Authors: Karim Miské
Tags: #FICTION / Mystery & Detective / International Mystery & Crime
Jaurès. He thinks of the red-headed policewoman as he crosses the boundary of the nineteenth. “I never leave the nineteenth arrondissement.” “Stick to that.” Rachel’s face comes to him with great clarity. So many women in his life all of a sudden! Laura, who disappears leaving behind Beth Gibbons. And Rachel Kupferstein, who brings back the forgotten memory of Esther Miller, the first in a short line of doomed encounters. As he makes his way he rediscovers Paris. This city—with its canal and its stairway-bridges dotted with languishing lovers—is his.
Hôtel du Nord has reopened. Nostalgia still the order of the day. The building, which had its glory days back at the start of the twentieth century, is beyond dull. Why erect a mausoleum in the form of a trendy café in honor of such a depressing film? Nevertheless, Ahmed takes a seat on the terrace to soak up the vibe and orders an espresso, the bitterness helping to revive his spirits. All these years he has spent without thinking, book in hand more or less constantly. The only time he was forced to look at himself was during his sessions with Dr. Germain. And he didn’t like what he saw. He’d come to the conclusion that he couldn’t bear himself; that he would never bear himself. Better, then, to forget himself entirely. This is what he had been working on. Until Laura’s murder. He puts two dollars down on the table and leaves.
At Bréguet-Sabin, Ahmed takes a left. Rue Boulle, rue Froment, rue Sedaine. The baker’s beneath Al’s is open. A Chinese woman smiles at him.
“What would you like?”
“Two croissants and two
pains au chocolat,
“Three dollars forty cents, monsieur.”
Five-dollar bill. Change.
“I have a favor to ask.”
She shoots him an inquisitive glance.
“I’m visiting a friend upstairs but I’ve forgotten my address book with his door code. Would you mind giving it to me?”
“Why don’t you call him?”
“This might seem strange, but I don’t have a telephone.”
The lady looks at him, sussing him out.
“What’s your friend’s name?”
Her expression changes. She pauses momentarily, staring into space. Her bottom lip moistens slightly, glistening. She snaps out of it and gives him a cheery smile.
“Come this way.”
She leads Ahmed behind the counter. There’s a door in the back of the shop leading onto a courtyard.
“Not at all.”
Uneven cobblestones and oak trees with a ray of sunshine across their leaves. Fond memories. Right at the end there’s a small white three-story building. Music is spilling out of an open window at the top. Guitar from the banks of the Niger River. Inspiration drawn from the Ambassadeurs Internationaux featuring Salif Keïta, to be precise. Ahmed climbs up the stairs with a new-found agility. He knocks on the door with increasing insistence until the guitar stops. A shock of red hair fills the doorway.
Palm touches palm and pulls away. Clenched fist gently knocks clenched fist. A ritual greeting from the ghetto where each man weighs up the other.
Yo, white boy!
“Hanging in there.”
“You’ve upped your game—for a second I thought you were listening to a bit of old-school Salif!”
“Been practicing four hours a day . . . Come in!”
Ahmed steps into the den. Moth-eaten sofa covered in a tie-dye drape. Trestle table overflowing with stuff—bottles of water, rum, half-filled ashtrays, sheets of paper with words and drawings doodled all over them, books by Philip K. Dick and A. E. van Vogt, Japanese incense holders, a pack of Rizla, and more. The wall is plastered with postcards, flyers, and pictures of naked girls. An old turntable is lying on the floor in the corner. Al has never bought a CD in his life. His vinyl collection reveals the extent of his musical horizons . . . From Yes to Tchaikovsky via Hendrix and TPOK Jazz from Kinshasa. He sits down on a tired sea-green office swivel chair, a throwback to a bygone age of Bakelite telephones, imitation-leather benches, secretaries in mottled skirts, flesh-colored panty hose, and low-cut tops, tits out for the pervy boss. Ahmed takes his place on the sofa—client side—sitting a little bit lower, where he belongs. His eyes wander around the room he hasn’t set foot in for three years. Nothing’s changed. Al gives him a moment to come around.
“Been a while!”
