The Empire Of The Wolves
Translated from the French by Ian Monk
Anna Heymes was feeling increasingly ill at ease. The experiment was danger free, but the idea that someone could read her mind at that very moment deeply disturbed her.
She was lying on a stainless-steel table, in the middle of a shadowy room, her head inside the central opening of a white circular machine. Just above her face was a mirror, fixed at an angle, with small squares being projected onto it. All she had to do was announce what color they were.
A drip was slowly pouring into her left arm. Dr. Eric Ackermann had briefly explained to her that it was labeled water, allowing blood flow to be located in her brain.
Other colors appeared. Green. Orange. Pink… then the mirror went dark.
Anna remained still, her arms by her sides. as though in a coffin. A few yards to her left, she could make out the vague, aquatic glassiness of the cabin where Eric Ackermann was sitting beside her husband, Laurent. She pictured the two men staring at the observation screens, observing the activity of her neurons. She felt spied on, pillaged, as though defiled in her closest intimacy.
Ackermann's voice echoed in the transmitter fitted in her ear: "That's fine, Anna. Now the squares are going to start shifting around. You just have to describe the movements. Just use one word at a time: right, left, up, down. ."
The geometric shapes immediately started moving, forming a brightly colored mosaic, as vibrant and fluid as a school of tiny fish. Into the mike attached to her transmitter she said, "Right."
Then the squares rose to the top of the frame.
The exercise went on for a few minutes. She spoke slowly, monotonously, feeling more and more drowsy, the heat from the mirror adding to her torpor. She was about to drift off to sleep.
"Perfect," Ackermann said. "This time, I'm going to present you with a story told in a variety of different ways. Listen to each one carefully.”
“And what am I supposed to say?"
"Nothing. Just listen."
A few seconds later, a female voice echoed in her receiver. It was speaking in a foreign language, with an Asian tonality.
A short silence followed. Then the story started again in French. But the syntax was all wrong. The verbs were all in the infinitive, the articles did not agree, the liaisons were incorrect…
Anna tried to decipher this pidgin, but then another version started up. This time, nonsense words cropped up in the tale… What did it all mean? Suddenly, silence filled her ears, making the cylinder feel even darker.
After a time, the doctor said: "Next test. When you hear the name of a country, give me its capital."
Anna was about to agree, but the first name was already ringing in her ears: " Sweden." Without thinking, she replied: " Stockholm.”
" New Zealand."
" Auckland -no, Wellington."
The capitals came to mind easily. Her answers were automatic, and she was pleased with the result. So her memory had not been completely lost. What could Ackermann and Laurent see on the screens? Which zones were being activated in her brain?
"Last test," the neurologist announced. "Some faces are going to appear. You must name them as quickly as you can."
She had read somewhere that a simple sign-a word, a gesture, a visual detail-could trigger a phobia. It was what psychiatrists called an anxiety signal. Signal was the right word. In her case, the very word face was enough to make her uneasy. She immediately felt she was suffocating. Her stomach became heavy, her limbs stiffened, and a burning lump filled her throat…
A black-and-white portrait of a woman appeared in the mirror. Blond curls, sultry lips, beauty spot above her mouth. Easy.
An engraving replaced the photograph. Dark look, square jaws, wavy hair.
A round face, as smooth as cellophane, with two slanting eyes. "Mao Tsetung."
Anna was surprised that she could recognize them so easily. Others followed: Michael Jackson, the Mona Lisa, Albert Einstein… It felt as though she were looking at the bright projections of a magic lantern. She replied unhesitatingly. Her uneasiness was receding.
Then suddenly, a portrait brought her to a halt. A man aged about forty, but with still-youthful looks and prominent eyes. His fair hair and eyebrows added to his look of an indecisive teenager.
A sensation of fear went through her, like an electric shock. Pain pressed down on her chest. The face looked familiar, but she could put no name to it. It evoked no precise memories. Her head was a dark tunnel. Where had she seen this man before? Was he an actor? A singer? An old acquaintance? The picture was replaced by a long face, topped with round glasses. Her mouth dry, she answered, "John Lennon."
Che Guevara then appeared, but Anna said, "Eric, wait…"
The show went on. A self-portrait of Van Gogh glittered with its sharp colors. Anna gripped the microphone. "Eric, please!"
The image froze. Anna felt the colors and heat refract on to her skin. After a pause, Ackermann asked, "What?"
"Who was the person I didn't recognize?"
No reply. The differently colored eyes of David Bowie glimmered on the angled glass. She sat up and spoke more loudly. "Eric. I asked you a question. Who was it?"
The mirror went black. In a second, her eyes grew accustomed to the darkness. She saw her livid, bony reflection in the titled rectangle. A death's-head.
The doctor finally replied. "It was Laurent, Anna. Laurent Heymes. Your husband."
"So how long have you been having these lapses of memory?"
Anna did not reply. It was almost noon. She had been having tests all morning: X-rays, scans, the MRI and, finally, those tests in the circular machine… She felt empty, worn out, lost. And this office made her feel no better. It was a narrow, windowless room, too brightly lit, with stacks of files everywhere, in the metal cabinets, on the floor. The pictures on the wall depicted open brains, shaved scalps with dotted lines, as though ready to be cut up. That was all she needed…
Eric Ackermann repeated: "How long, Anna?"
"For over a month."
"Be more precise. You can remember the first time, I suppose?" Of course she could remember. How could she ever forget?
"It was on February fourth. In the morning. I was coming out of the bathroom and I bumped into Laurent in the corridor. He was on his way out to the office. He smiled at me. I jumped. I didn't know who he was.”
“Not at all?"
"Not at that moment. Then everything came back together again in my mind."
"Can you describe exactly what you felt at that moment?"
