Authors: Karim Miské
Tags: #FICTION / Mystery & Detective / International Mystery & Crime
Jean’s head reappears in the doorway.
“Oh, boss. I asked our colleagues in the eighteenth to lead the investigation into the phone booth in front of 37, rue Ordener, where the call reporting the murder was made from. No response yet. Could you keep after them? They must have groomed a few useful friends among all the dealers and junkies who hang out around there. It would be nice if they gave us a hand on this one . . . We’ll return the favor, of course!”
A violet Post-it on Jean’s red desk lamp reads:
“Ah, Jean! Listen, I get off tomorrow at 4:00 p.m. I’ve gotten us a meeting in Châtelet—the Sarah Bernhardt café—at 6:30 p.m. with Dr. Germain. He’d prefer me to be there too. If you’re free why don’t we go for a Vietnamese at the New Locomotive afterward? I’ll have my car.”
“Great, thanks Léna! I’ve got to make a move—see you tomorrow.”
Rachel is briefing Gomes, a young twenty-five-year-old officer with light brown hair held up with gel. Studious and concentrated, he is religiously noting down every single word that passes his colleague’s full lips. Find Laura Vignola’s parents. Born Niort, February 25, 1978. Under no circumstances should you call them—just try to find out as much about them as possible. Apparently Laura and her parents had a frosty relationship . . . Could he make a start on working out why? She thanks him with a weary smile before turning on her heel and joining Jean in the corridor.
“Well the psychiatrist has agreed to see me. I would rather go alone, but he’s asked for Léna to be there too . . . I’m having dinner with her afterward,” he adds, a touch flustered.
“Léna! Well, if it’s not broken . . .”
“You’re a pain in the ass, you know! We go for dinner once a month. She’s the only childhood friend I have left. You grew up in Paris. You wouldn’t have a clue what it feels like, losing your roots.”
Rachel smiles without saying a word. For them, seduction is a game that never plays out. One night, after a particularly tense operation in a Cameroonian squat, the two of them had gone on a bar-crawl along rue Oberkampf. They ended up in Cythéa at 3:00 a.m. After dancing for half an hour to remixed Bollywood tunes, the stress had eased completely. Slumped in front of their Abbaye beers, their conversation became flirty. Jean had looked Rachel straight in the eye, not saying a word. She turned the tables.
“What are you thinking about right now?”
“Do you really want to know?”
“About this . . .”
He leaned in and kissed her. Rachel responded to his lips with an energy that surprised and terrified him. A fear of not being up to it; of not wanting it enough. A familiar old defense mechanism. In general, girls didn’t pick up on it. Pretended not to, anyway. Once you’ve kissed, you’ve got to push on through, right? Rachel had pulled back, puzzled.
“What exactly are you looking for?” she asked.
“If only I knew.”
The spell was broken. A cloud descended over Jean. Rachel defused the situation.
“One: we work together . . . it would be a damn shambles, a complete nightmare. Two: it was worth a try, otherwise we’d always have it lurking at the back of our minds. Three: stop sulking like that or I’ll leave immediately, which would be a bummer for me as my glass is empty and it’s your round!”
Jean laughed. Not very heartily, but he did laugh.
“You know, it’s nothing to do with you. I enjoy your company, it’s fun getting smashed together. That’s what life’s about. But deep inside me—here in my chest—there’s a burden that weighs me down and never completely goes away.”
Five minutes later, they were back at the bar getting some beers. Rachel had given him a tiny peck on the cheek.
“That’s why we could never be lovers. You’re too gloomy for me. With all the family and ethnic baggage I have to lug around, it’s a matter of surviving mentally. I will always choose life.
She raised her glass.
“It’s Hebrew, it means ‘to life!’.”
They clinked glasses.
It had come up two or three times, always on Rachel’s initiative. It mattered to her that the facts were straight and that her memory of it was preserved.
Nowadays, several months later, she likes to mess around with him, tease him. She’s essentially a bit jealous, in a sisterly sort of way. Neither of them has siblings and they cherish the bond that was so lacking in their younger years.
