Authors: Karim Miské
Tags: #FICTION / Mystery & Detective / International Mystery & Crime
Jean studies her with a deadpan expression, the shadow of a former smile.
“You’re even more of a closed book than I thought. And the worst part is that I like it, a lot. Okay, Rachel, let’s follow this thread of yours. Even so, we’ll have to look into Taroudant, and then we’ll go and check out the kebab shop. Oh yeah, and trace the anonymous call. We’ll have to ask our friends in the eighteenth arrondissement if they can take a look at the phone booth.”
“The guys in the eighteenth help us? We could always try. There’s something else we need to do, a nasty thing—find Laura’s parents and let them know. Heads or tails?”
“Tails says you go.”
Rachel flips the quarter up in the air. She grimaces at the outcome.
“Tails it is . . . You do the coffees and we’ll call it quits.”
Ten minutes later, they’re at the Bunker. Telephone calls, gory pictures, and the pathologist’s report. The works.
“Female victim, blah blah blah . . . Inner labia, outer labia, and vagina all sustained multiple stab wounds with a knife between three and six inches long. A butcher’s knife. No trace of sperm. The victim died from a hemorrhage, most likely between 3:00 and 4:00 p.m. yesterday. Thighs and lower legs stained with pig’s blood. Blah blah blah . . . Dr. Florence Scarpone.”
On the back Rachel discovers a yellow Post-it with the words “Find this motherfucker!” written in permanent marker and signed “F.” Jean arrives with two glasses of water and hands Rachel one in exchange for the report. He reads it slowly.
“Her vagina was torn to shreds with a butcher’s knife,” he says after a pause. “Why the theatrics? Whoever did this must feel possessed of some divine power. Untouchable. They wanted to send a message—killing to say something.”
Rachel repeats those final words in a daze.
“Killing to say something . . . But to say what?”
Hamelot and Kupferstein have been working together for six months. Mercator’s idea. He thought they would be well suited, what with them both being intellectual, cinephile types. Not content with just a law degree like the other police lieutenants, both of them had gone on to do a Ph.D. Jean Hamelot’s was on film at Université Paris 13: “Hammett: the scriptwriter.” Sociology at Paris 7 for Rachel Kupferstein: “Tony Montana, urban (anti)hero: a monograph on the
of Pierre-Collinet, Meaux, 77100.” Jean lasted a year while Rachel managed two before they both abandoned their theses and the unlikely prospect of a career in academia to apply for the police. Jean saw it as a way to escape being stuck in his own head, not to mention his identification with the laconic, honorable heroes of the books he had devoured since he was thirteen. For Rachel, it was a desire for action shot through with an almost erotic fixation with the pure beauty of force; she’s more aligned with the samurais from a Kurosawa film than Bogart in
The Maltese Falcon
The chief paired them up on instinct, just to see. Naturally curious, he likes to create situations and then observe them. Nothing remarkable to their name as yet. But then the truth is that nothing remarkable has come their way yet. Basically, when he sends them on a mission, he knows the situation won’t get toxic. Hamelot and Kupferstein know how to defuse situations before they get out of hand. It’s a pretty good start.
They split the work up as follows: Jean will look into Ahmed while Rachel tracks down Laura’s parents. She’ll stay in touch with Forensics to see if any clues are revealed from the crime scene. Still working as a pair, but each with their own way of doing things. Jean’s got a contact at the Maison Blanche psychiatric hospital that services the needs of the nineteenth arrondissement. Léna is an old flame from his lycée days in Brittany, who is now a social worker responsible for helping patients when they are discharged from hospital.
“Hi, Léna. How are you doing? I’ve got a question for you.”
“How am I doing? You’re really asking me that? Everyone’s gone berserk since that schizo killed those two nurses. They want to turn the hospital into a prison and reduce the amount of time patients spend here. Then I’ve got to sort them out with benefits, accommodation, and all the rest. Try finding an apartment for a psycho on disability benefits! Meanwhile we’re supplying blood samples to the INSERM research center to help them find the schizophrenia gene. I’ll leave it to your imagination what’ll happen when they think they’ve isolated it . . . As if it’s not enough that they want to systematically detect deviant behavior in three-year-olds. Did you have any idea, Jean? They’re going to monitor kids at day care centers and in nursery schools to see if they can pick up on any potential signs of antisocial behavior. Initially they’ll offer them American-style treatment—you know, behavioral therapy. And if that doesn’t work, they’ll stick them on Ritalin. I’m not making this up—it’s official, approved by parliament, there in black and white in the government gazette. You remember studying
back at school? Well that’s what we’re seeing—it’s all coming true! Okay, sorry, just had to get all that off my chest. You know me . . . Your turn—what’s up?
