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Authors: Karim Miské

Tags: #FICTION / Mystery & Detective / International Mystery & Crime

Arab Jazz (22 page)

BOOK: Arab Jazz
2.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Which it is not. Sam is on the attack immediately.

“So, my boy, it’s been a long time. How is everything? Still not back at work?”

“All good, same old. The doc said it wouldn’t do any harm to start working a bit again. So I’m probably going to help out Monsieur Paul in the shop.”

“Is that right, you’re going to help Paul. Dear old Paul . . . Well, that’s great, my boy.

Sam falls silent. He sprays Ahmed’s hair. Snip, snip, snip with his long, sharp scissors. The young man tries to imagine the crime being done with scissors, but they wouldn’t have worked—too fine. They’d be perfect for gouging out eyes, for a different type of murder. Sam catches a vague glimmer in Ahmed’s eyes. He tenses up a little.
Careful! Don’t give yourself away!
Ahmed switches to standby mode.

“And your

“My mother? Still in the hospital. They’ve said it’s not going to get any better.”

“Ever see her?”

“Err, not for a while . . .”

Ahmed’s turn to pause. His Go-playing instincts come to the fore, alerting him to the danger of a Meursault-style attack. Camus’s outsider was sentenced to death for not crying at his mother’s burial. Sam doesn’t know it, but Latifa’s son is covered on that front. The last time he saw her, four years ago, she tried to strangle him. It took two nurses to pull her off him. Dr. Germain advised him to stop going after that. “It’s too damaging for you, and there’s nothing you can do for her. Latifa is out of reach at the moment. In her eyes, you are nothing but an afterglow, a reminder of her misfortune. It’s no great surprise she wants to obliterate you.” The incident was recorded in a hospital report, but it’s better to let Sam think what he wants. The young man says nothing, lets the old barber fill the silence.

“You know, Ahmed, I can talk to you like a father; I’ve known you since you were a kid. Nothing can replace a mother. Even if it’s hard sometimes, you’ve still got to keep in touch. God orders us to obey our mother above all else. Okay, fine if you can’t for the moment . . . But one day you will go back, won’t you?”

No response.

“And that girl, the one who got killed, she was your neighbor, wasn’t she?”

Now we’re talking.

“Yes. She lived in the apartment upstairs.”

“Didn’t you tell me about her once?”


Ahmed doesn’t remember. He’d never spoken to Sam about anything other than the length of his hair and, every now and then, his mother. He’s beginning to figure out the barber’s tactics.

“Yes, you. Oh, with that medication of yours, perhaps you struggle to remember everything, but me, I don’t forget a thing . . . Just upstairs, eh? Horrible business. Who could have wanted to kill her? It’s unbelievable, no?”

“Err . . .”

Ahmed can feel the barber’s interrogating eyes on the back of his head. He’s beginning to find the situation singularly unpleasant. But his unease is working in his favor—it’ll make Sam think he has him at his mercy.

“Did you see the police? Did they talk to you?”

“Yeah, they asked me some questions.”

Sam’s laugh is like a creaking door.

“And you’re not a suspect?”

“No! Why? You think that . . .”

Ahmed is feeling increasingly uncomfortable. He can feel beads of sweat forming at his armpits and on the nape of his neck. The old man tightens his grip, ruthless, lowering his voice.

“You didn’t screw up, did you? You’re still taking your medication? No confusion, no memory blanks?”

The attack is full-frontal. Ahmed is sweating freely now.

“Yes, I’m taking my pills. And . . . I think I remember everything. The thing is I’m always reading. When I’m not, I’m drinking tea, coffee, maybe eating something, or going for a jog along the canal.”

Sam nonchalantly mops the perspiration from his customer’s neck before reaching for the clippers.

“A bit of booze every now and then—I see you coming back with your shopping from the Franprix. Got to be careful mixing things, you know . . . Anyway, this girl, I don’t know if there was something going on beneath the surface. Maybe she got caught up in some weird business. She was an air hostess, wasn’t she? Did she use that to get involved in a bit of trafficking? You never know . . . You don’t get yourself killed for nothing, do you? Or maybe she led some guy on who ended up flipping out? You quite fancied her, didn’t you?”

Ahmed gulps. He’s never felt so bad in all his life. This twisted old barber turning him over, razor in hand, coolly pushing him to take responsibility for an abominable murder.

