HE WAITED five minutes, then ten, then fifteen. At eighteen minutes past, Frederik Abaroa crushed his most recent cigarette and downed the rest of his drink. It would take him two minutes to get upstairs and into the room, provided he didn’t meet anyone along the way, but that was the trouble with a whorehouse: someone was always coming or going.
He took a quick survey of the room. The club was crowded tonight, and the band was making a fair hash of Glenn Miller’s “A String of Pearls” while several ersatz couples clung to each other in various approximations of connubial bliss. The drummer—a large, pale man with the florid complexion of a ready drinker—was bashing his cymbals with a wholly unnecessary vigor. The room was hot and close and smelled of sweat and too much cheap perfume. He saw Jake Plenty talking to the bartender while Maurice fussed with a tray of drinks. Jake’s back was to the room, but Abaroa wasn’t stupid. He firmly believed Jake could see out of the back of his head.
Abaroa left his table and crossed the main floor of the club by the most circuitous route possible, passing the central cluster of tables and threading his way through the crush of dancing couples. The sounds of the baccarat game filtered through the casino’s heavy double doors as Abaroa passed, and he felt his pockets reflexively. No, he had lost enough in Jake’s Paradise already this week. It wouldn’t do to compound one error with another.
The red-and-orange floor tiles seemed to throb and pulsate, and the potted palms slapped at him with spiny green fingers. He was sweating. The brothel was one huge, rococo landscape, and he but a tiny flyspeck in the midst of it—an insignificant thing most likely to be crushed by the juggernaut of unstoppable events, trampled underfoot and forgotten as if he had never existed.
He gained the stairs with half a minute to spare and stopped to look back at the room. No one noticed him, but no one ever did. The Basque might as well have been invisible. The couples were still dancing; the floor tiles still pulsed and throbbed; Jake Plenty was still talking to the bartender. No one in Maarif knew who Jake Plenty really was or where he’d come from. He was as much an enigma as the French préfet de police, Nicolas Renard. Rumor had it that Plenty and Renard had served alongside each other in the Légion etrangère—the French Foreign Legion—distinguishing themselves at Gallipoli, but rumor was Maarif’s second-biggest export and not always to be believed. Rumor also had it that Plenty had killed a man in San Francisco, in some dispute over a woman, but Abaroa didn’t believe it. He didn’t believe it because Plenty didn’t seem the type to kill someone over a woman—oh, Plenty could definitely kill somebody, but a woman would be the least part of the equation.
As Abaroa watched, Jake turned and gazed toward the staircase, a half-smoked cigarette dangling from his fingers—but his glance was a gesture only, a means to ease the posture, and Abaroa was confident Jake saw nothing. He continued up the stairs, moving slowly, like a man in a dream or someone wading through deep water. His instructions were explicit; he knew what he had to do, and a great deal had gone into tonight’s plan. Many more lives besides his own were at stake.
“THERE WILL be a train coming through Maarif. It will stop long enough to put down a group of Boches, visiting on behalf of Vichy.” She fished a crumpled photograph from the depths of the djellaba and slid it across the table.
He examined it, then tore it into little pieces and scattered them on the floor under his feet. The fragments would mix with the dirt and sawdust, and in an hour or two, the face of Feldwebel Horst Stussel would be indistinguishable from the rest of the garbage.
“He has two exit visas, signed by General Weygand. He is bringing them to one of the girls, a blonde named Yvette. She has convinced him she is in love with him, and they plan to leave Maarif together.”
Jake’s girls came from various backgrounds, but all of them were beautiful, and all of them had been carefully selected to cater to patrons’ tastes. Jake didn’t allow anything too violent or too dangerous in Paradise, but within those simple guidelines, a world of pleasures could be had.
