Gestapo.”

Aicha bolted her champagne. “I don’t care one bit about ancient history!” she hissed. “In Damascus, we have more history than any European can dream about! I just wrote a new poem about nerve gas and belt bombs, and I uploaded it to the Internet! Shall I SMS you the link?”

Johanna hesitated. “Is your poem in French?”

“It’s in Arabic. You could Google-translate it straight to Swedish. Google Translator works lots better than people say.”

Johanna tightened the scarf on her hair and buttoned her jacket. “Let’s go look at this place before some millionaire buys it. I know the concierge. He owes me a favor.”

The two women rose and hastily left the café, arm in arm.

The American agent, the spy, and the paparazzo silently looked at one another.

“Well,” said the paparazzo, “at least we can talk straight now.”

“Oui,” said the American, somehow managing to mispronounce a single French syllable.

“This thing with the Swedish girl and the Pudding,” said the spy to the American—“in your opinion, I suppose, it’s unlikely to work out?”

“The Swedish chick is playing you guys,” said the American. “Oh, sure, the Swedes may have their reputation as the most honest country in Europe. But did Sweden ever join you in the Eurozone? Despite that treaty they signed with you in Maastricht? Answer me that! Ha!”

“The American has scored a point,” said the spy to the paparazzo.

“I think we’re over-playing our hand,” said the paparazzo to the spy. “How many women does the poor Pudding have on his back, right now? He’s got the Movie Star, the TV Presenter, the Mother of the Children … Sure, I’m a dirty paparazzo. I admit that. My only reason for existence is to humiliate the famous, for the amusement of the obscure. But I’m not entirely devoid of human feeling. The Pudding is a man of flesh and blood, as we are. One has to think he has suffered enough.”

“What do you think of that?” said the spy to the American. “I mean, the nature of love, the inherent suffering of it.”

The American came to with a start. “What? Sorry, I wasn’t listening to you.”

“We’re giving up our scheme to exploit the Pudding,” the spy explained kindly. “That plot you overheard: we’re abandoning it. We’ve reached a formal decision about it.”

“Oh, well, that’s good,” said the American absently. “No one should use covert surveillance to humiliate and undermine heads of state. We Americans don’t do that ‘personal destruction’ stuff to European leaders, I promise. We only do that to our own Presidents.”

“I entirely believe you,” said the paparazzo generously. He kicked the spy under the café table.

“I believe you too,” said the spy, after a brief lag. “After all, surveillance devices are just another set of tools. They’re objective tools, like shovels, or crowbars. Massive technical violations of privacy can never affect the timeless structure of personal human relationships.”

The American stared into space and said nothing.

“So, how’s it going between you and that Arab girl?” the paparazzo prompted at last.

“Awful.”

“She’s not coming across for you?”

“That wasn’t the hard part,” the American admitted. “Of course you can ‘conquer’ them, but then what are you supposed to do with them? You take all that trouble to conquer her, and the real trouble starts right there.”

“Don’t feel too badly about that,” said the paparazzo kindly. “My brother here and I, we’re both older than you. That’s just how it was for us.”

The waiter passed hastily, two densely-packed trays poised above his head. The crowded café was growing ever more boisterous.

“I don’t believe the two of them will show up here,” said the American despondently. “Given what’s at stake in this world … and what would happen if the Internet ever finds out them … If I were them, I’d never meet in a cafe. I’d meet in some empty parking garage.”

“A parking garage? In Paris? In the spring?” said the spy.

“That’s the proper tradecraft for a modern covert meet,” said the American agent. “Because parking garages have multiple entrances and exits. If you walk in on foot, you just don’t get photographed. The computers in the parking garages, they only photograph the license plates on the cars. They never look around for Romeo or Juliet.”

“Whenever it’s springtime in Paris,” said the paparazzo, “a man and a woman who love each will never meet in a parking garage. That’s an affront to human dignity.”

“Why do you say that?” said the American.

“Well, parking garages don’t have any beds in them!”

“Here in France, you never drove a big van?” said the American. “You never saw the back seat of a limo?”

The waiter sidled over. “Since the ladies have left you, would you gentlemen like to settle your bill now?”

“Right here, buddy,” said the American, nobly thumbing his chest. He took the thermal-printed slip of paper and threw down two hundred-euro bills.

“How many parking garages are there within one kilometer of this café?” said the paparazzo urgently.

“Three of them,” said the spy.

The three men rose from their café table. They parted without another word.