I walk up to a large steel-framed door. It’s painted black and contains a hatch, which I presume opens when clients call on the door. I announce myself, but the small opening never opens. The door does however, and a female bouncer in a tight-fitted black suit lets me in. She asks me to part way with a hundred euros, which she explains will cover two drinks. I pull out my purse and hand over a hundred-euro note. She scans it before accepting my contribution. She tells me that all the women are bisexual and there is a menu on every table that tells all their rates and specialties.
Despite my ongoing transformation, I feel my confidence waning. Lesbian intermezzo aside, it is a territory I am neither too familiar nor too comfortable with. Yes, there is a certain thrill watching women and even touching them, but anything beyond this leaves me cold. Yet I decide to press on. I’m here to find a connection to the world of the Reaper victims – and perhaps even to the Reaper himself.
I sit down across from an aging prostitute. She introduces herself as Blue. She is Belgian, but considers herself Parisian through and through. She lights a cigarette, exhaling the smoke away from me, so as not to bother her client.
She says, “You know you are buying my company, right? It’s 300 euros an hour.”
“Yes, it’s no problem. I’m just here to talk.”
“That’s usually what the male clients say, but I haven’t had a woman paying for those services yet. Well I suppose there’s always a first.” She looks at me intensively, as if prying into my mind for alternative motives.
“So you say you are a writer, eh? What do you write about?”
“Well, I’m investigating an old crime, which is the basis for my novel.”
“Interesting, so you are a crime writer?”
“Sort of. Have you heard of the Reaper murders?”
“Look, honey…” She shifts herself slightly forward, leaning her elbow on her knee, which is resting on her other leg. “This is not something I can or want to discuss with you. No one here will, understand?” It’s not so much of a question as an order. She stands up, stubs out her cigarette and is about to leave. I grab her arm and look at her. Perhaps it’s my pleading eyes, perhaps it’s some chemistry that, however faint, is nevertheless present. She sits down.
“I’ll pay you well. Just name your price. And your terms,” I add.
She contemplates my offer for a brief moment. “OK, 2000 euros, and my name is kept out of anything you write. I want a contract, that sort of stuff. And we talk somewhere else.”
“2000 is a lot. How do I know the information you have is worth that amount?”
“Well, you don’t. Bring 2000 euros, pay half up front and put the rest on the table. If I haven’t told you what you need to know, then I only walk away with half.”
“Just tell me, do you know a woman by the name of Mademoiselle Ava? I believe she might have worked here.”
“Look, I have the information you need. It’s your call.”
“Fair enough. Where do I meet you?”
“At my apartment. 59 Rue de Lille. I get off in two hours, so 2:30 AM. If you’re not there the deal is off. The house code is 7019A and I’m on the third floor. Dehasse.”
“All right, I’ll be there.”
“Before you leave, have one last drink, but don’t tell anyone about our conversation. OK?” She walks to the bar and I see a man in a grey suit watching her as she passes him. He stands up and walks towards her. They start chatting and before long I see them leave together. I polish off another glass of Champagne before I make my own exit. It’s another two hours until our appointment and, without purpose or direction, I aimlessly stroll the cold streets of Paris. The air is misty and it soon starts to snow.
Her apartment is in the 7th arrondissement, historically home to the Parisian bourgeoisie and upper classes. It surprises me to find a working girl, in the strictest sense, in this part of town. But reality is often stranger than fiction and surprises are one of life’s pleasures, making matters all the more interesting. She’s wearing a silk robe and has a turban wrapped around her head. I write it off to a recent shower. She closes the door behind me before walking ahead through the entrance to the living room. It’s white and airy with a few pieces of modern furniture spartanly gracing the room.
“I don’t have any alcohol besides a bottle of Chardonnay. It’s either that, coffee, tea or water. Your call.”
“Coffee is fine, thanks.” I sit down on a cream-coloured two-seater, listening to the sounds emanating from the kitchen area. A coffee grinder explodes the relative silence only to come to an abrupt halt. I hear cups being manhandled and then bare feet on the wooden floor. Blue stands in front of me moments later. She hands me a mug of steaming coffee without asking if I’d like sugar or cream. It bears little consequence as I take neither, but it is yet another sign of restrained hostility to my presence.
“You have a nice place here,” I start, trying to break the ice.
“Did you bring the money?”
“I did, but there is a slight problem.”
“Which is?” she cuts me off.