Luisa was from Barcelona and had trained as a dominatrix with the great-great-great-granddaughter of the Marquis de Sade—or so people said. She was easily six feet tall and wore a man’s suit and men’s shoes and carried a riding crop under her arm like a lesser Prussian general. Her thick, shining black hair was caught up at the back of her head in a tight knot, and she wore leather bracelets on her wrists. It made Abaroa shiver—albeit deliciously—just to look at her. Her prices were rather more than Jake charged for his other girls, but then, the things Luisa did took skill and training. “It’s not just brutality,” Jake explained once, “it’s an art. There are men in this world who will pay for that kind of art, and I intend to get it out of them.”
Rolande had been with Jake since the beginning, when he had come to Morocco after the last war. She was extremely dark and extremely beautiful—a dancer who had trained at one time with the Ballets Russes in Moscow. Some said she had spent time in prison and Jake had gotten her out, and she worked for him out of gratitude, but Abaroa didn’t believe it. There was an evil gleam in Rolande’s eye and anger in her gestures, and he knew whatever it was that enraged her would come out some day, and violently. Still, she could do things with her mouth and her muscled thighs and dancer’s buttocks that a great many men paid highly for. A single night with her was said to cost a king’s ransom and was worth every penny.
Yvette was, as her name suggested, French, from the luscious wine country of Bordeaux—a redhead with a tiny waist and full, beautifully shaped breasts that strained against the thin cotton of her country blouse. She enjoyed costumes, and her specialty was a trick she did with ribbons. It was Yvette whom Abaroa had come to see.
Each girl in Jake’s employ had a room of her own in which to entertain her clients. The rooms were decorated according to each girl’s personal taste, as well as her specialty. Jake had taken the precaution of having all the rooms in Paradise soundproofed, a measure Abaroa was personally grateful for. He found Yvette’s room and, without knocking, cracked the door.
Yvette was nude, on her knees before the German, who was reclining on the bed with his legs apart, his cock in her mouth, and innumerable colored ribbons streaming from his backside and his private parts. He was dark-haired and dark-eyed—hardly the Aryan ideal, but Abaroa supposed that beggars couldn’t be choosers, and maybe Stussel’s relatives were more highly placed than most. He seemed to be enjoying Yvette’s attentions, bouncing his hips and pressing himself into her mouth. Perhaps, Abaroa reflected, he ought to let the poor bastard come, to have one last sieg heil before Abaroa sent him roughly into his own personal night, but there wasn’t time.
He slid his right hand into his dinner jacket and brought out a straight razor. Yvette tossed her hair and her eyes met his, but only for a moment. Abaroa stepped silently into the room, closer to the German on the bed but not so close as to be discoverable. He slid one hand underneath the German’s chin, yanked his head back, and drew the razor in one long, deep arc across the throat. The blood leaped up, darkly red, splattering the bedsheets, the walls, and Yvette.
She threw her hands up to shield her face from the spray and fell back on the floor. “Is he dead?” she whispered.
“Yes.” Abaroa helped her up. “Where are his clothes?”
“There.” She was trembling. Abaroa gave her his handkerchief. “On the chair. His jacket.”
Abaroa delved into the pockets and pulled out a thick brown envelope stamped with German routing codes. He opened it and pulled out a sheaf of papers, and a great wave of relief went shimmering through him. “Good,” he said. “Good.” He crossed to where Yvette was and stroked her bloodied cheek.
She was weeping. “Vive la France,” she whispered.
“Yes,” Abaroa said. “Vive la France.”
He slipped past her and out into the corridor, walking silently on the balls of his feet. To casual observers, it would appear he was looking for something. There were no casual observers. Abaroa tried a door at the far end of the hall and found it unlocked. He spoke some quiet words to whoever was inside and closed the door again. Then he was moving down the stairs, descending into the noise and bustle of the club, and from there again into the darkness of the desert night. A keen observer would have seen he was, by that time, empty-handed.
CAPTAIN NICOLAS Renard, préfet de police for the city of Maarif, was generally repulsed by the sight of blood. It was so entirely unnecessary, he thought, to make such a mess. Renard hadn’t actually touched any of the blood but couldn’t stop wiping his hands on his handkerchief. It would take forever to get the stains out of the rugs, he thought, and as for the pale pink paint on the walls, well…. Renard allowed himself a mental shrug, a luxury peculiar to the Gallic soul, and stowed his handkerchief in an inside pocket.
