Sunday, January 31, 2010

I’m sitting at Café Marie on Rue de Chabrol. It’s 10 minutes to four as I’ve made sure I’m early. There are not many people on the premise. A young man in his mid-twenties is standing behind the counter. He looks to be Algerian, which I ascertain to be a correct assumption as behind him hangs a poster of the Martyrs Monument in Algiers. One other client sits in a corner reading a newspaper while drinking mint tea. When the Algerian asks what I would like I order the same.

The taxi driver comes in nearly half an hour later. He throws a quick glance at the wall clock before apologizing for being late. I tell him it’s fine and he takes a seat in front of me. I notice he’s been drinking. His breath smells of hard liquor, vodka I think, but I’m not sure. For the first time I’m getting a good look at his face. His features are heavy yet pleasant to watch. He could be an ageing businessman, if it weren’t for his tell-tale red nose that seems so out of place. This also confirms my first impression. His eyes are droopy yet kind, and his cheeks puffy with heavy nasal folds. His mouth is full, lending him an almost feminine appearance. It is a likable man that looks back at me. I ask him if he would like something to drink and he puts up a request for a Schweppes Bitter Lemon. I call for the man behind the counter who takes the order. He nods at the taxi driver, acknowledging an, if however slight, acquaintance.

“Do you mind if I smoke?” I ask. There is officially a smoking ban in France, but there are places where such restrictions are not given much heed. This is one of them.

“I stopped years ago. It was my doctor. Told me I had two problems: my cholesterol and my nicotine. I used to roll my own, you see.” I immediately think to myself that he has left out one crucial fact: the alcohol. For whatever reason, this is a vice that he prefers to keep to himself.

“So you want to hear what I know, right? Madame…?”

“Justine Bertrand. Call me Justine. “

“Edgar Davids.” He stretches out his hand and I take it.

“Like the football player?” I ask, raising an eyebrow.

“Exactly, like the football player indeed.” To which he breaks into rather jovial laughter.

We go on chit-chatting, carefully avoiding the topic, although Monsieur Davids has already mentioned it. Somehow I find it difficult to raise the subject, until out of the blue Davids exclaims, “Did you know, she used to sit at this very table? Having her late-morning breakfast. Or brunch, as the Americans say.” He chuckles at his ingenuity. Something he does more often during the course of conversation.

“How did you meet?” I ask.

“She was my neighbour. Moved in around Christmastime the year before. I saw her carrying boxes up and down and offered to help. There wasn’t a lot of furniture though, just some carton boxes, a bed, table, chairs and TV. But it was late and the lift was of course very small, so we were both dirty and hungry by the time all of it was upstairs. I offered her a shower, which she accepted. Then I cooked us some dinner. Eventually we ended up talking until the wee hours of the morning.”

“Sounds like you became quite close rather quickly.”

“Yes, in fact, we did. Especially in the beginning. She needed some help with shelves and lamps, installing a washing machine, that sort of things.” He takes a few gulps from his soda, then releases a burp, which he pardons before continuing, “I was happy to help out. She was a lovely girl.”

“Did you know about her background, what she was doing back then?”

“No, of course not. I had my suspicions, but I only found out after a ride where I dropped off a client at a side street of Rue St-Denis. She was there, applying her trade. Not dressed as most girls were. Very conservative, actually: just jeans and a t-shirt. I always saw her like that so I never really made the connection. But in any case, she didn’t see me and it wasn’t until a few weeks later when she knocked on my door to fix a light switch that we started to talk about it.”

“How did you manage to bring up something of such delicate nature?”

“Well, it wasn’t easy, I can tell you. Didn’t want to insult the girl. But eventually I summoned up courage and told her I had seen her talking to a punter in a car.”

“How did she react?”

“At first with silence. Then she started to talk. We ended up having dinner that evening. First time — and only time as I come to think about it — that she cooked for me. Although her story wasn’t perhaps unusual, it wasn’t the typical one either. Both her parents were alive, and by the sounds of it, she had a good relationship with them. She came from Marseille — but I think I told you that already. Had a boyfriend there who had gotten them into some trouble. Some loan sharks she told me. I got the feeling he might have been connected with the mafia. Or at least on the wrong side of what is right. She left for Paris, figuring she would earn more without putting shame on her family. She made it sound so easy, but I don’t think it was. It never is for these girls.”

“No, I suppose not,” I concede.

“So tell me, you mentioned seeing Catherine with someone around the time she disappeared.”

“Yes, that’s right. Well, it was a few weeks before her disappearance. I met her downstairs as I was walking out the front door. She was on her way in, holding a huge bouquet of flowers. Trailing her was a man, maybe late forties, perhaps somewhat older.”

“What did he look like?”

“Well, usually I don’t recall someone’s face after such a long time, but then I saw him again, it must have been a year or two later. I was in a bar in Pigalle watching a football game and I see this man, spitting image, sitting in a corner with a girl. I watched him for some time, which must have made him uneasy, and soon afterwards they left, their drinks barely touched.”

“Do you still recall how he looked?”

