Authors: Karim Miské
Tags: #FICTION / Mystery & Detective / International Mystery & Crime
The sound of footsteps upstairs. Police officers moving around. Detectives and forensics officers.
“What kind of crime is this? Why the pork joint? All the damn Jews and Arabs around here, they’re all as nuts as each other. As soon as you leave the Bunker, all you hear is: ‘
, officer’, ‘
, officer’. Fucking hell, I can’t wait to get back to picture-perfect Roscoff. I don’t know about you, Rachel, but they drive me crazy. Totally crazy. I just don’t get this pork thing. It’s too much. As Goebbels said . . .”
“‘The bigger the lie, the more it’ll be believed’,” Rachel says, cutting him short. “I love it when you quote Goebbels. It’s one of the few things that makes life bearable. Right, let’s get out of here, we’ve got a report to write.” Ahmed hears and doesn’t hear. He knows. He sees red-headed Rachel and brown-haired Jean. They’ll do what they can, i.e., not much. Or a lot. Tomorrow at six he’ll have to dispose of his djellaba. For now, though, it’s good night, Lieutenant.
Laila saida . . .
3:45 a.m. If the dead of night exists, it is now. Lieutenants Hamelot and Kupferstein are smoking light contraband cigarettes, gazing up at the stars on the inner terrace of the Bunker, the commissariat in the nineteenth that is their workplace.
On their return they were summoned by Mercator, who had been waiting for them in his office, a sparsely furnished room with off-white walls. He was drawing circles. His way of filling time and space. All the local officers are aware of this obsession, and they know not to interrupt it. As Hamelot has pointed out to Kupferstein, the chief always follows the same modus operandi. First the paper. He never stoops to tracing his circles on office paper. No, he goes to the stationers’ at Bon Marché to buy his very own pads of Clairefontaine “C”: bright-white laid paper, three ounces. Then the pen: a Sheaffer Legacy Heritage fountain pen. As for the rest, it’s just a matter of watching him in action. One circle per page, always in the center. And always the same size. The sheets piled up in a perfect stack to his right, not one out of place. Perched behind his varnished ebony desk, Mercator looked like a sort of enigmatic deity. As ever, there was that feeling with him that each gesture carried meaning. This air of mystery is precisely what makes him powerful. He’s like a parchment covered in hieroglyphs—there for all to see, yet thoroughly indecipherable. This is what gets Jean going. Like any good rational communist, he cannot resign himself to not understanding. He gathers up all the clues concerning his boss, the idiosyncrasies that only deepen the mystery, much to Rachel’s amusement. With an enigmatic smile, she would remind her partner that the secret is that there is no secret. She likes to think of her employer as a sort of Zen master, herself the idle observer. This is a constant source of relaxation.
Mercator has the broad chest of a tenor with the voice to match. He’s no Pavarotti in either department; more like a jovial chorus member at the opera, or even a booming wine merchant on rue Daguerre. Rachel is right. The secret lies in the absence of any secret. The chief’s anatomy reveals all she needs to know about him and his relationship with life and power. You can read him like a children’s picture book. His eyes betray a formidable intelligence, as do his hand movements, which are precise though somewhat unrestrained. He’s a
whose fondness for meat is apparent in his cheeks, his full lips, and his permanently flared nostrils, not to mention the folds bulging over his belt. Though he’s not exactly what you might call fat. The contest between fat and muscle is more or less even-handed. A little more on the fat side to lull the opponent into a false sense of security, and just enough muscle to swoop down on any prey at the opportune moment, on the basis that this is never strictly necessary. All in all, he is handsome in a way that is very much his own. Not ugly, but rather the reflection of a handsome man trapped in the body of a police officer. A glimmer of Brando’s Kurtz that has passed everyone by. Rachel spotted it immediately, and maintains it to this day. This is why Jean’s obsession with the chief’s M.O. makes her laugh, because for her it is merely the sum of Mercator’s combination of intelligence, hidden beauty, and his policeman-like poise and sense of purpose.