“I want everything he left behind,” he said. “Go over this entire room with a toothcomb.” He stood well away from his men, watching their progress closely but not interfering. Renard, unlike many others of his ilk, had absolute faith in his men to carry out their duties with efficiency and tact. He had trained them, after all. He had not expressly forbidden Jake’s girls to gather in the doorway and watch the proceedings with horrified fascination, and besides, the presence of several scantily clad prostitutes—many of them hanging on his every gesture—could only enhance his reputation as a Frenchman.
Like most of his countrymen, Renard was vain of his figure and his dress. At forty-five, he was still trim and remarkably fit, and he kept himself that way by swimming in the sea every morning before breakfast. He was just under five and a half feet tall, more than sufficient for a Frenchman, and his body underneath his clothes was the lithe, taut-muscled body of a habitual swimmer. There was an expression of mocking good humor in his brown eyes, overlaid with a little sadness, and his ridiculously clean hands were gentle. He had been married once, or so the stories went, but it ended tragically. He kept no mistress as far as anyone in Maarif knew, and it was whispered that the only reason he visited Jake’s Paradise was to see Jake.
“Nicolas, what the hell is going on here?” Jake Plenty shoved his way into the room. “You trying to close me down?”
“Ah, Jake, my boy, there you are.” Renard cocked an eyebrow in his direction. “Do come in, but be careful where you are stepping. I’m afraid your murderer has left rather a large mess behind him.” Renard spoke the King’s English remarkably well and with an upper-class accent, the unavoidable result of his having been raised by his maiden Aunt Dimity in Dover from the age of seven.
“Murderer?” Jake looked terrible: pale and drawn, his face pouchy with exhaustion. Renard filed this information away, with all the other little bits of things he had noticed about Jake over the years. “What are you talking about?” He stopped short, his gaze irresistibly drawn to the blood.
It was the same with everyone, Renard reflected: once they’d seen the blood, it was all they saw. He took out his handkerchief, wiped his hands again.
“Someone has been murdered in this room. Judging by the volume of blood, I’d say it was a man and that he had his throat cut.” Renard crouched and waved his hand over the stain. “You can see the way it happened. The throat was quite handily slit from ear to ear. That’s the only way to do it, if you’re at all serious. The murderer was right-handed.” He straightened, knee joints protesting, and positioned himself against the wall, just behind the bed. “The victim was lying down, most likely on his back, when it happened, which means the murderer stood behind him, roundabout where I am standing now. He would have bent over, lifted the man’s chin up, and slit his throat that way.” Renard tilted his head to one side, a gesture that meant he was thinking. “He died quickly, if that’s any consolation. The first two heartbeats immediately after the cut would have pumped out massive amounts of blood.” Renard indicated the arterial spray on the bed, the resultant spatter on the walls. “He’s probably got it on his clothes too, and in his hair.”
Jake cursed fluently, walked half a dozen short steps toward the door, turned, and came back again. “A customer. Someone came in here and killed one of my customers.”
“Yes, I believe so.” Renard gazed at him curiously. “You all right?”
“No, Nicolas, I’m not all right. If this gets out—”
“If this gets out,” Renard said, “Paradise will have gained an unexpected cachet. You’ll be turning them away from the doors.” He clenched his fists and fought the urge to wipe his hands again. There was a slight commotion in the doorway; a policeman with a camera pushed his way past the girls and into the room. “Photograph all of it,” Renard said. “What a pity the body isn’t here.”
“You….” Jake blinked, confused. “You mean you didn’t…?”
“Oh, no, Jake.” Renard smiled. “I didn’t give any order to remove the body to the morgue. I’ve no idea where it is.”
Jake stared at Renard for several long moments while the girls twittered in the doorway and Renard’s men moved quietly about the room, combing every surface for forensic evidence. “You didn’t. So he just got up and walked away? Is that it?”