“Let’s just say I’ve had some shit to sort out in my head. It got to the stage where I could barely leave my apartment—couldn’t even go beyond rue de l’Ourcq. Remember Patrick McGoohan in
? Well that was me. Only difference being that no one was stopping me from leaving, and I wasn’t trying to escape. I was stuck in my own head, you get me?”
“And what did you do to escape; to get out of your head?”
“I don’t know. My neighbor upstairs was murdered, I went to sleep, and then I came here.”
Al says nothing. He flicks some little bits of paper to one side—his latest compositions—and a small metal-inlaid wooden box from Morocco appears. Inside there’s a load of baggies. He selects one that’s full of handsome, dark-green grass. Ahmed can tell from the color that it’s not from Holland—the weed’s a lot paler. More likely from Thailand or Africa . . . Whatever, it’s proper Mary Jane, none of that genetically modified shit. Al keeps that crap for clients. In complete silence, the master of ceremonies rolls a nice, smooth joint and hands it to his friend. Ahmed lights it, takes a long toke and holds the smoke in his lungs for several seconds before blowing it out in a single plume. He takes two more drags and passes the cone back to Al, who puffs away as if it were a cigarette. They sit in silence. Ahmed can see the world changing around him. Everything in its right place—the colors and smells are the same—but all of a sudden the universe seems charged with meaning. A glass is no longer just a glass . . . It’s projecting its glassness onto the world, its being-in-the-world as a glass. This new perception of things fills Ahmed with a sense that he is magnifying, expanding, tending toward the infinite. Something he finds intensely satisfying. For the first time in years he loosens up and takes stock of the different pieces of his life laid out in front of him. Give him a few more minutes or years and he’ll be ready to talk about it.
Al watches him in silence. Being a drug dealer, he smokes weed every day, but he is careful not to give himself over entirely to the effects of the tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. His commercial activities serve to subsidize a personal habit of considerable proportions. As for his other expenses, he mixes gigs on the local Paris circuit with posting flyers. He’s never gone near benefits. Avoids all state registers like the plague. His latest song is called “Escape from Sarkoland.” He’s pleased to see Ahmed again. He sits there quietly smoking his joint, waiting for his friend to regain the power of speech. To pass the time, Al grabs a sheet of white paper and a pen and sets about drawing a mash-up of a Disney cartoon: Mickey is taking a hit while Scrooge McDuck, the big daddy dealer in Duckburg, looks on disapprovingly. Ahmed pipes up.
“The thing is, Al, I’ve always killed women. You remember, the only story I ever wrote at school was about the wanderings of a prostitute-killer. He didn’t touch them; he didn’t fuck them. He got his kicks from stabbing them. At the time it seemed perfectly innocent to me. Just a story for the times. Then it became like an obsession. More and more of these images of death played out in my head. I would slice women in half as I passed them in the street; I’d gut them while in a state of serious inner turmoil. It became almost impossible to look women in the eye. The thought of trying it with anyone filled me with horror. I could let things roll if a chick was really into me, but it was that or nothing at all. How can you look at a girl, joke around with her, when all you’re doing is picturing cutting her into pieces? You read
, yeah? So in my head, I was Patrick Bateman.”
“Listen, man, you haven’t killed anyone. All this shit is just images in your mind. It’s not real, okay?”
Ahmed makes as if to speak, thinks again, and swallows the words that form in his head.
The day it became real, I lost my nerve.
Not here. Not with Al. This meeting with himself is going to have happen some other time. Something has become unclogged, and that’s a good thing. For the first time he lets his mind return to that warehouse. To what happened that night. The night his life ended. Al watches him calmly with an expression that seems to say
Don’t worry, man. It’s all chilled here. If you want to talk, talk. If you want to be quiet, be quiet. It’s cool, yeah . . .
“Deep down you’re right—I haven’t killed anyone. Not everyone can say that. In this world there are people who really do kill women and orchids.”
Al gets to work on another cone. As he hands Ahmed the joint he explains that this weed is properly spiritual, uplifting.
“See, down here in this shithole of Paris, what are we? Twenty yards above sea level, tops. Where this
is made, in Himachal Pradesh, they’re five or six thousand yards up. So when you smoke this, even here in this little third-floor apartment, it sends you sky high . . . It totally cancels out the five miles between us and the roof of the world.”