“A murder. How shall I put it? Not your everyday one. But I’m not going to discuss it over the phone. One of the victim’s neighbors has definitely been through your ward. Would you be able to look into it? And if he has, do you think you could get hold of his psychiatrist’s name for me?”
“Is he a suspect? Ever heard of such a thing as patient confidentiality?”
“Let’s just say he’s an important witness. I know, I know. That’s why I was hoping to meet his shrink . . . informally.”
“Patient’s name and address?”
“Ahmed Taroudant, 17, sente des Dorées, in the nineteenth.”
Léna pauses for a second.
“Ahmed Taroudant. Got it. I’ll call you back.”
Jean hangs up.
Rachel is tidying her desk. It helps her think. The theatricality of the crime scene had to be significant. She remembers her criminology lecturers explaining that the stagecraft indulged in by serial killers is for the police; must be why it’s called the “scene of the crime.” Ultimately, police and murderers both have a role to play. In this case, however, it strikes her that the message left by the killer or killers is not intended for the police. Laura—pig’s blood, the pork joint. Laura the impure. But why? She wasn’t Jewish or Muslim, so on first impressions the notion of impurity doesn’t apply. It’s intended for Jews and/or Muslims. It’s their imagination that’ll be offended. Christians, or so-called Christians, will recognize the horror of the crime but won’t be so sensitive to the defilement. Other people’s taboos, even if intellectually rationalized, cannot be properly felt. Rachel is somewhere in the middle. Her parents were atheists, but that didn’t stop her Aunt Ruth from lecturing her while handing her sweets. “My little china doll, you know at school you don’t have to eat everything. Some food isn’t good for you, okay!” Then through pursed lips she would utter the dirty words from the list she knew by heart. “Ham, roast pork,
pâté de campagne
, and anything with mince in it . . .
, stuffed tomatoes, lasagna. Be extra careful with lasagna! They’ll let you think there’s just beef in there—beef with plenty of blood in it, for that matter—but it’s nonsense! Lasagna is full of sausage meat!” Little Rachel looked on in fascination at her encyclopedic knowledge of forbidden foods. At the cafeteria, however, she ate what her friends ate. With mixed emotions: pleasure at the transgression tinged with a slight sense of guilt. Over the years the guilt faded away. Anyhow, Aunt Ruth died, taking the old-world values of the Eastern European Jews with her. But she can empathize with those brought up as practicing Jews and Muslims—she can see where they’re coming from. The visceral horror of the forbidden. She remembered seeing her Kabyle friend, Lubna, a militant Trotskyist, reprimanding her sixteen-year-old little sister, Halima. All black nails and black tights, with her lower lip pierced, she’d been eating ham in private with her Goth friends.
“At least you understand me, Rachel. I can’t let her do it. It’s
Fine if she drinks a beer . . . But eating ham! We didn’t fight the Algerian War so that things could come to this!”
“You were born in Colombes in 1969 . . . If you fought the Algerian War it must have been in a previous life.”
Rachel chuckles to herself as she remembers the furious look in Lubna’s eyes. She turns her attention again to Laura’s murder. According to the concierge, the young woman had four friends: three of whom were Muslim (Ahmed, Bintou, and Aïcha), and then Rébecca, who was Jewish. Four people. Four leads. 10:15 a.m. Six hours to go until meeting Bintou and Aïcha at the kebab shop. She decides to hold off calling the pathologist and start the search for the girl’s parents. After checking that Jean isn’t on the telephone, she gets up and makes for his desk. A quick chat, just to make sure they’re on the same page, the same wavelength. And to tell this pig from Brittany a thing or two about what impurity means to Semites. Pork, menstrual blood . . . that sort of stuff.
10:15 a.m. Ahmed is still asleep. Gainsbourg on the iPod.
What are his dreams made of?
Chi lo sa?
Distressed sleep. Restless. Tongue grating against teeth. Every muscle in his body tensed up. Jolts, twisted arms, eyes clenched shut. A fixed snarl. Ahmed is still fighting himself. But this morning, for the first time in five years, his confused mind can conceive of a way out. A glimmer of blinding white light in the depths of the thick darkness. As he moves toward the brightness, the battery on the iPod shuffle is starting to fade. Portishead.