“Oh, don’t fuss at me,” Renard replied, archly. “It isn’t my fault the corpse has vanished. And by the way, I’ll be interested in questioning you, Jake, my dear.” He reached into his tunic and took out a leather-bound notebook. “As the proprietor of this… place… you’ll probably end up being my star witness.”
“You think I bumped off one of my own customers?” Jake said. His gut did a series of small flip-flops, even as his face retained its usual impassive demeanor. He wouldn’t go to jail, and especially not here, not even for someone as decent as Renard. He wouldn’t allow anyone to lock him up in anything resembling a walled room, not ever again.
“I never said so.” Renard flipped his notebook open to a clean page. “Which one of your girls normally used this room?”
Jake thought for a moment. “That would be Yvette,” he said.
“Ah,” Renard replied, “that glorious redhead! Where might she be?” If the girl had been in the room when the murder took place, she would have seen everything, including the man who’d done it. Renard amended this mentally: the killer was most likely a man, but he wouldn’t be surprised if one of Jake’s girls had taken a knife to a customer. Some men had no idea how to behave in the company of a lady.
“I haven’t seen her. She came upstairs with that German, the one they called Stussi, but that was hours ago,” one of the girls in the doorway said—a little blonde with the flat, muscled belly of a dancer. She was wearing a pink negligee with a pattern of roses around the bodice and roses in her hair. Like the other girls, she went barefoot, and her nakedness was tantalizingly visible underneath the sheer nightdress. She had probably come to Maarif from elsewhere, hoping, like so many others, to book a passage to America and freedom—until her funds dried up, and she found herself stranded.
It could have been worse, Renard reflected. At least Jake treated his girls like human beings, paid them a fair wage, and saw to their medical needs. Some of the other brothels Renard had seen around Maarif still gave him nightmares, and his office was almost daily flooded with complaints about filthy dives and girls imprisoned in white slavery. The allegations almost always came from the outraged wives of foreign travelers, overrouged middle-aged women who insisted that no, monsieur would never frequent a brothel. Renard always nodded politely and offered them coffee, took their statements, and pretended their feigned outrage was justified. On good days it amused him; on bad days it made him feel tired—and a little old.
“Has anyone seen her?” he asked the girls. None of them had. “Then she isn’t on the premises?” Renard asked. He spoke to his aide-de-camp, Lt. Andine. “Take three men and go downstairs. Search the premises for the girl. And station men at each exit. I want to know where she is.” He gestured at Jake that they should step out into the corridor. “Let’s leave my men to their work.”
The group of women parted for Jake like a sea of nubile flesh. “All right,” he said, “back to work.” He turned to Renard. “Nicolas, perhaps we might discuss matters in my office?”
“Would this offer include a brandy?” Renard asked. It was late; he was tired and his feet hurt.
“Then I accept.”
JAKE’S OFFICE was up a flight of stairs from the main floor of the “nightclub,” but situated on the opposite end of the building from the rooms his girls used to entertain customers. Jake never really closed, but around half past one or two o’clock every morning, he would turn the place over to his Dutch barman, Piet, and disappear upstairs.
Jake’s private apartment was sumptuously furnished with the best accoutrements money could buy: opulent couches and fine Oriental carpets, original paintings of desert scenes, and even a water pipe, although Renard had never seen him use it. Most things he had managed to find in the local souk, but some things he had had shipped in—the huge brass elephants near the street-side window, Renard knew, had come from India, probably via the black market—and others he had picked up on his travels.
Most of the foreign nationals in Maarif could be considered refugees, but Jake, who had arrived here before the war, was more able than most to afford the creature comforts. His walls were hung with swaths of printed silk in red and flame orange, and his four-poster bed, although large, was not so huge as to dwarf the rest of the furniture. He kept a desk in here, and a liquor cabinet, and the only access to his wall safe was through Jake’s private quarters. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust anyone—he’d said this to Renard late one evening while they sipped cognac together in the gathering darkness—it was that he didn’t trust anyone.