Two lungfuls later and Ahmed is practically teleported to that very place. He’s in Tibet, Everest, the mountain plateaus of Kyrgyzstan . . . Who cares where? He’s stopped knowing what it means to know anyway. If the first joint had charged him with meaning, this one was freeing him of it. Over there—far off in the distance—a shaman is reciting an age-old mantra. It’s strangely reminiscent of Robert Wilson. A white Robert Wilson whose distorted chanting echoes through the smoke rings . . .
Not quite. Not quite so, oh noooo, baby, not quite so, it ain’t so, no, no, no . . .
Ahmed is tripping to the rhythm of the world. The images along the way are pure. Colors, curves, light. And then letters, sometimes words, which transcend language.
He has cast off from the shore. Floating like a baby.
Mercator is alone in his big empty office, as is his custom. The ebony desk is clear. The Sheaffer pen is tidied away in a drawer; the sheets of paper covered in circles are nowhere to be seen. The two lieutenants—feeling somewhat uneasy—have answered the chief’s summons.
“The orchids, incidentally . . . There were three?” he asks.
“Laid out in a triangle on the toilet seat, correct?”
“Yes—we took some photos if you’d like . . .”
“No need. A triangle inside a circle—well, an oval to be precise, but a circle in the eyes of the person who took such pleasure in arranging them. The fact is you’ve been focused on one element of the crime scene—the most obvious one, namely the pork. But there are two. Think about it. A triangle . . . Inside a circle . . .”
“You think . . .”
“Nothing just yet. Let’s each think on our own. We’ll come back to it later. It’s still a little early to be wondering ‘aloud’. What else have we got?”
“The pathologist’s report has told us a bit more about the circumstances of Laura’s death. The cause of death was the hemorrhage brought about by roughly fifteen stab wounds to the vagina. Afterward they drained her blood into a bowl, no doubt about it, though there isn’t any trace of it. I reckon it’s the nastiest thing anyone’s ever seen. Rachel spoke to Scarpone, so I’ll hand over to her.”
“She had pig’s blood smeared on her. As a matter of fact, according to the pathologist, they tipped the blood over what was left of her vagina after killing her. To get back to the staging of it though . . . The knife was buried in a pork joint on the table. Almost like an installation, in the artistic sense—could have been titled
The Punishment of Impurity
or something like that. There are a lot of Jews and Muslims living in the neighborhood, a significant number of whom are fundamentalists. For both groups, this horror has a more profound meaning. It shows a desire to defile the dead woman—to kill her a second time, for eternity. The murderers assumed the right to damn her, so to speak.”
“Or to make it look like that was their intention,” Mercator says.
“Yes, indeed. But whether the killers were motivated by religion or not, there’s a paradox: Laura Vignola was not a member of either community. Yet the crime scene was intended to appeal to the imaginations of Jews or Muslims.”
“Or both . . .”
“That thought had occurred to me. And then there are her three friends . . . One comes from a family of what would appear to be Hasidic Jews, and the other two are of Muslim origin.”
“And her neighbor . . .”
Jean instantly glances over at Rachel and takes over.
“Ahmed Taroudant. Manic depressive. Frankly I can’t see him doing something like this. It doesn’t stick. We’ll investigate him, of course. And the three friends. The Jewish girl seems to have disappeared, and we’re going to meet up with the two Muslim ones when they get back from college in . . .”—he checks his watch—“half an hour.”
“Perfect. You’ve got an ‘in’ with the Hasidic Jews, I believe, and with the local mosques too. But it’s too soon to go bulldozing in. I’ve already ordered a complete blackout with regard to the crime scene. As ever that won’t last longer than a day or two. Someone from Forensics or the morgue always blabs. All it takes is for a handsome young journalist to rub a receptionist up the right way . . . Make the most of your brief head start over the media to get stuck in. You can take some time off when this is all sorted out. I’m not sure why, but I feel like these killers are within reach. Off you go!”
The two lieutenants are already out in the corridor when their chief calls them back.
“Kupferstein! Hamelot! This air hostess . . . Did she have any family?”
Rachel bites her bottom lip like a schoolgirl who has just been busted.
“Shit! The parents—I’d completely forgotten about them. According to the concierge she had fallen out with them for some unknown reason. I’ll ask Gomes to track them down and I’ll make contact with them when we get back from the kebab shop.”