The song cuts out harshly in the middle of the final riff. Ahmed opens his eyes. Beth Gibbons’ lilting vocals, so untamed yet somehow controlled, are looping around his head. He’d always loved her voice. For him, “Glory Box” was the soundtrack to desire.
He’s got to pull himself together before he can begin his investigation. Grubby from his morning jog, Ahmed heads for the shower. The water is almost burning, only just bearable. His senses tighten. Feelings return. Why do autistic people bite their hands? Shampoo. Shower gel. Rinse thoroughly, all parts. He hasn’t spoken to anyone for years, with two exceptions. A few exchanges with Monsieur Paul about James Hadley Chase, a writer highly skilled at describing wasters, and for whom they’d always shared a sort of guilty fascination. Last time things nearly got out of hand. The bookseller went a bit over the top and asked Ahmed to do him a favor: to go and fetch a box of books from the back that was too heavy for him to lift. While Monsieur Paul respected Ahmed for his “nonaction,” the bookshop owner had in spite of everything hinted that he’d pay him if he came to help out on a regular basis. At his age he couldn’t run the show all by himself, and he’d rather delegate to a proper fan of noir fiction. Then he went quiet. So did Ahmed, who didn’t feel ready to take on anything resembling a job. Next time, Monsieur Paul had discreetly kept their conversation to a bit of news about Horace McCoy.
Laura was the other human being with whom he spoke from time to time. She didn’t read detective novels, and their first conversation had, surprisingly enough, been about orchids. Shortly after the young woman’s arrival in the building, Ahmed had bumped into her carrying an orchid. He let out an involuntary gentle sigh when he noticed the flower. In response to the mildly concerned question put to him by his new neighbor, he briefly explained that once upon a time he had looked after a South American orchid—a cattleya. Laura had assumed that there was a woman hidden among all this, but hadn’t pushed him. She simply gave him updates on the plant—hers was from Madagascar—whenever she saw him. Then, one day, she plucked up the courage to ask Ahmed whether he would be willing to take care of her plant during her frequent trips abroad, since the concierge—despite her best intentions—lacked the necessary lightness of touch. After a pause, Ahmed had agreed. The orchid had settled in so well that it had been joined by a friend, and then by another. That was when he had suggested to Laura that she call it a day, since he didn’t feel capable of taking responsibility for so many other living beings: a lily and three orchids . . . Enough is enough! On several occasions his neighbor had invited him up for a Lapsang souchong, or even an oolong, with a slice of blueberry, pear, or peach tart depending on the season. He had always declined on some vague pretext, promising that next time he would gladly accept. Laura would make him jam in anticipation of this hypothetical next time. Then, more recently, there had been the thing with the iPod that Ahmed had almost turned down, since music had ceased to feature in his world. But the young woman’s expression, so full of hope, had persuaded him to say yes. He hadn’t wanted to hurt her feelings, perhaps a sign that a chink was developing in his armor and that—who knows—with a little more patience . . . Laura was nothing if not patient. But the long game being what it is . . . Who could have predicted it? Now she’s as dead as her orchids. All that Ahmed has left of her is a bit of strawberry jam, an iPod, and a burning desire for revenge.
To return to the fray he must piece together the broken fragments of his existence. He can trace the precise moment it all fell apart back to the night when, paralyzed and unable to act, he looked horror straight in the face. Two names enter his mind: Al and Dr. Germain. Let’s begin by taking a walk across town. It’s 11:00 a.m. Al never surfaces before midday, and there’s no need for a heads-up. Ahmed no longer owns a telephone anyway. If he walks slowly along the canal he can grab some croissants and get to Al’s around 1:00 p.m.
His window is open and the sun is streaming into the apartment. June 19. 71°F. Jeans, T-shirt, and into the elevator. After a few yards he runs into Sam—a sixty-year-old Jew from Tiznit—smoking a cigarillo on the step outside his barber’s shop. He acknowledges his loyal customer with a slight nod—he’s cut Ahmed’s hair since he was four. The young man detects a glimmer of irony at the back of the barber’s little light-brown eyes, and files it away in a corner of his mind for later. Three years of psychoanalysis has at least taught him to keep his paranoia in check. He heads for parc de la Villette to pick up canal de l’Ourcq, then straight down to Bastille.