“Here.” Jake handed Renard a glass of brandy and threw himself into a chair. He reached to loosen his collar and tie. “You aren’t honestly going to say you suspect me.”
“No.” Renard sighed and sipped his brandy. “No, Jake, that isn’t what I am going to say at all.” He regarded Jake with genuine concern. “When is the last time you slept, hmm? Been to bed at all in the past few days?” Jake’s bed—as both image and metaphor—gave Renard a pleasant thrill, but he kept it to himself. Renard’s imagination—at least as far as Jake was concerned—was a damnable thing: much too eager to provide him with tantalizing mental images of Jake alone in his bed and gloriously nude.
“I’m fine.” Jake lit a cigarette and contemplated the chessboard on the coffee table. He reached out and moved a piece, reconsidered, and moved it back to where it was.
“You don’t look fine. You look horrible, if you must know.” Renard lit a cigarette of his own. “Been having nightmares?”
Jake moved another chess piece. “No.” He looked up at Renard. “Do you think one of my customers killed that guy?”
“No,” Renard sighed. “I’m afraid I don’t think that at all.”
“What do you think?”
“Jake, I’m going to tell you something that isn’t exactly common knowledge, and I hope you will keep it to yourself. In fact, I am going to insist that you keep it to yourself, on pain of arrest and imprisonment.” Renard smiled faintly. “You wouldn’t like our cells. They aren’t very sanitary, I’m afraid. I know how much you prize cleanliness.” He gestured at the room with his cigarette. “Look at this place, for instance. Utterly spotless. Doesn’t smell at all like a whorehouse.”
“Go to hell,” Jake said cheerfully. He forced himself not to shudder. He was getting better at it.
“What do you know about the Resistance leader, Salazar?”
Jake moved the chess piece again. He didn’t look at Renard this time. “Never heard of him.”
“And now I know you’re lying.” Renard took out his notebook again. “Everyone has heard of Salazar. He was imprisoned in Drancy, awaiting transfer to—well, it hardly matters—but he escaped. That alone was enough to put him on the map.”
“Salazar,” Jake said. “Spanish?”
“The name Salazar is his nom de guerre,” Renard said. “His real name is Christophe Picard—” He regarded Jake through narrowed eyes. “Ah” was all he said. He waited.
Jake moved chess pieces on the board, smoked his cigarette till it was gone, and sipped his brandy. The clock on the desk ticked away the minutes. He stood up abruptly and walked to the window. “Sometimes I hate your guts,” he said. He shoved his fists into his trouser pockets.
Renard got up and went to stand behind him. It was very late—or rather, very early. The streets were empty, the good citizens of Maarif driven to their homes by the ever-present curfew. He stood close enough to smell Jake’s aftershave lotion, the very slight must of the day’s accumulated sweat, and the deeper, warmer scent of his body. Renard swayed toward Jake’s heat, wondering if he would ever have the courage to reach out, to touch, to take what he wanted. He waited, listening to the gentle susurration of Jake’s breath in the darkness. “Salazar is coming here,” he said. “Salazar is coming to Maarif.”
THE MORNING rays of the hot desert sun bothered Nicolas Renard’s eyes. Some years before, at Gallipoli, his battalion had taken shelter in the cellar of an abandoned house and was shelled with mustard gas. Immediately after the attack, Renard, like all the others, rubbed his eyes, unwittingly scrubbing the corrosive vesicatory deeper into his corneas and blinding himself for several long, frightening months. He finished out the war in a Scottish hospital, wearing dark goggles and wondering whether he would ever see properly again. His vision had returned in time, but he had been overly sensitive to sunlight ever since and insisted on heavy Venetian blinds on his office windows.