That said, Hamelot’s a good police officer. A very good one. And he’s right on one point: the chief never does deviate from his M.O. His Sheaffer suspended weightlessly one inch above the page, he begins by scanning the surface intently. Then his eyelids close, he breathes in, and he raises his weapon so it’s in line with his solar plexus. Three seconds of silence before he unleashes it, letting out a growl of sorts. In a single movement he marks out his circle, eyes still closed, breathes in again, lays down his pen, then lifts the sheet to eye level before finally opening them and surveying his work. An instant later he places it delicately on the pile to his right. It is done.
Rachel and Jean had stood rooted at the entrance to the office. Having freed his hand of his pen, Mercator motioned to them to come in and sit down. For him, reports have to describe everything, down to the most minute detail: the layout of the apartment; the precise position of the pork joint; features of the decoration (neutral and modern, no television, a bookcase where Balzac, Flaubert and Maupassant took pride of place, the Miles Davis portrait, eyes closed, lips pouting, hands framing his face, opposite a reproduction of Picasso’s
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon
; and finally, the Air France stewardess uniform hanging in the wardrobe by the entrance). Rachel and Jean, struck by the horror of the scene, let him have his turn at experiencing it. Wedged into his black leather armchair, with its clean, sharp lines, the
listened, distant and attentive, as always. Who knows where his mind had wandered. As they finished their report, his eyes clouded over, and he became more serious. He seemed to be contemplating a shadow that was slowly invading his office. A shadow he recognized, whose outline only he could identify. When they told him about the decapitated orchids, and how the heads had been placed in a triangle on the toilet seat, Mercator closed up completely. He dismissed Jean and Rachel with a few impersonal words, among them “report,” “seven o’clock,” “morning,” “inquiry,” “you two,” “you two.” The second time he uttered “you two” he looked them hard in the eye, then left the office in silence.
There began the Bunker’s descent into nighttime. Hamelot and Kupferstein went for a few Kronenbourgs on the ground floor with the officers who had finished for the evening, then back upstairs to type up a few things. They ordered sushi and some more beers, Asahis. Then their memory began to fade. At 3:00 a.m., Jean won a game of solitaire. Sitting behind him, Rachel listened to “Pissing in a River” by Patti Smith on her pink iPod nano.
LET IT ALL GO
In the silent night, the two detectives are sprawled out at opposite ends of the terrace, reclining in fluorescent metal-framed deck chairs. Green for Jean, orange for Rachel. They had encountered overdoses, crimes of passion, ordinary baseness . . . But Laura’s murder is their first experience of true horror. Right now it’s a case of confronting, of plumbing the depths of a soul. This murder must be tamed, nourished, pondered, infiltrated. Then reassessed. They must go beyond any ordinary fascination with evil. They are trying now, under the delicate crescent of the moon in the starlit sky on this night in June. Rachel is dreaming.
If we were in love, we’d be scanning the sky for shooting stars
. But that’s not how it is, and she has to make do with following the erratic path of a satellite. They think about other things, wandering through the sky before disappearing deep within themselves.
Jean pictures his mother in her checkered apron, sharp knife in hand, dicing some onions. He’s never had the patience to do it so finely—he just chops them into thick slices and chucks them into the bubbling oil, before breaking them up with a wooden spoon and crushing the garlic straight on top. He can see her almost as if she were standing in front of him, his nurturing mother, and the image continues to move him, albeit less palpably than it did back in the days when he could only just see over the edge of the kitchen counter—did they even call them that in those days? Yes? Jean is rambling, digressing. The word
has lurched him violently from his childhood kitchen in Brittany to a nightmarish afternoon at Ikea. The moment in his life when he felt the most alone, lost in the midst of families with militant wives commanding their troops as though they were a task force on a mission in Somaliland, mothers-in-law on lookout and fathers trying to regain the upper hand by showering their better halves with endless technical jargon that thwarted any sense of accomplishment. A war of movements and positions that Jean entered, unable to dodge the stray comments loaded with pent-up resentment, more than one of which was enough to poison his superficially tough soul. He had weaved his crazy route through the living rooms, the baby-changing tables, and the office furniture—carbon copy of the Bunker’s—to the kitchen department, the primary objective of the expedition that was, as he now realizes all too well, doomed to failure. Rooted to the spot, Jean had stared at the young, bearded, and highly competent employee charged with designing the kitchen of his dreams. Lost for words; voice and mind failing. He had gotten down from his kitchen bar stool, nodding vacantly in the direction of the salesman before going to the Swedish food shop on the ground floor to buy himself some crackers, a tube of anchovy paste to spread on them, and a bottle of Absolut vodka that he had begun to drink on the RER. train and then finished at home, stretched out on the only rug in the apartment in the twelfth arrondissement where he’d moved three months earlier. A one-bedroom so bare you’d think it uninhabited. The morning after had been as difficult as it had been emotional, but ever since, he felt calmed and contented at the sight of his kitchen’s sole storage unit: a two-doored white Formica cupboard, perfectly ample for his cutlery and provisions. This thought brings him peace, helps him put some distance between himself and the murder. Soon he will be able to face it.