She shrugged in hesitation under her black-and-bronze shawl. "It was a weird, fleeting sensation. Like something I had already experienced. But it only lasted a moment." She clicked her fingers. "Then everything went back to normal."
"What did you think at the time?"
"I put it down to tiredness."
Ackermann jotted down something on the pad in front of him. "Did you tell Laurent about it that morning?"
"No. I didn't think it was serious."
"When did the second lapse happen?"
"The following week. It happened again several times."
"Always with Laurent?"
"Yes, always with him."
"But every time, you ended up recognizing him?"
"That's right. But as time went by, it seemed to take longer for the penny to drop…"
"Did you tell him about it then?"
"No. I didn't."
She crossed her legs and laid her slender hands on her dark silk skirt, like a brace of pale birds.
"I thought talking about it would make the problem worse, and then…"
The neurologist looked up. His red hair reflected in the rings of his glasses. "Then what?"
"Well, it isn't something that's easy to admit to your husband. He…" She felt Laurent's presence. He was standing behind her, leaning on the metal cabinets.
"Laurent was becoming a stranger to me."
The doctor seemed to sense her uneasiness. He changed tack. "Have you had the same difficulty recognizing other faces?"
She hesitated. "Sometimes. But it's extremely rare."
"Who with, for example?"
"In the neighborhood shops. At work, too. I don't recognize some of the customers, even though they're regulars."
"What about your friends?"
Anna gestured vaguely. "I don't have any friends."
"And your family?"
"My parents are dead. I just have some uncles and aunts in the southwest. But I never see them."
Ackermann continued writing. His face gave nothing away. It looked as though it were set in resin.
Anna hated this acquaintance of Laurent's. He sometimes came to have dinner with them, but he always remained as cold as ice. Unless, of course, the conversation turned to his field of research-the brain, cerebral geography, the human cognitive system. Then there was a transformation: he became animated, enthusiastic, beating the air with his long brown arms.
He resumed questioning. "So it's Laurent's face that poses the biggest problem for you?"
"Yes. But then he's also the closest to me. The person I see most.”
“Do you have any other memory problems?"
Anna bit her lip. Once again, she hesitated. "No."
"Problems of orientation?"
"Do you have difficulties making certain movements?"
She did not answer. Then she smiled weakly "You think I have Alzheimer's disease, don't you?"
"I'm checking, that's all."
It was the first explanation that had occurred to Anna. She had gathered information on the subject and consulted medical dictionaries. Failure to recognize faces was a symptom of Alzheimer's.
As though talking to a child, Ackermann added: "You're not nearly old enough. And anyway, I would have noticed at once during the tests. A brain afflicted with a degenerative disease has quite a specific morphology. These are just questions I have to ask you if I'm going to make a full diagnosis. Do you understand?" Without waiting for a reply, he went on. "So do you or do you not have difficulties making certain movements?"
"Any trouble sleeping?"
“Any inexplicable weariness?"
"Do you get migraines?"
The doctor closed his notepad and stood up. This movement always created the same surprise. He stood at almost seven feet but weighed just one hundred forty pounds. A beanpole in a white coat that looked as if it had been slung there to dry.
He was a real, flaming redhead. His wiry unkempt locks were the color of burning honey. Ochre freckles covered his skin, even his eyelids. His face was angular, decked with metal glasses as thin as blades.
His physiognomy seemed to have removed him from time. He was older than Laurent, about fifty but he still looked like a young man. Wrinkles had formed on his face, but without attacking the essential: his eagle-like features, sharp and inscrutable. Only acne scars marked his cheeks, giving him real flesh and a past.
He paced up and down in his tiny office for a moment in silence. The seconds ticked by. Anna could take no more. She asked: "For God's sake, what's wrong with me?"
The neurologist fiddled with a metallic object in his pocket. Presumably his keys. But it was the sound that seemed to set him talking at last. "Let me start by explaining the experiment we've just conducted."
"It's about time."
"The machine we used is a positron camera. What specialists call a PET scan. It uses positron emission tomography, or PET for short. It allows us to observe zones of mental activity in real time by localizing concentrations of blood in the brain. I wanted to conduct a sort of general checkup on you, by looking at several large areas of the brain that have been positively localized, such as vision, language and memory"
Anna thought back over the various tests: the squares of color, the story told in various ways, the names of capital cities. It was easy to see how each exercise fit into the context.
But Ackermann was off: "Take language, for instance. Everything happens in the frontal lobe, in a region that is itself subdivided into subsystems devoted to aural comprehension, vocabulary, syntax, meaning, prosody…”He pointed at his skull. "It is the association of these zones that allows us to understand and use language. Thanks to the various versions of my little tale, I stimulated each of these subdivisions in your brain."
He continued to pace up and down his tiny room. The pictures on the wall appeared and disappeared as he moved. Anna noticed a strange engraving of a colored monkey with a large mouth and huge hands. Despite the heat of the strip light, her spine was frozen.
"And so?" she murmured.
He opened his hands in what was meant to be a reassuring manner. "So, everything's fine. Language, vision and memory. Each region was activated normally"
"Except when I was shown the portrait of Laurent."
Ackermann bent down over his desk and turned his computer screen around. Anna discovered the digital image of a brain. A luminous green, transverse section. The inside was totally dark.
"This is your brain when you were looking at the picture of Laurent. No reaction. No connections. An empty image."
"What does it mean?"
The neurologist stood up and put his hands back into his pockets. He stuck out his chest in a dramatic manner. The moment had come for the verdict. "I think you have a lesion."
"Which is specifically affecting the zone dealing with the recognition of faces."
Anna was stupefied. "There's a zone… for faces?"