“I can only write you a cheque. There is no way I can get ahold of two thousand in cash before Monday. It’s up to you, but it’s my last and only offer.” I take out a cheque that I have already prepared and push it towards her. She looks at it, considering her options.
“OK,” she agrees. “So what do you want to know?”
The first question throws me off, and I realise I’m not particularly prepared for this impromptu inquisition.
“Well, like I said, I am writing a book on the Reaper murders, revisiting the case with fresh eyes. It’s, after all, more than twelve years since the last murders took place, and time does have a tendency to soften people’s motivations to stay silent.” She takes a cigarette and lights it. I feel a compulsive urge to join her, only to find myself staring at an empty pack. She pushes a pack of Marlboro Lights across the table and I gratefully help myself to one.
“Two of the victims, Marie Laroche and Leila Girard, were working at Sin City. Marie was the first victim, Leila the fourth. From what I’ve been able to ascertain they shared an apartment for a while before the murders. And they were both working at the same establishment. I came across an interview with a Mademoiselle Ava who was also a roommate. Now, it seems to me that this is more than a coincidence. Two friends, living together and working at the same place — namely, yours.” I recline into the sofa, waiting for the subject across from me to take the bait.
“You know jack shit, that’s obvious.” She shakes her head. “I will tell you what I know, and you may be surprised, but I want guarantees that my name never figures in any book.”
“You have my word, I can have my lawyer draft a contract for you if you like.”
“I usually don’t trust people, but you seem OK. Do you have an ID and a business card?”
“Sure.” I pick up my wallet once more and hand her what she’s requested. She studies them intently whilst taking a deep drag on her cigarette.
“It’s OK,” she concedes and pushes the ID back to me, keeping the business card.
“Mademoiselle Ava never did work at Sin City, or Golden Key for that matter. She’s a well-known dominatrix, not under that name of course. Everyone who is well versed in the scene knows her. She goes by the name of Madame Douleur. I am not sure if she will talk to you, and don’t think I will make an introduction. It’s not part of the deal.” I wait for her to proffer more information, not sure if this is all she has to offer me. After a drawn-out silence, Blue continues.
“I used to work at the Golden Key back in the old days. It was my first job after arriving in Paris. I came here in 1996. I was twenty years old. It was the same year as the Dutroux case exploded.”
I recall the Dutroux murders, which shook Belgian society to the core, and the country became known to the rest of the world for their paedophilic activities, running far up within the establishment. As if she can read my thoughts, she continues on the topic.
“Dutroux was, of course, on everyone’s lips at the time. I think it overshadowed the Reaper murders. It wasn’t a contest really — kids versus prostitutes. What’s more interesting?” She pauses, taking a sip of her wine before continuing, “And rightfully so. Dutroux was so horrible. The worst of the worst. It’s a stigma, a fucking black stain on the collective Belgian consciousness.” I notice her choice of words. Although her language is raw, there is something beautiful, almost elegant, to it. Like the taxi driver pondering the life choices of his long perished neighbour, I wonder what made her decide to sell herself to hordes of nameless men.
“Of course, France had its own Marc Dutroux. Remember the murders at Chateau Sautou, the Beast of Ardennes I believe they called him?” I nod. “But the world seized on Belgium as if we were a nation of perverts. I was happy to be out.” She spat out the last words, like they were venom, before continuing.
“But you know it happens everywhere. And the truth is far worse than you could imagine.”
“So did you personally know Marie Laroche and Leila Girard?” I ask.
She takes another sip of her wine before answering. “Mmm, only Leila. She was there when I started. It must have been the end of 1996. Just before Christmas.”
“Why did you start in prostitution, if you don’t mind me asking?” She stubs out her cigarette and lights another one. The question has obviously hit a nerve.
“I’m not one of those abuse stories, if that’s what you think. But we weren’t rich either. By all means no. And I was a girl with dreams. Dreamt of becoming a model one day.” She laughs at the memory, as if her ambitions and aspirations hold no anchor in reality.
“So I came to Paris to become a model. Things didn’t exactly work out as I’d planned, but a photographer that I had befriended suggested that I solicit at the Golden Key. I worked there for three years. Then went to work for another establishment, only to return again. As with modelling, I am getting old; the establishments are selective and well…I had some connections there, so I came back. I’ve been back there for four years now.”
She takes another sip of her wine before refilling her glass. Perhaps the wine is helping her talk, which by now she seems happy to do.