Standing with his aide, Lt. Andine, he forced himself not to blink or squint unduly, and the effort cost him. He would have a roaring headache this afternoon, no doubt about it. He didn’t know why Vichy was sending a deputation to Maarif—the city had no official German presence and was hardly likely to excite more than a momentary frisson of interest on anybody’s radar. There was nothing in Maarif of logistic or strategic importance. The only reason Renard could think of for a German delegation to visit now was Feldwebel Horst Stussel’s murder—not quite the “inspection tour” promised by the official communiqué, but Renard knew better than to believe anything coming out of Vichy. The unofficial word was that Stussel had been the nephew of a particularly highly placed party official, and his murder in this North African backwater was something of an embarrassment.
It had been four days precisely since Stussel’s murder, and Frederik Abaroa seemed to have vanished off the face of the Earth. He hadn’t been at Jake’s Paradise since Stussel was killed, and his usual flat—a shabby suite of rooms above a fruit stand in the souk—was empty. The rich foreign women—who seemed to provide the whole of Abaroa’s income—found themselves disconsolate and lonely, with no one to take them walking on the Corniche or to listen to their woes over an aquavit in Jake’s Paradise at night. They drifted around the main square of Maarif in their fine silk dresses, wearing the last vestiges of their prewar jewelry, and mourned the absence of the dashing, big-eyed Basque with the captivating accent and the lovely manners.
The prostitute Yvette had also disappeared, and some said she had been killed as well, murdered behind Jake’s Paradise and buried somewhere out there in the desert. She had left all her paltry belongings in the brothel, including her shoes and a few pieces of jewelry that had been gifts from grateful clients. It was even money, Renard thought, whether her body would turn up. Corpses tended not to last very long in Maarif, and even before Stussel’s murder, bodies disappeared with astonishing regularity—
—but never from his custody.
The roar of the approaching engines filled the air, and Renard stiffened to attention, as did Andine. “Here they come,” Renard murmured. “I can hardly wait for this.”
“Mon capitaine, if you are unwell….”
“I’m fine,” Renard snapped—and immediately regretted it. Andine was only trying to help, but perhaps he didn’t particularly want to be helped. “I dislike these sorts of situations. I have absolutely no desire to be here.”
Andine didn’t look at him. “Oui, mon capitaine.”
The plane bounced a time or two on its way down, but taxied to the end of the runway without incident. Renard arranged his face in a suitably receptive expression. “No idea why they’re here. They have no business….” But the door was opening, and Major Aleksander Danzig was descending, trailing a little cloud of sycophants. “Here they are.”
Andine leaned close. “Shall I have them killed, sir?”
Renard suppressed a snigger, but only just. “Remind me to give you a raise,” he said. “Major Danzig!” Renard’s salute was just that and not the expected sieg heil, but if Danzig minded, he said nothing about it. He was a tall, thin man, hollow cheeked and faintly cadaverous, with the slender white hands of an artist or an aesthete, and a petulant, rosebud mouth that appeared to be eternally pursed under his neat moustache. Renard had met a priest in Toulon who’d had exactly that same sort of mouth; he’d been imprisoned for diddling little boys. “Welcome to Maarif.”
“So good of you to welcome me, Renard.” Danzig’s expression said Renard’s welcome was notably lacking in the sort of civilities one ought to roll out for a visiting dignitary, and he, personally, had decided to take offense. “This place is quite unremarkable… quite unremarkable. I had expected something more civilized.” He snapped his fingers, and a young blond man rushed forward bearing Danzig’s luggage under both his arms. “I suppose it will have to do.” He nodded at Renard, and the party moved across the tarmac. “I was quite unhappy to hear about the murder of this young man. Quite unhappy indeed.”
“Herr major was most unhappy,” the blond man said. He had the lunatic blue eyes and fixed expression of a Hitlerjugend graduate. “Most unhappy.”
Privately, Renard remarked that unhappiness was probably Danzig’s normal emotional state. “Right this way. I have a car waiting.” As soon as Renard had received notice of Danzig’s visit, he had instructed Andine to haul out the finest car in the police fleet and to have it shined and ready. Renard was interested in making the major’s visit go as smoothly and as swiftly as possible. The quicker Danzig was on the plane back home the better. Renard didn’t enjoy keeping up a faÃ§ade, but understood the necessity of pretending, especially in time of war. Luckily, he dissembled very well and could assume certain attributes at will.