"That's right. There's a specialized neuronal system for that purpose, in the right hemisphere, at the back of the brain in the ventral temporal cortex. It was discovered in the 1950s. People who had suffered from a vascular incident in that region could no longer recognize faces. Since then, thanks to PET scanning, we have localized it even more precisely. For example, we know that the region is particularly highly developed in people who watch the entrances of nightclubs and casinos."
She broke in. "But I recognize most people's faces. During the tests, I identified all of the portraits…"
"All except the one of your husband. And that's a vital indication." Ackermann placed his two index fingers on his lips in a sign of deep thought. When he was not icy cold, he was expansive.
"We have two sorts of memory. There are the things we learn at school, and the things we learn in our daily lives. And they don't use the same path in the brain. I think you're suffering from a faulty connection between the instant analysis of faces and their comparison with personal memories. A lesion must be blocking the route to this mechanism. That's why you can recognize Einstein but not Laurent, who belongs to your personal archives."
"And, is there a cure?"
"Indeed there is. We can move the function to another healthy part of your brain. Adaptability is one of the mind's strong points. To achieve this, we'll have to conduct some therapy. A sort of mental training, with regular exercises backed up by the right medication."
The neurologist's grave tones undermined the good news.
"So what's the problem?" Anna asked.
"Where the lesion came from. There I have to admit that I've drawn a blank. There's no sign of any tumor or neurological anomaly. You haven't have any head injuries or suffered from a stroke, which could have stopped irrigation of that part of the brain." He clicked his tongue. "We'll have to carry out some further, more detailed tests in order to diagnose the origin."
"What sort of tests?"
The doctor sat down behind his desk. His glassy stare fell on her. "A biopsy. A tiny sample of cortical tissue."
It took Anna a few seconds to understand, then a wave of terror crossed her face. She turned toward Laurent but saw that he was already looking in agreement at Ackermann. Her fear was replaced by anger. They were in it together. Her fate had been decided. Probably that very morning.
Words trembled out from her lips. "No way"
For the first time, the neurologist smiled. The smile was meant to be reassuring but looked totally false. "There's nothing to worry about. We'll perform a stereotaxic biopsy. It's just a little probe that -"
"No one's touching my brain." Anna got to her feet and wrapped herself up in her shawl, wings of a raven lined with gold.
Laurent broke his silence. "Don't take it like that. Eric has assured me that -"
"So you're on his side, are you?"
"We're all on your side, Anna," Ackermann purred.
She pulled back to get a better look at this pair of hypocrites. "No one's touching my brain," she repeated in a stronger voice. "I'd rather lose my memory completely or die from the disease. I'm never setting foot here again." Suddenly in the grip of panic, she yelled, "Never, do you hear me?"
She ran along the deserted corridor, leapt down the stairs, then came to a halt in the doorway of the building. She felt the cold wind calling to her lifeblood. Sunlight flooded the courtyard. It made Anna think of the clearness of summer, without heat or leaves on the trees, which had been frozen for better conservation.
On the far side of the courtyard, Nicolas the chauffeur noticed her and jumped out of the saloon car to open the door for her. Anna shook her head at him. With a trembling hand, she rummaged through her bag looking for her cigarettes, lit one, then savored the acrid smoke that filled her throat.
The Henri-Becquerel Institute was made up of several four-story buildings surrounding a patio dotted with trees and dense shrubs. The dull gray or pink façades were decked with warning signs:
NO UNAUTHORIZED ENTRY, MEDICAL STAFF ONLY, DANGER.
In this damned hospital, the slightest detail seemed hostile to her.
She breathed in another throatful of smoke. The taste of the burning tobacco calmed her, as if she had cast her anger into the embers of the cigarette. She closed her eyes, abandoning herself to its heady odor.
Footfalls sounded behind her.
Laurent walked past her without looking around, crossed the courtyard, then opened the rear door of the car. He waited for her, tapping the concrete with his brightly polished moccasins, his features tense. Anna threw away her Marlboro and went over to him. She slid onto the leather seat. Laurent walked around the car and got in beside her. After this little silent routine, the chauffeur pulled the car off then drove down the slope of the garage with all the majestic slowness of spaceship.
Several soldiers were on guard duty in front of the white-and-red barrier at the gate.
"I'll go and get back my passport," Laurent said.
Anna looked at her hands. They were still trembling. She took a compact from her bag and observed her face in its oval mirror. She was almost expecting to see marks on her skin, as though her internal upheaval had been like a violent punch. But there was nothing. She still had the same bright, regular features, the same snowy whiteness, framed with Cleopatra-style hair; the same dark blue eyes rising up toward her temples, their eyelids lowered slightly with the languidness of a cat.
She saw that Laurent was coming back. He was leaning over in the wind, lifting up the collar of his black coat. She suddenly felt a warm wave of desire. She observed him: his fair curls, his prominent eyes, that torment creasing his brows… He pulled his coat closer to his body with the uncertain movement of a cautious, timid child, which sat strangely with his power as a top-ranking police officer. It was like when he ordered a cocktail and described with little pinches how he wanted its ingredients proportioned. Or when he slid his hands between his thighs and raised his shoulders to show he was cold or else embarrassed. It was this fragility that had appealed to her, the weaknesses and failings that contrasted with his real power. But what remained of her love for him? What could she remember of it?
Laurent sat back down by her side. The barrier rose. As they passed, he directed a firm salute at the armed men. This gesture of respect irritated Anna once more. Her desire faded. She asked coldly: "Why all these policemen?"
"Soldiers," Laurent corrected her. "They're soldiers."
The car slipped into the traffic stream. Place du Général-Leclerc in Orsay was tiny and immaculately groomed. A church, a town hall, a florist's shop: each element clearly stood out.
"Why these soldiers?" she pressed him.