Barely a five-minute walk to Onur’s restaurant, the Antalya Royal Kebab. It’s the last joint on avenue Jean-Jaurès. Jean imagines a massive road sign warning drivers:
WARNING! LAST KEBAB HOUSE BEFORE
He loves making silly jokes, but maybe now’s not the best time for this one. He decides to save it for later. They met Onur a few months back. An insignificant case involving his younger brother, Rüstem, dealing weed. They had let it slide on the understanding that Onur would handle it. Now the teenager is serving an apprenticeship as a
in Orléans, coming home on weekends to work at the family kebab shop. Onur—thirty years old, broad forehead, not a lot of hair left—welcomes them with a big smile.
“Salad, tomato, onions? This one’s on the house!”
He chuckles to himself, as he always does. The two police officers never go for the kebabs, which are weirdly called “Greek” sandwiches. They tend to prefer his honey-heavy pastries and the kind of strong black coffee you get in Istanbul. On top of this, they always insist on paying their way, a matter of principle.
“Thanks Onur, we’ll take two teas and two of your extra-sticky
Rachel lowers her voice just to be on the safe side. The only customer is a man—very pale and very thin—sitting by himself under the flat-screen, watching a Turkish music channel. A girl in a miniskirt is swaying her hips sexily on a beach. The volume is turned all the way down.
“And you’re going to do us a favor, too. We need a word with two of your regulars. Bintou and Aïcha. When they get here can you tell them that we’d like to meet them somewhere a little more private. Don’t worry—they haven’t done anything wrong, but it’s important. Reassure them and tell them to come find us at Café de la Musique. At the back on the left. Do you think they’ll listen to you?”
“Yes, I’ll tell them they can trust you. They’re good girls, you know . . . Nothing’s going to happen to them?”
“We’ll make sure nothing does. As far as possible.”
He looks Rachel in the eye. His voice catches slightly.
“I liked Laura very much. She was one of my customers . . .”
“Ah . . . so you’ve heard.”
“Everyone in the neighborhood has. Go and take a seat—I’ll bring your order over.”
Two minutes later, Onur is back. As he serves them, he says discreetly: “There’s a new drug doing the rounds. Pills similar to ecstasy, but with a different effect—stronger. They’re blue I think. I overheard some customers talking about them. They’d bought them very nearby, either in parc la Villette or by rue Petit. There you go, that’s it—I just wanted to warn you.”
The two lieutenants sit there in thoughtful silence. Barely three minutes later, two 23-year-old girls—tall and very beautiful—enter the kebab shop. The first has dark black skin and an Angela Davis hairstyle, and is wearing a white blouse and some flared jeans. On her feet are some yellow Onitsuka Tiger Asics sneakers. The other girl has a much fairer, almost milky, complexion and curly auburn hair tied up at the back with a shiny black clip. She is sporting Indian-style clothes: a shimmering green gown over white cotton pants and a pair of leather sandals. Blown away by this double vision of beauty, Jean and Rachel watch Onur lean toward them and indicate the table where the officers are sitting with an almost invisible nod, before carrying on talking. The students don’t turn around, listen to the end, and take their seats, only then stealing a glance over at Rachel. Onur tips some frozen chips into the metal basket and plunges them into the boiling oil. Jean and Rachel calmly finish their cake, get up, and pay.
“Thanks Onur, see you next time.”
Jean is so deep in thought that he doesn’t notice the colossal guy hurtling past him as he steps out of the kebab shop, literally sending him back inside. Stunned, Jean’s eyes stay on the man as he turns right down sente des Dorées. He instinctively makes a mental note of the man’s appearance: six foot two; two hundred and forty pounds; straggly, medium-length blond hair; blue shell-suit bottoms; bright-yellow zip-up nylon tracksuit jacket. A pure ’70s throwback. The image etches itself in his mind despite not catching his face. Weird. The stranger reminds him of somebody but he’s struggling to figure out who. An ominous family resemblance. He sees the man pile into Sam’s barber shop. Stranger by the second. He tenses up. Rachel grabs him by the elbow and drags him across the street toward parc de la Villette.
“Hey, wake up! We’ve got to get a move on or they’ll have finished their chips. And we don’t even know how we’re going to handle this. I wasn’t expecting them to be like that at all.”
They cross the road.
“What do you mean ‘like that’?”
“Serious bombshells, but not bimbos. Bright bombshells. In this neighborhood, that’s hardly the norm—it kind of threw me . . .”