“Feldwebel Stussel was one of our brightest young men,” Danzig said. “A credit to the party, and to the FÃ¼hrer. We expected great things of him.” He set off across the tarmac at a brisk pace that forced the shorter Renard to almost run to keep up with him.
“I am sorry,” Renard replied; he wasn’t. “My car is just over this way, major.” It would be unseemly, he thought, to break into a run, but Danzig was doing his utmost to make Renard do just that.
“It is curious,” Danzig said, “that your investigation seems to be progressing so very slowly in this matter. We had expected better things of you, Renard.”
Oh, go to hell, Renard thought. His premonitions had been right: the heat was making him cranky. “A shame about the papers he was carrying. I expect the Third Reich will feel their loss most keenly.” This last was a stab in the dark. Renard had no idea if Stussel had been carrying anything at all, but Maarif being Maarif and this being wartime, it was a safe bet he’d been up to something, especially considering the influence of his family. It was an old policeman’s trick, but one Renard used a great deal because it worked. “Still,” he said breezily, “I suppose such things can hardly be helped.”
Danzig stopped and stared down at Renard. “What do you know about that?” he asked sharply. “Hmm? Who told you?”
His sudden anger had a hint of madness in it, and the desire to do violence. For a moment, Renard honestly feared Danzig might strike him, or worse. His heart thudded painfully in his chest. He forced himself calm, leaned back, and gazed up at Danzig with guileless brown eyes. “Well…,” he said slowly, “…I fear he may have let it slip… the girls, you see.” Renard chuckled. “You know women.”
Danzig let loose with a string of oaths. “How unsurprising,” he spat. “Everything in this place is contaminated! I should have known.” He spied the waiting car and quickened his pace; Renard struggled to keep up with him. “Why are you not doing more to find the murderer, hmm? Here I find you in the midst of a veritable crime wave, and you are doing nothing about it.”
Renard bit the inside of his cheek and fervently wished Danzig to the devil. “Oh, don’t worry, major,” he said airily. “I am confident I shall have the murderer in custody before the sun rises tomorrow.” He held the car door for Danzig, his smile indicating this was an honor he couldn’t possibly leave to an underling. “After you, major,” he murmured.
“Well, you will be able to enjoy your victory over your morning strudel.” Danzig peered into the car’s interior and stepped back to allow the young blond man to sweep the seats carefully with a handkerchief. Only then did he fold his long arms and legs inside.
Renard was reminded of a praying mantis or some other similarly vile insect. “Hardly that,” he said. He moved to sit and was hastily intercepted by the blond man, who climbed in and sat next to Danzig. “My modesty would never allow it. And anyway, I always take petit pain for breakfast.” He fixed his gaze out the window of the car, willing the skyline of Maarif to appear on the horizon.
ABAROA WAITED till it was fully dark before venturing back to Paradise. He wasn’t so stupid as to think he could slip by patrols unnoticed. If there was anything unusual going on in Maarif, someone would see it, and that same someone would, like as not, report it to the authorities. The whole place was buzzing with speculation about Stussel’s murder, and thus it was vital that Abaroa allay suspicion. It would appear very suspicious indeed for him to stay away from Paradise. He was as much a fixture there as Renard.
Abaroa dressed himself in his most unremarkable clothing, gray trousers and a paler gray shirt, and parted his hair on the opposite side. He wore no jewelry or scent and switched his usual cigarettes for a packet of the local brand. He caught a taxi to Paradise and waited as a bus disgorged a group of English tourists, all slightly intoxicated, chattering loudly to one another, and oblivious to their surroundings. He waited till the doorman waved them through and slipped in behind them.
The band was playing “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” and people were singing and clapping along. There seemed to be an eager crowd tonight, and already Jake’s girls were circling the floor, looking for the evening’s first customers.