Laurent replied absently "It's because of the Oxygen-15."
He did not look at her; his fingers were tapping the window "Oxygen-15. The labeled water that was injected into your blood for the experiment. It's radioactive."
Laurent turned toward her. He was trying to look reassuring, but his eyes revealed how annoyed he was. "It's not at all dangerous."
"Which explains why there are all these guards, I suppose?"
"Don't be stupid. In France, any activity using nuclear materials is supervised by the Atomic Energy Commission. And this implies the presence of soldiers, that's all. Eric has no choice but to work with the army."
Anna could not help sneering.
Laurent stiffened. "What's the matter?"
"Nothing. You just had to find the only hospital in the Paris region that has more khaki uniforms than white coats."
He shrugged and stared at the countryside. The car had already turned on to the motorway and was heading into the Bièvre valley. Dark brown and red forests rose and fell away into the distance.
The clouds were back. Far away. A pale light was struggling to make its way through the low wisps in the sky. Yet it still felt as if the heat of the sun was about to take command and inflame the countryside.
They had been driving for over a quarter of an hour before Laurent opened his mouth again. "You should trust Eric."
"No one is going to touch my brain."
"Eric knows what he's doing. He's one of the best neurologists in Europe "
"And a childhood friend. As you keep telling me."
"You're lucky he's treating you. You-"
"I'm not going to be his guinea pig."
"His guinea pig?" Laurent clearly articulated each syllable. "His guinea pig? Whatever do you mean?"
"Ackermann was observing me. My condition interests him, that's all. He's a researcher, not a doctor."
Laurent sighed. "You're being paranoid. Really, you are…"
"So, I'm mad, am I?" Her mirthless laughter fell like an iron curtain. "That's hardly news, is it?"
This outbreak of lugubrious merriment made her husband even angrier. "And so? Are you just going to sit there and wait while the disease gets worse?" He was writhing on his seat.
"You're right. I'm sorry. I've been talking nonsense."
Silence once more filled the car.
The countryside looked increasingly like a blaze of damp grasses, reddish, sullen, mingled with gray mists. The woods continued as far as the eye could see, at first indistinct, then as they neared, in the shape of crimson claws, fine chasings, dark arabesques..
From time to time, a village appeared, with a rural church steeple jutting up. Then a spotlessly white water tower trembled in the hazy light. It seemed unbelievable that they were just a few miles from Paris.
Laurent launched his last distress flare. "Just promise me you'll agree to have more tests done. And I don't mean a biopsy. It will only take a few days."
"I'll go with you. I'll devote all the time we need. We're with you-you do understand that?"
Anna did not much like the word we. Laurent was in full association with Ackermann. She was already more of a patient than a wife.
Suddenly, from the top of the hills of Meudon, Paris appeared in a flash of light. The entire city lay there, with its endless white roofs, glittering like a lake of ice, stuck with crystals, peaks of frost and clumps of snow, while the skyscrapers of La Défense stood like icebergs. Gleaming with clarity, the city was burning in the sunlight.
This dazzling sight cast them into a dumb stupor. They crossed the Sèvres bridge then drove through Boulogne-Billancourt without exchanging a word.
When they were approaching Porte de Saint-Cloud, Laurent asked: "Shall I drop you off at home?"
"No, at work."
"You told me you were taking the day off" His voice was tinged with reproach.
"I thought I'd be more tired than this," Anna lied. “I don't want to leave Clothilde on her own. On Saturdays, the shop's taken by storm."
"Clothide and the shop.." he said sarcastically.
"What about it?"
"This job. I mean… It's beneath you."
"Beneath you, you mean."
Laurent did not reply. Maybe he had not even heard her last comment. He leaned forward to see what was happening in front of them. The traffic had ground to a halt on the bypass. Impatiently, he asked the driver to get them out of there.
Nicolas got the message. From the glove compartment, he produced a magnetic flashing light, which he placed on the roof of the car. With its siren blaring, the Peugeot 607 pulled out from the traffic jam and sped away again. Nicolas kept his foot down.
His fingers gripping the back of the seat, Laurent followed each turn, every twist of the wheel. He looked like a little boy concentrating on a video game. Anna was always amazed to see that, despite all his qualifications and his job as director of the Ministry of the Interior's Centre des Etudes et Bilans, Laurent had never forgotten the excitement of the beat, the call of the street. Lousy cop, she thought.
At Porte Maillot, they turned off the bypass and into Avenue des Ternes, where the driver at last switched off the siren. Anna was back in her universe. Rue Saint-Honoré and its precious window displays, the Salle Pleyel with its high bay windows through which, on the first floor, slender dancers could be seen moving around; the mahogany arcades of Mariage Freres, where she bought her special teas.
Before opening the door, she picked up the conversation where the siren had interrupted it.
"It's not just a job, you know. It's my way of staying in contact with the outside world. Of not going completely nuts in that flat."
She got out of the car, then bent down toward him. "It's that or the lunatic asylum, you understand?"
They exchanged a final look and, in a twinkling of an eye, were allies once more. Never would she have used the word love to describe their relationship. It was based on complicity and sharing, which lay beyond desire. Passion, or the fluctuations caused by days and moods. They were calm, underground waters mixing deeply. They could then understand each other, reading between their words, between their lips…
Suddenly, she felt hopeful once more. Laurent would help her, love her, support her. The shadow had now lightened. He asked: "Shall I pick you up this evening?"
She nodded, blew him a kiss, then headed toward the Maison du Chocolat.
The bell on the door rang as though she were an ordinary customer. Its simple, familiar notes reassured her. She had applied for this job a month before, after seeing it advertised in the shop window. At the time, she had just been looking for something to take her mind off her obsessions. But she had in fact found far more -a refuge.