Rachel is following her own course. At first, the sheer monstrousness of the crime numbed her, making it possible for her to act, to do what was required of her. Cordoning off the apartment, proceeding with the first futile lines of questioning, getting curious bystanders to back off. Only when they were giving their report to Mercator did the pain creep up on her. Like after a trip to the dentist, when the effects of the anesthetic wear off. Then she and Jean had a few drinks, talked shit to each other; she’d dipped into the virtual world, listened to the music of her teenage years. Not a lack of awareness—just a distancing process. Now, at this still, latter stage of the night, she recalls in her mind’s eye the events that took place before her call-out to join Jean at the crime scene. She skims over her late wake-up and midday arrival at the commissariat to dwell for a short while on what ought to have made up the main part of her day: the arrest at around 2:00 p.m. of a small gang of pot dealers on place des Fêtes. A routine operation that had been a week in the planning, and which was aimed at bolstering government statistics. The vendors—small-fry retailers—were in possession of pathetic quantities and could not have seemed more docile. Rachel stayed in the background, absentmindedly overseeing the successful completion of the operation with her
hat on. And then her gaze met that of the gang leader, a handsome young man of twenty-five with kind eyes and a smooth ebony complexion. She let him check her out, just for a split second. Each looking at the other from different sides of an invisible barrier that did not block out all potential for attraction. A fleeting sensation that she had stored to one side, saved for later, and which is coming back to her now through the curling smoke of her cigarette.
A fleeting sensation that brings her back to herself, the schoolgirl at lycée Henri Bergson who would avoid the company of the overly fair-featured girls in her class, and whose best friends were Marcel and Ibrahim, the neighborhood’s go-to guys for soft drugs. In July 1987, having just seen on the school bulletin board that she’d been awarded her baccalaureate with distinction, Rachel calmly announced to her parents that she would not be joining them on their vacation to Port-Bou. A memorable fight had ensued, with the result that father and daughter nearly came to blows—and it would have taken a real expert to judge who’d have come out on top in this near-miss contest, since despite all of Léon Kupferstein’s 190 pounds of muscle, Rachel turned into a veritable ninja whenever she flew into one of her rages. She had managed to get her colossal father to back down, and two days later she was standing on Platform 16 at the gare d’Austerlitz, watching calmly as the 9:47 p.m. train to Cerbère carried her mortified parents off into the distance. A few minutes later, she was on Line 5 of the Métro going the opposite direction. And at 11:00 p.m. on the dot, Marcel and Ibrahim were ringing the bell of her father’s workshop on rue des Carrières-d’Amérique. Rachel thinks back fondly to those hours spent slicing slabs off two pounds of Moroccan hashish and packing them into chunky one or three-ounce blocks to pass on to the petty dealers, who in turn would cut them with henna before selling them. A Butagaz camping stove was permanently lit, the huge meat cleaver passing through the flame time and again before making its clean incision through the hard, dense, beautiful dark-brown substance. Rachel loved the immense concentration that reigned in that workshop, the place she had spent so much time as a young girl watching her father ply his trade. Concentration made all the more acute by the element of danger, the feeling of doing something forbidden. The summer had gone by like that, without her even realizing. A period of pure magic. Rachel didn’t smoke, she wasn’t in love with either of the boys, and she had done it for free, just for the glorious sake of it. The poetry of action.