Abaroa took a table near the door and ordered a champagne cocktail to try to quell his nerves. He hated burying bodies. It was bad enough to have to kill Stussel, though Abaroa had killed before. One corpse more or less in a time of war was hardly an issue. But a dead body was a hard thing to conceal, and a dead body wearing a German uniform even more so. Abaroa had borrowed a car, driven out into the desert, and buried Stussel’s body in the sand. He bundled the clothing with oil-soaked rags, set the whole of it alight well beyond the city gates, and scattered the ashes in the sand. Abaroa fervently hoped the carrion birds would find Stussel’s remains before any human did, but one could never be sure. That was the thing about Maarif: you never knew who might be here, or why they had come, or what they wanted. No one in Maarif was what he seemed; everyone had secrets, and some of them—like Abaroa’s secret—required the most delicate handling.
“You sure do get around, don’t you?” Jake Plenty, dapper in dinner jacket and dark trousers, appeared suddenly at Abaroa’s table. He was smoking his usual cigarette, and there was an uncommon tightness around his eyes, but apart from that, he was as inscrutable as ever. “First you vanish into thin air, and then you show up here. What’s the story?”
“Please.” Abaroa beseeched Jake with large eyes. “Please let me sit here, at least for a little while. I have had a terrible shock.”
“Heard about Stussel, did you?” Jake leaned against the wall and drew on his cigarette. “Everybody’s laying bets on where the body went.”
Abaroa blinked at him. “Stussel? I have no idea what you are talking about.” His pulse boomed in his ears and his sweaty palms slipped on the glass when he tried to pick it up.
“Yeah, Stussel’s the one we found dead upstairs, in Yvette’s room. A sergeant, I think he was.” Jake’s keen gaze fixed Abaroa in a terrible light, examined him, dissected him. Jake knew, Abaroa was sure of it. Jake knew everything, and he would turn Abaroa over to the police, and it would all be for nothing, for nothing—
“How unfortunate,” Abaroa said. He forced himself to meet Jake’s gaze as if there were nothing wrong with him, nothing wrong at all. Why don’t you go and bother someone else? He couldn’t very well say that. It was Jake’s own place, after all, and he was certainly entitled to hang around wherever he wished. Abaroa got the distinct feeling Jake merely tolerated him for some reason known only to him. Under different circumstances and in the cold light of day, Jake despised him, Abaroa was sure of it.
“I expect the police will want to have a word with you,” Jake said. He took his time bringing the cigarette to his lips, and when he drew on it, the end glowed a fiery red. “Rumor mill says you’re the one who filled him full of daylight. Captain Renard will be fairly chomping at the bit to talk to you.”
“Yes,” Abaroa said, “I expect he will.”
“If you did it,” Jake said, “you’ll do the dance, you can bet on that.” He grinned an awful grin. “Or maybe they shoot guys in Morocco. I’m never really sure.”
“Yes, that’s fine,” Abaroa said tightly. “Now if you would just please—”
Renard appeared behind Jake’s shoulder as if summoned. “There you are,” he said to Jake, “as firmly ensconced in Paradise as ever.”
“Hello, Nicolas. Thought you were entertaining our esteemed visitors.” Perhaps it was merely Abaroa’s imagination, but Jake seemed to relax in Renard’s presence, spread out a little, and there was something in Renard’s reaction to him that piqued Abaroa’s curiosity.
“Yes, well—” Renard was interrupted by the sudden and noisy arrival of several large policemen. “Ah, right on time.” He sighed and cast a glance at Abaroa. “You know, I really am very sorry. It isn’t anything personal, but business is business.”
Abaroa’s blood froze in his veins. He cast about for an escape, but the doors and windows were blocked. Renard had been thinking ahead: there were policemen stationed simply everywhere. “Why?” he asked Renard. “For God’s sake, why?”
They seized him by the wrists and dragged him out, screaming and fighting. He kicked at them, struggled like a wildcat, but it was no use. They were simply too many.