A magic circle protecting her from her anxieties.
At two in the afternoon, the shop was empty. Clothilde must have taken advantage of this quiet moment to go to the stockroom.
Anna crossed the floor. The entire shop looked like a chocolate box, wavering between brown and gold. In the middle, the main counter rose up like an orchestra, with its black or cream classics in squares, circles and domes. To the left, on the marble slab of the till, were the "extras," the small delights customers picked up at the last moment while paying. To the right were the miscellaneous: fruit jellies, sweets, nougats, like a series of variations on a theme. Above, the shelves contained more gleaming delicacies, wrapped in glassine, whose bright glints were even more appetizing.
Anna noticed that Clothilde had finished the Easter window display. Woven baskets contained eggs and hens of every size; chocolate houses with caramel roofs were being watched over by marzipan piglets; chicks were playing on a swing, in a sky of paper daffodils.
"Is that you? Great! The assortments have just arrived." Clothilde appeared on the goods lift at the back of the shop, which was worked by an old-fashioned hoisting winch, and allowed them to bring goods up directly from the garage on Square du Roule. She leapt off the platform, strode over the piles of boxes and stood radiant and breathless in front of Anna.
In just a few weeks, Clothilde had become one of her reassuring landmarks. She was twenty-eight, with a small pink nose, and light brown hair that fluttered in front of her eyes. She had two children, a husband "in the bank," a mortgage and a destiny that had been traced out with a T square. She lived in a world of certain happiness that amazed Anna. Being with her was both comforting and irritating. She just could not believe this faultless scenario devoid of any surprise. There was a kind of obstinacy or underlying falsehood in such a credo. In any case, it was an inaccessible mirage for her. At the age of thirty-one, Anna was childless and had always lived in an atmosphere of malaise, uncertainty and fear of the future.
"It's been a hell of a day. I haven't stopped." Clothilde picked up a box and headed toward the storeroom at the back of the shop. Anna slipped her shawl over her shoulder and did likewise. Saturday was such a busy day that they had to make the most of the slightest lull to prepare new trays.
They went into the windowless room. Which measured ten square yards. Piles of cardboard and layers of bubble packs were already cluttering the floor.
Clothilde put down her box, pushed her hair back and pouted. "I forgot to ask you. How did it go?"
"They made me take tests all morning. The doctor said something about a lesion."
"A dead area in the brain. The region that recognizes faces.”
“That's crazy. Is there a cure?"
Anna put down her box and repeated, parrot-fashion, what Ackermann had told her. "Yes, there's going to be treatment. With memory exercises and medication to shift that function to another healthy part of my brain."
"That's marvelous!" Clothilde was smiling broadly, as though she had just learned that Anna had completely recovered. Her reactions rarely fitted the situation and revealed a profound indifference. In reality Clothilde was oblivious to other people's misfortunes. Grief, anxiety and doubt slid off her like drops of water on an oilskin. Yet, at that moment, she seemed to sense her mistake.
She was saved by the bell.
"I'll go," she said, spinning on her heel. "Make yourself comfortable. I'll be back."
Anna pushed aside some boxes and sat down on a stool. She started laying out some Romeos on a tray-squares of fresh coffee mousse. The room was already full of the heady odors of chocolate. At the end of the day. Their clothes and even their sweat smelled of it, and their saliva was saturated with sugar. It is said that bartenders get drunk from breathing in alcohol vapors. Do chocolate sellers get fat from being around such delicacies?
Anna had not put on an ounce. In fact, she never put on any weight. She ate like pig, but the very food seemed to avoid her. The glucose, lipids and fibers went through her without touching the sides.
While she was arranging the chocolates, Ackermann's words came back to her. A lesion. An illness. A biopsy. No. She would never let them slice her up. And especially not him, with his cold gestures and insect eyes.
In any case, she did not believe in his diagnosis.
She just could not believe it.
For the simple reason that she had not told him a tenth of the truth.
Since the month of February the lapses had become far more frequent than she had admitted. These moments of emptiness now came on her at any time, anywhere. A dinner party with friends, a visit to the hairdresser's, when buying a magazine. Anna now often found herself surrounded by strangers, with nameless faces, in the very heart of her daily life.
Even the nature of the attacks had changed.
It was no longer just a question of names slipping her mind and memory lapses. She also had terrifying hallucinations. Faces went hazy trembled, then altered before her very eyes. Expressions and looks began to waver and float as though seen through water.
Sometimes, they looked like faces made of burning wax, which melted and folded into themselves, creating demonic grimaces. On other occasions, features vibrated and shook, until a series of different expressions became simultaneously juxtaposed. A cry Laughter. A kiss. They all merged together in a single physiognomy. A nightmare.
Anna lowered her eyes when walking in the street. At parties, she never looked at the person she was speaking with. She was becoming nervous, timorous and scared. The "others" now just reflected back the image of her own madness. A mirror of terror.
Nor had she really described the sensations she experienced concerning Laurent. In fact, her uneasiness never went away, never completely disappeared after a lapse. There was always a trace left, a hint of fear. As though she no longer really recognized her husband. As if there was a voice whispering to her. "It's him, but it isn't him."
Deep down, she sensed that Laurent's appearance had changed, that it had been altered by plastic surgery. Ridiculous.
This craziness had an even more absurd aspect. While her husband was becoming ever more a stranger to her, one of the shop's regular customers was starting to feel strikingly familiar. She was sure that she had already seen him somewhere… It was impossible for her to say where or when, but her memory lit up in his presence. With an electrostatic tingle. And yet, this spark never led to a precise memory.