“I’ve been thinking of quitting. I’ve done well I think. Been saving, bought my apartment in cash a few years back. It’s time to quit I know, but I really haven’t figured out what to do next. Who wants to have an ex-hooker?” It is a rhetorical question directed at herself, I presume. I remain silent. “Perhaps I should write a book, like you. I have a lot to tell.” She chews on her lip, and emits a slightly nervous laugh, exposing for a brief moment the girl behind the hard exterior.
“Yes, I think you do,” I agree.
“In any case, you want to know about Leila. That’s why you are here, right? So, when I started working at the Golden Key there was a different owner. Not the Russian one that now owns half of the brothels in Paris. We were about thirty girls, all working different shifts. Some I saw more often than others. Some I never even met. Leila was one of the older ones. But she was popular. She had a very sweet nature and took care of the younger girls, myself included. She’d been working in the trade since an early age. She was of Moroccan descent. She told me she’d had a lot of problems with her conservative family and ran away when she was sixteen or seventeen I think. Well, very young anyways. Then she married a French guy, had a kid young. A girl. He was abusive and the kid ended up with social services. And she ended up on the streets. It’s quite sad, really.” She pauses for a moment, as if reflecting on her memory.
“She used to carry a photo of her girl. It was from when she was two or so, a sweet little toddler with dark curly hair. The picture was specked with white creases. She used to take it out a lot. She loved that girl beyond life itself.”
She remains silent for a while before continuing, “Leila told me about the murder of Marie. But back then there was no talk about a serial killer on the loose. It was just a bizarre murder. Some of the older girls knew Marie, as she had worked there only months before she was murdered. But she quit, or got fired I think. There were rumours she had taken to drugs. We do drug tests every two or three months, so I guess she was caught. Marie and Leila shared an apartment, but when she left the establishment she also packed her bags and, from what I understood, Leila didn’t hear anything about her until the murder made the headlines. There were rumours, of course, but everyone thought she had just met the wrong punter. It happens, of course.” She draws on her cigarette, letting it bring her relief.
“Was there any talk about the other murders?”
“Yes, of course, when the third victim turned up dead, decapitated like the rest, we were all spooked. It was almost like they had been executed. But it’s different working in an establishment to being on the streets. So we didn’t see a great deal of cause for concern. But with Leila’s murder this changed, of course.”
“Can you tell me more about how that happened? She wasn’t discovered until some twelve weeks later, so you must have suspected something was wrong.”
“Yes, we did. If I’m not mistaken, she went missing end of May or June. Our shifts often coincided, and I recall the night she didn’t show up. It wasn’t like her, and the manager on duty tried to call her on her cell phone, but she didn’t pick up. As security is strict, we always send someone over to the house if we don’t hear anything from any of the girls. It’s up to the girls, but they often leave a spare key with management so they can access their apartments in case something seems to be wrong. Lizette, one of the other girls, went there the following morning and discovered she wasn’t there. There was no sign of an argument or that she had left the place in a hurry. Her bag and wallet were gone and so was her jacket, but her passport was still in a drawer. We reported her missing, and at the end of the summer they found her.”
“Were there any clues as to her disappearance? Anyone she was seeing?”
“She didn’t have a boyfriend. I don’t think she ever had one after her divorce. Her husband left more than physical scars on her you see.” She looks down at her bare feet that she’s curled up on the sofa.
“Were there any regular clients she was seeing?”
“I can’t recall much, to be honest. I do remember one younger guy who would come there quite regularly. He always wanted to see Leila. Coming to think of it, I never saw him after her disappearance. Strange, isn’t it?”
“Well could be just a coincidence, but yes it does seem kind of odd. Do you remember how he looked like?”
“Average guy. Quite tall, though, with dark, wavy hair. Looked a bit like a student, artsy kind of. A little dishevelled.”
“Do you remember a name?”
“No, sorry that’s about all I can recall. You should talk to Madame Douleur. She was Leila’s only friend. As friends go.” The last remark left a sour aftertaste. Perhaps we all had that in common. The absence of friends. We continued our conversation until the wee hours of the morning. I signed the cheque and added her name to it. Only then did I find out her name was Michelle Dehasse. She asked me if she could ever call me. I told her she could. Before we parted she gave me the name of the establishment where Madame Douleur could be found. I thanked her and left, doubting if my 2000 euros had been well spent.