“Oh, me, women . . .”

Sam sharpens the razor and goes for his sideburns.

“Yeah, women. Everyone likes women, my boy! Me, I obey the commandments, but all the same, I can’t keep myself from looking. God gives me the strength to resist them. And then as you get older, you settle down. But that one, she was beautiful . . . Did she like men? You see all sorts nowadays . . .”

“Laura liked orchids. That’s all I really know about her. She loved orchids. I think I liked her a lot because of that. Because women, to be honest, with my meds . . . I haven’t really been able to think about any of that.”

Ahmed’s voice catches. He decides to leave. He’s got what he needs, and he wants Sam to read his panic as a confession of sorts. He looks at himself in the mirror. Pulls himself together a bit.

“Great, that’s fine, I reckon. Good job, thank you.”

“But wait, I haven’t done the back of your neck with the razor!”

Ahmed’s voice is still faltering, just the right amount to let the barber think he’s snared his prey. He gets up without giving him time to react.

“No, honestly, it’s fine as it is . . . Great, bye—I’ll swing by when it’s grown back . . .”

“Farewell, my boy. And don’t forget, if anything’s wrong you come see me. If you get the feeling you’ve screwed up . . . Your old papa Sam is here for you. I know a lot of people. People who might be able to help you. Even police officers . . . Go on,
salaama ya walid
 . . .
Barak allahu fik.”

Flustered and soaked in sweat, Ahmed pays, leaving Sam to wonder if he might just have said three words too many, and takes off without waiting for his change. He needs movement to get back to normal. He makes for parc de la Villette with its Rastas, its joggers, and its public pay phones.


Avenue C, Alphabet City, Manhattan. Three months earlier.

Gasping for breath, Vincenzo Vignola opens his mouth and closes it again, unable to take in the air. His pelvis seems possessed by a frenzied life of its own as he finally releases himself inside his partner. His skin is wrinkly and rough. Susan studies his face until he flops back onto the mattress with his eyes shut, tugging a green and white striped sheet on top of him as he struggles to regain his breath. Always the same with the handsome older ones, she thinks to herself: fully clothed they’re passable, but the moment they’re naked . . . But actually, she hasn’t minded sleeping with this one. It’s been an exciting, emotional journey. There’s the desire to bring him down, sure, but not just that. There is also the human weakness he betrays at the point of orgasm, the ultimate abandon that always seems to take him to the furthest reaches of his being. He doesn’t think of her for a second during the act. She finds this fascinating, and it means she is at complete liberty to spot some new detail of him every time he thrusts into her in the missionary position: the folds of his neck; the drop of sweat that forms on his top lip before crashing onto her chin; the gray hair protruding from his right ear; the small, discolored mark just below his left nipple. And many other images which—thanks to the Jamaican weed Dov brought around earlier in the morning—appear to her disconnected, pure, rich with meaning.

They had shared a joint, leaning shoulder to shoulder against the window, looking out on the city and the world. Dov had done most of the talking: he was agitated, worried. The rebbe had informed him that his engagement celebration had been postponed just three days before he was due to take his flight to Paris for the ceremony. Toledano’s explanations were sketchy, but after some eavesdropping and a session grilling Sholem Aboulafia, the young new arrival from Paris, he eventually found out that his fiancée had disappeared and that they were doing everything in their power to find her. He was beginning to smell a rat: if the girl was happy to marry him, why would she have taken off? The wedding no longer meant anything to him. He loved the rebbe, who was the most profound, most spiritual being he had ever met. But Dov was troubled by the idea that the rebbe had arranged a marriage with a woman who didn’t want to be with him. He took a photo out of his wallet, muttering his betrothed’s name softly. “Rébecca.” Susan looked at the young woman in silence: she was beautiful, serious in her Hasidic clothing. Almost too serious.

“I don’t know, something’s not quite right about this photo. She doesn’t look like the girls you see around Crown Heights. It’s like she’s in character, but what’s going on in her head is something else entirely. Speak to Toledano—tell him you don’t want to get married now. Say it’s nothing serious, that what matters to you is him, the rebbe, and what he has done for you, and what you have done for him and the group. If she doesn’t want you then fine, you don’t want her—that’s that. What’s the big deal? They should forget about it. Most of all, they shouldn’t go hunting her down. We absolutely cannot draw attention to ourselves right now!”