The man came once or twice a week and always bought the same Jikola chocolates squares filled with marzipan, rather like oriental delicacies. He in fact spoke with a slight, perhaps Arabic accent. He was about forty, always dressed in the same way, in jeans with a threadbare corduroy jacket buttoned up to his neck, like an eternal student. Anna and Clothilde had nicknamed him "Mr. Corduroys."
Every day they watched for him. It was a game of suspense for them, an enigma, a pleasant way to pass the time. They often elaborated hypotheses. He was a childhood friend of Anna's, or an old boyfriend, or instead a furtive pickup merchant and she had caught his eye at some cocktail party.
Anna now knew that the truth was far simpler. This reminiscence was just another sort of hallucination set off by the lesion. She should not focus on what she could see or what she felt about anybody's face, because she no longer had a reliable system of references.
The door of the shop opened. Anna jumped-she realized that the chocolates were melting in her clenched hands.
Clothilde appeared in the doorway. She whispered between her curls: "It's him."
Mr. Corduroys was standing beside the Jikolas.
"Good afternoon," Anna said at once. "Can I help you?"
"Two hundred grams as usual, please."
She slipped behind the main counter, picked up the tongs and a glassine bag, then started to fill it with the pieces of chocolate. At the same time, she looked around at the man, her eyes veiled by her eyelashes. First she saw his large leather shoes, his overlong jeans crinkling up like an accordion, and then his saffron yellow corduroy jacket. Worn down in places into a threadbare lustrous orange.
Finally, she dared a glance at his face. It was uncouth, square, framed with disheveled brown hair. More the face of a peasant than of a refined student. He was frowning in an expression of annoyance or else concealed anger.
Yet Anna had already noticed that when he opened his eyelids, they revealed long feminine eyelashes and violet irises, ringed with gilded black: the back of a bumblebee flying over a field of dark violets. Where had she seen that look before?
She placed the packet on the scales. "Eleven Euros, please."
The man paid, picked up the chocolates and spun around. A second later, he was outside.
Despite herself, Anna followed him to the door. Clothilde joined her. They watched the figure crossing Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honors, then diving into a black limousine with frosted windows and foreign license plates.
They stayed there, on the doorstep, like two crickets in the sunlight. "So?" Clothilde finally asked. "Who is he? Don't you know yet?"
The car vanished into the traffic. In answer, Anna said, "Got a cigarette?"
Clothilde removed a crumpled pack of Marlboro Lights from her trouser pocket. Anna inhaled the first drag, finding the same soothing sensation as she had experienced that morning in the hospital courtyard. Clothilde said, skeptically "There's something wrong about your story"
Anna turned around, elbow raised, cigarette pointed like a weapon. "What?"
"Let's suppose that you once knew this person, and he's since changed."
Clothilde puckered up her lips, making the sound of a beer bottle being opened. "Well, why doesn't he recognize you?"
Anna watched the cars driving beneath the dull sky, splashes of light crisscrossing their bodywork. Farther on, she could see the wooden façade of Mariage Frères, the icy windows of La Margie Restaurant and its doorman, who was staring at her placidly.
Her words vanished into the blue-tinted smoke: "Crazy. I'm going crazy"
Once a week Laurent met up with the same "pals" for dinner. It was an unchanging ritual, a sort of ceremony. They were not childhood friends or members of any particular circle. They had no shared passion. They were simply part of the same corporation: policemen. They had met at various stages of their careers, and today each of them had reached the top of his particular specialty.
Like the other wives. Anna was excluded from these get-togethers, and when the dinner was held in their apartment on Avenue Hoche she was asked to go to the movies.
Then, three weeks before, Laurent had asked her to join them at their next meeting. First she refused, especially as her husband had then added, in his male nurse tones, "You'll see. It'll take your mind off things." Then she changed her mind. She was in fact rather curious to meet Laurent's colleagues and to be able to see at first hand other examples of top-ranking policemen. After all, he was so far the only model she knew.
She had not regretted her decision. During the party, she got to know men who were hard yet passionate, who talked to one another without fear or reserve. She felt like the queen of the group, the only woman on board, in front of whom the police officers competed with one another to find the best stories, feats and revelations.
Since that first evening, she now attended all their dinners, and had gotten to know them better. She had spotted their tics and strong points -and also their obsessions. These parties provided her with a real image of the universe of the police force. A black-and-white world of violence and certainty, both clichéd and fascinating.
The guests were always the same, barring the occasional exception. Generally it was Alain Lacroux who led the conversation. The thin, tall, upright fifty-year-old punctuated the end of each of his sentences with a stab from his fork or the wag of his head. Even the lilt of his southern accent added to this art of finishing, of chiseled expression. Everything about him sang, rippled, smiled-no one would ever have suspected his real responsibilities. He was second in command of Paris 's Affaires Criminelles.
Pierre Caracilli was his opposite. Small, squat and dark, he was constantly grumbling in a slow, almost hypnotic voice. It was this voice that had put to sleep many a criminal's defenses and extracted confessions from the hardiest of them. Caracilli was Corsican. He held an important position in the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire (or DST).
Jean-François Gaudemer was neither upright nor laid-back: he was a compact, solid, stubborn rock. Beneath his high, balding forehead, his eyes glistened with a darkness that seemed to announce an approaching storm. Anna pricked up her ears whenever he spoke. What he said was cynical. His stories were terrifying, but you experienced a sort of gratitude in his presence-the ambiguous feeling that a veil had been lifted on the hidden workings of the world. He was the head of OCRTIS, or the Office Central de Repression du Traffic lllicite des Stupéfiants. France 's Mr. Dope Trade.
But Anna's favorite was Philippe Charlier. This six-foot-four colossus was squeezed into his expensive suits. Nicknamed the "Jolly Green Giant" by his colleagues, he had the head of a boxer, which was as dense as a stone and edged by a gray-flecked mustache and mop of hair. He spoke too loudly, laughed like an ignition engine and forced his listeners into sharing his funny stories by taking them by the shoulder.