“Yes, I do as a matter of fact. He was quite short, perhaps 1.70, slim, salt-and-pepper hair. And I know this sounds like any average Joe, but what set him apart was his moustache. Who wears moustache nowadays?” He flays with his arms. Short, fierce gestures  — like an Italian would do at such banality.

“What was his name again?”

“Jean-Marie — like my father.”

“Is there anything else you can remember? Did she ever talk about having a boyfriend or lover?”

He looks at his hands, which he holds in a sturdy grip, one wrapped around the other. “I don’t know. Perhaps she might have. I think I did see her one time before what was to be the last. I recall asking her about the man she’d been with and she smiled. Said it was early days but things were looking good. She even considered quitting the streets. I can’t recall how we ended the conversation, but I don’t think there was more to it.”

“And then she vanished?”

“Yes, the she vanished…I suppose a day or two after the last time I saw her. She was in a hurry. We didn’t really talk apart from saying hello.”

“Did you hear anything after that? Noise from her apartment?”

“No, nothing. Not until the police started to nose around.”

I nod in an attempt to show both understanding and gratitude for the information he’s provided.

“And what about the other girls? Did you know any of them?”

“No, one or two looked familiar. Might have seen them around or had them in my cab.”

“Mmm,” I nod again.

“Do you know of a Madame Douleur?

“Who doesn’t? She’s a famous Mistress in the BDSM scene. How come you ask?”

“Well…” I catch myself changing my mind about what I am about to say. “Perhaps I should tell you a little bit more about my inquiries.” He doesn’t say anything, but I can see from his eyes he’s listening.

“Some time ago, I found a necklace supposedly belonging to Catherine.” I get my phone out and flick through the images until I find the one I’m looking for.

“Here,” I show him. He takes the phone from my hand, studying the image. “Did you ever see Catherine wearing it? If you look at the next picture you can see an inscription with her name.” He tries to scroll to the next image, but accidently goes too fast and skips it.

“What’s this?” he asks, showing me an image with all the jewellery side by side.

“Well, that’s something I’d like to know too. It was shown to me by someone I know. Catherine’s necklace together with other jewellery found in a secret chamber beneath a basement here in Paris. In the Paris catacombs.”

“Holy Mary, you’ve got to be joking!” He looks honestly surprised.

“No, I wish…but I’m not. I am now investigating it. My background is in historical investigations. I run my own company providing such services.” I hand him my card. He places it between his thumbs and index fingers, studying it at length. I can see any apprehension he had about this conversation is dissipating.

“Justine — if I may call you by your first name. There is one thing you should perhaps know. I am not sure if it’s of any importance or value to you, but it’s the only thing I’ve carried with me, not having the balls, I suppose, to come forward with it.” He’s reaching for his glass of soda but discovers it is empty.

“Mahmoud, a Stella Artois please.” He waits for his beer to arrive before continuing.

“Well, as I said, Christine and I became quite close. I cooked for her numerous times, and on a few occasions she disclosed some things that, if I think about it now, she might not have intended to. But I think I was one of the few she could really confide in. Anyways, whatever the reasons, she told me – and this must have been a few months before her murder – that she had been invited to some parties that were frequented by people in the high society, the establishment so to speak. I am not sure how she knew this because she never seemed particularly interested in politics and that sort of things. At first they were regular parties, more like cocktail parties, from what I understand. But later they seemed to have turned into something more sinister. She told me, being a bit tipsy, as we’d both had our fair share to drink that evening, that there was this location, an apartment in Paris, she’d been invited to. She said she felt uneasy there, and I asked her why. She told me it was a sex party, but not the normal kind. I asked her again what she meant and she said something like, “Think about sex where everything goes. Everything.” I told her to get out of whatever she had gotten herself into, but she said she couldn’t. She had already seen too much. I asked her what but she wouldn’t say.”

“Why didn’t you tell this to the police?”

“Because they are already involved.”

“You mean like a sex ring?” He nods and I can see fear in his face. He clams up after this. I ask a few more questions to which he only nods or hums in acknowledgement. The whole conversation fizzles out and, a little after five, we part ways. He asks me to keep his name and information confidential and I promise I will.

 

I decide to walk home to clear my mind, which is in disarray. I feel like I am being drawn into something dark and sinister beyond my control. The little light that is still shining over the union of Carl and I is rapidly fading, leaving us in the shadows of its once radiant luminescence. With my husband slipping away — the only one able to save me — the force that pulls me can no longer be kept at bay.

 

The weather has turned mild, a consequence of the dense mist that has moved inland. Despite the poor visibility I continue on foot. People as well as buildings appear greyed out, as I walk in this city of ghosts. Sound carries with greater speed than visuals, which only become apparent at close range. I can hear a couple arguing, the woman shouting in an attempt to vocally overpower what I presume is her boyfriend. I must have startled her as I pass because she stops in her tracks, only to resume at a safe distance.

 

I’m home some two hours later. There is a voicemail from Carl explaining he will be home late. He sounds sombre and dismal, yet ends his short monologue with “I love you”. If loneliness were a tangible substance, it would be thick enough to cut with a knife. I sit down on our bed, contemplating whether I should call my husband and come clean. But fear is stronger than reason, so I click the call away before a connection is made.