Susan looked at him. He was on the verge of tears, distraught.

“You’re sad? You’re sad, hey?”

Slowly, almost clumsily, her hand rose to stroke his cheek. She’d only ever reserved such gestures of tenderness for her brother.

“He’s let you down . . . Listen, Dov, when our plan has worked out, you won’t have to stay with your rebbe. Come with us! James, you and me, on the island—we’ll be fine, you’ll see . . . We’ll have more money than we could possibly need. Tell me one thing: can you make sure he realizes that we have to stay calm and discreet to avoid jeopardizing the operation.”

“Yeah, he realizes, no worries.”

He looked at her with a sad smile, planted a kiss on the top of her head, and stepped outside her plane of consciousness. Susan had already reverted to her role of Jehovah’s Witness gone bad. She took a final toke on her joint before flicking the roach down onto the taxis, buses, and passersby of Avenue C.

Susan watches Vincenzo getting dressed. White Y-fronts, blue nylon socks, nondescript suit, and black leather briefcase. On a sudden impulse she chucks on her undercover outfit: Levi’s, Pumas, LAPD hoodie.

“I’m coming with you to Grand Central.”

Vignola’s flight takes off from Newark at 5:30 p.m. He’s just got enough time to take the shuttle and be at the airport on time.

“No, no, it’s not worth it, honestly.”

“Yeah, I want to. I’m going to miss you so much. When are you coming back?”

“I don’t know. Nothing’s been scheduled yet.”

“Okay. I’ll see to it. And in the meantime, I’m coming with you. Half an hour more with you . . . that’s better than nothing.”

On the way, she makes sure that Vincenzo has fully understood the plan ahead. The first shipment is already en route to Europe. It’ll arrive in Niort in a fortnight. When it gets to Charles de Gaulle, Vignola has to meet the two French handlers and see to the final details. In the cab he is nervous, on edge. He smiles nervously throughout. How could he ever have guessed that the daughter of Abel Barnes—one of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ most respected leaders—would be such a perfect demon? A devil in a thong that he can no longer resist. He knows he’s cursed and that she has him entirely at her mercy. However much he tries to understand how events have unfolded, he keeps drawing a blank about what happened between the innocent smile from the reserved young girl sitting opposite him in the cafeteria ten days earlier, and the moment barely forty-eight hours later that he was screwing her to death like the damned soul he had become. The following day he was her accomplice in an international drug trafficking operation whose cover was being provided by the very organization he had devoted his entire life to serving. And when Susan had whispered the word “Godzwill,” the name of the substance he was to help her peddle, as he was desperately trying to recover his breath, a shiver had rushed through him. His body, in the clutches of orgasm just seconds before, had been reduced to sheer terror.

Overcome by an ominous feeling, he tries to make his mistress stay in the cab, but she insists on accompanying him to the shuttle. One final kiss and the door closes. A final kiss watched by two young women buying a bottle of water and a newspaper. One, dressed in an air hostess uniform, stands there speechless.


The prayer room is closed. No sign of Haqiqi. They have reached that point in the investigation where everything is scattered and reassembled in one and the same moment. Dispersed rays of clues, names, faces. Many bad vibrations that certainly need to be factored in. Jean shuffles this pack of imaginary cards over and over in his head. He splits the pack and deals them out. Haqiqi, Mourad, Moktar, Alpha, Ruben. He doesn’t realize that he has uttered the names aloud. Rachel is listening in silence, then hears herself add Sam.

“Sam, for goodness’ sake!” she says. “I nearly forgot the most important part of the conversation with the girls! As we were wrapping things up, Aïcha threw Sam’s name out there, just like that, as if it were nothing, and advised us to keep an eye on him. I asked her if she meant Sam the barber, she said she did, but that was it. In any case, it clearly wasn’t some casual slip. Let’s go!”

A few minutes later, Jean and Rachel are stepping into the barber’s shop. Sam is smoking one of his Café Crème cigarillos. He watches the two police officers come in. He knows them from a couple of conversations back when they were investigating a theft on a neighboring street. Barbers are a bit like concierges: they hear things. Jean and Rachel must be tactful. They mustn’t let Sam think he’s on their list of suspects—suspects of what, they’re still not even sure themselves . . . Another simple, routine visit. Jean is about to get things off to a gentle start, but Sam beats him to it.

BOOK: Arab Jazz
2.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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