To understand him, you needed a sexual glossary. He called an erection a "bone in the pants," described wiry hair as "bollock fur," and when he spoke about his holidays in Bangkok, summed them up as follows: "Taking your wife to Thailand is like taking beer to Munich."
Anna found him vulgar, off-putting, but irresistible. He gave off an animalistic power that was extremely "police." You could not imagine him anywhere other than in an office, dragging confessions out of suspects. Or else in the field, commanding men armed with assault rifles.
Laurent had told her that Charlier had cold-bloodedly killed at least five men during his career. His field was terrorism. He had fought the same war in a number of different units, such as the DST, the DGSE (Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure) and the DNAT (Division Nationale Antiterroriste). Twenty-five years of undercover operations and raids. When Anna asked for more details, Laurent waved her questions away:”It would only be the tip of the iceberg."
That evening, the party was being held at his apartment on Avenue de Breteuil. It was a huge old Parisian apartment full of colonial knickknacks and with varnished parquet floors. Anna's curiosity had pushed her into exploring those rooms that were accessible. There was not the slightest trace of a female presence. Charlier was a confirmed bachelor.
It was 11:00 PM. The guests were slumped in nonchalant postprandial positions, encircled by the smoke of their cigars.
In this month of March 2002, just a few weeks before the presidential elections, they were rivaling one another with their predictions and forecasts, imagining the changes that would take place in the Ministry of the Interior depending on which candidate won. They all seemed ready for a great battle but unsure whether they would participate.
Philippe Charlier, who was sitting next to Anna, whispered to her, "Aren't you as pissed off as I am with their pig shoptalk? Do you know the one about the Swiss man?"
Anna smiled. You told me it last Saturday"
"What about the hillbilly at the train station?"
Charlier leaned his elbows on the table. "There's this hillbilly about to take the train for the first time. So he stands right on the platform edge waiting for it. An inspector sees him and goes. 'Watch out-if the express comes along, it'll suck you off'. And hillbilly goes. 'Come along, train!' "
She took a second to get it, then burst out laughing. Policemen's jokes never got higher than the belt, but at least she had not heard most of them before. She was still laughing when Charlier's face started to distort. Suddenly, his features became unclear. They were quite literally undulating across his face.
Anna looked around at the other guests. Their features also seemed dislocated, forming a wave of monstrous, contradictory expressions, mingling flesh, grins and screams…
A spasm gripped her. She started breathing through her mouth. "Are you okay?" Charlier asked.
"I'm… I'm hot. I'm going to freshen up."
"Shall I show you the way?"
She laid her hand on his shoulder and stood up. "It's okay. I'll find it."
She edged along the wall, leaned on the corner of the mantelpiece. Then bumped into an occasional table, setting off a chorus of tinkling.
When she reached the door, she glanced around. The sea of faces was still rising in a dance of cries and mingling wrinkles, distorted flesh reaching out to follow her. Holding back a scream, she left the room.
The hall was unlit. The hanging coats formed disturbing shapes; the half-open doors revealed rays of darkness. Anna stopped in front of a mirror framed with old gold. She stared at her reflection: a pallid parchment, a ghostly gleam. Beneath her black woolen sweater, she seized her trembling shoulders.
Suddenly, a man appeared behind her in the mirror.
She did not recognize him. He had not been there at the dinner. She turned around to face him. Who was he? Where had he sprung from? He looked threatening. Something twisted and disfigured hovered about his features. His hands gleamed in the shadows like a pair of steel weapons.
Anna pulled back, sinking into the hanging coats. The man stepped forward. She could hear the others talking in the next room. She wanted to cry out, but her throat was lined with burning cotton. The face was now just a few inches from her. A reflection from the looking glass glittered in her eyes, dazzling her pupils with a golden flash…
"Do you want to go home now?"
Anna stifled a groan. It was Laurent's voice. His face immediately recovered its usual appearance. She felt two hands holding her up and realized that she must have fainted.
"Jesus." Laurent said. "What's the matter with you?"
"My coat. Give me my coat," she demanded, freeing herself from his arms.
The malaise did not diminish. She did not completely recognize her husband. Once again she felt sure that his features had changed. That his face was different, that a secret lurked there, a zone of darkness…
Laurent handed her her duffel coat. He was trembling. He was clearly scared for her, but also for himself. He was worried that his friends would see what was happening. One of the top people in the Ministry of the Interior had a wife who was loony.
She slid on her coat, savoring the feel of the lining. If only she could wrap herself up completely in it and vanish…
Bursts of laughter could be heard from the lounge.
"I'll go and say good-bye for both of us."
She heard tones of reproach, then more laughter. Anna looked one more time in the mirror. One day soon, when faced with these features, she would ask. "Who is this?"
Laurent came back. She murmured, "Take me home. I want to sleep."
But the fit pursued her in her sleep.
Since the beginning of her attacks, Anna had had the same dream. Black-and-white images paraded before her at various speeds, like in a silent movie.
The scene was also identical. Hungry-looking peasants were waiting at night on the platform of a station. A goods train arrived in a cloud of steam. A sliding door opened. A man wearing a cap appeared and leaned down to take a flag that was being handed to him. The standard bore a strange device: four moons arranged in a star pattern.
The man then stood up, raising his extremely dark eyebrows. He harangued the crowd, waiving the banner in the air, but his words were inaudible. Instead, a sort of blanket of noise was raised: an awful murmur, made of sighs and children sobbing.
Anna's whispering then mingled with that terrible chant. She spoke to the young voices: "Where are you? Why are you crying?"