“You know you can be called Bintou and Aïcha, live in the nineteenth and still go to college . . . Let them do the talking first—then just follow your gut feeling. You’re a girl, you grew up nearby—you can play the big sister card. In any case, they already know about Laura’s death along with everyone else in the area. All we need to know for now is where they are on the fear scale.”
“Wow! I’m going to write that one down. ‘The fear scale’ . . .”
Jean doesn’t rise to the bait. They enter the café in silence.
Same table and armchairs as this morning. The two lieutenants are pushing the boundaries of presentability. They barely slept a wink last night after staying up to write their preliminary report for the chief. Today’s been strange—a feeling of weightlessness as they’ve drifted between Ahmed, Fernanda, and a few telephone calls at the office. A day spent waiting for this meeting with Bintou and Aïcha. And now they are not even that sure what they’re doing here. Perhaps that is the right approach: not knowing, knowing nothing, being sure of nothing. Being open. Silence, pause, coffees. After five minutes the two friends appear and approach them nervously. Rachel smiles and motions at them to sit down. She addresses the young black girl.
“You must be Bintou?”
“And you’re Aïcha?”
The waiter arrives. Bintou orders a tomato juice and Aïcha has a cappuccino.
“Is this about Laura’s death?”
“What do you want to know?”
Rachel smiles sadly.
“Everything . . . We know virtually nothing about the late Mademoiselle Vignola apart from her job, that she was friends with you and . . .”—she pauses, hesitates, and decides not to bring up Ahmed right away—“. . . and that it would appear that she’d fallen out with her parents, though we don’t even know why. So you see we don’t have much to go on.”
Silence. The two friends look at each other. A quiet nod from Bintou. Aïcha gets things started.
“You know we heard about Laura last night around midnight. We were together at my place when Fernanda—Madame Vieira—called Bintou’s cell. She asked us to come see her. She said it was urgent and very important. She seemed extremely upset and didn’t want to say anything over the phone. I live around the corner—rue Eugène-Jumin. Five minutes later we were in her lodge. Fernanda looked distraught; white as a sheet. We’d never seen her like that and we’ve known her since we were little . . . We used to go around to her place and she’d make us bread with loads of butter and strawberry jam which we dipped in our Nesquik . . . She’s Lourdes’ mother—all our moms treated the other kids as if they were their own . . . She sat us down and was barely able to speak. “Laura, Laura . . .” That was all she could bring herself to say: just saying her first name over and over. We had already guessed but we didn’t want to believe it. Finally she let it all out in one breath. “Dead, killed, murdered.” I will never forget the way she said that, never in all my life. We wept together, all three of us, crying our eyes out. There you have it. That’s it. She didn’t see anything, apparently. Just heard the police talking to each other. It sounded horrible, but she spared us the details. At 2:00 a.m. we left and went back to my place. We had to be together. We kept on crying and fell asleep in each other’s arms. This morning we slept in. At 1:00 p.m. we left to go to school. We told ourselves that’s what Laura would have wanted. For us not to sink into despair; for this not to stop us from doing what we needed to do. She was a strong girl, Laura. But she had no enemies. I don’t get it . . . Who would do something like this? I don’t get it . . .”
Aïcha shakes her head. She is desolate, she has nothing more to say.
“No enemies?” Rachel says.
Bintou and Aïcha share a rather pained look. Silence. Bintou’s turn to speak.
“She had issues with her family. But I can’t imagine a parent doing something like that to their daughter—this isn’t Kurdistan . . .”
“What sort of issues?”
“The Vignolas are Jehovah’s Witnesses. Laura was brought up as one. Completely nuts! Anyone not like them is considered a demon, the world’s going to end tomorrow, no movie theater trips, no birthday celebrations . . . It’s pretty straightforward—basically everything is banned. Laura left when she turned eighteen. She started planning her escape when she was thirteen. Her parents never forgave her, preferred to consider her dead. She really struggled to get them out of her head—them and the Witnesses. She was really courageous. For years she lived in a hostel for young workers. She worked as a checkout girl at Carrefour during the day and learned English in the evening. Her dream ever since she was small had been to work as an air hostess for Air France. She persisted for six years and ended up getting recruited on the day of her twenty-sixth birthday. Three weeks later she moved here. She tried to go and visit her parents at least once a year, but they chased her off as though she was the devil incarnate. Her last attempt was less than two weeks ago. Hopeless, as ever.”