In reply, the wind rose on the platform. The four moons on the banner started to glow as if they were fluorescent. The scene descended into pure nightmare. The man's coat opened, revealing a bare chest that was sliced in two and emptied. Then a gust shattered his face. His flesh fell away like ash, starting from below his ears, revealing dark bulging muscles…
Anna woke up with a start.
Eyes wide open in the darkness, she recognized nothing. Not the bedroom. Nor the bed. Nor the body sleeping beside her. It took her several seconds to familiarize herself with these strange forms. She leaned back on the wall and wiped the sweat from her face.
Why did this dream keep recurring? What did it have to do with her illness? She felt sure that it was another aspect of what was wrong with her: a mysterious echo, an inexplicable counterpoint to her mental decay. In the darkness, she called out: "Laurent?"
His back turned, her husband did not move. Anna grabbed his shoulder.
"Laurent, are you asleep?"
There was a slight movement, a rustling of the sheets. Then she saw his profile stand out in the shadows. She repeated softly: Are you asleep?”
"Can I, can I ask you something?"
He half sat up, and leaned his head on the pillows. "Go on."
Anna spoke even more softly -the sobbing from her dream was still echoing in her mind. "Why…" She hesitated. "Why don't we have any children?"
For a second, everything was still. Then Laurent pulled aside the sheets and sat on the side of the bed, turning his back to her. The silence suddenly seemed full of tension and hostility. He rubbed his face, then announced: "We're going back to see Ackermann."
"I'll call him. We'll make an appointment at the hospital."
"Why are you saying this?"
He said over his shoulder, "You lied. You said you didn't have any other memory problems. That there was only the problem of faces."
Anna realized that she had made a mistake. Her question revealed a fresh gulf in her head. All she could see was the nape of Laurent's neck, his vague curls, his straight back. But she could guess how low he felt, and also how angry.
"What did I just say?" she hazarded.
Laurent turned a few degrees toward her. "You never wanted a child. It was a condition when we married." He raised his voice and lifted his left hand. "Even on our wedding night you made me promise that I'd never ask you for that. You're losing your mind. Anna. We have to do something. We have to have those tests done. To understand what's happening. For Christ's sake, we have to stop it!"
Anna curled up on the far end of the bed. "Just give me a few more days. There must be another possibility"
"I don't know. Just a few days. Please."
He lay down again and hid his head in the sheets. "I'll call Dr. Ackermann next Wednesday"
There was no point thanking him. Anna did not even know why she had asked for this reprieve. Why deny the obvious? Her illness was gaining ground, neuron by neuron, in each region of her brain.
She slid beneath the covers, a good distance from Laurent, and thought over this mystery about having children. Why had she demanded such a promise? What had motivated her at the time? She had no answers. Her own personality was turning into a stranger.
She thought back to her wedding. Eight years ago. She was then just twenty-three. What could she really remember about it?
A country manor in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, palm trees, broad lawns yellowed by the sun, the laughter of children. She closed her eyes and tried to recover those sensations. A circle of Chinese shadows lengthening across the grass. She could also see bunches of flowers and white hands…
Suddenly, a tulle scarf floated into her memory. The material danced before her eyes, disturbing the circle, reducing the greenness of the grass, picking up the light with its fantastic movements.
The material came nearer, until she could feel its weave on her face. Then around her lips. Anna opened her mouth in laughter, but the cloth pressed into her throat. She was panting, as it now stuck to the roof of her mouth. And it was not tulle, it was gauze.
Surgical gauze that was suffocating her.
She screamed into the night. Her cry produced no sound. She opened her eyes. She had fallen asleep, her mouth pressed into the pillow.
When would it all end? She sat up and felt the sweat on her skin once more. It was this sticky veil that had set off that suffocating feeling.
She got up and went to the bathroom, next to the bedroom. On tiptoes, she found the way inside and closed the door before turning on the light. She pressed the switch, then turned toward the mirror over the basin.
Her face was covered with blood.
Red streams covered her forehead. There were scabs beneath her eyes, by her nose, around her lips. Her first thought was that she had hurt herself. Rut when she took a closer look she saw that she just had a nosebleed. By wiping her face in the darkness, she had covered herself with her own blood. Her sweatshirt was soaked in it.
She turned on the cold tap and put out her hands, flooding the basin with a pink whirlpool. She was sure of one thing: this blood symbolized a truth that was trying to wrench itself free from her flesh. A secret that her consciousness refused to recognize or formulate but that was escaping in an organic flood from her body.
She dipped her head beneath the cool flow, mixing her sobs with the translucent water. As it flowed, she continued to whisper to it: "What's the matter with me? What's the matter with me?"
A little golden sword.
That is how he saw it in his mind's eye. In reality he knew that it was just a copper paper knife, with a Spanish-style carved pommel. At the age of eight, Paul had stolen it from his father's workshop and hidden in his bedroom. He could perfectly remember the atmosphere at the time. The closed shutters. The stifling heat. The calm of the nap.
A summer afternoon like any other.
Except that these few hours would alter the course of his life forever. "What are you hiding in your hand?"
Paul tightened his fist. His mother was standing at his bedroom door. "Show me what you're holding."
Her voice was calm, with just a hint of curiosity. Paul tightened his grip. She advanced into the half-light, the sunbeams filtered through the slats of the shutters, then she sat down on the edge of the bed and slowly opened his hand.
"Why did you take the paper knife?"
He could not see her face in the shadows. "To defend you.”
“To defend me against who?"
"Against your dad?"
She leaned over him. Her face appeared in a ray of light. It was swollen, covered with bruises. One of her eyes, white and full of blood, was staring at him like a porthole. She repeated, "To defend me against your dad?"
He nodded. There was a moment of uncertainty, of stillness, then she hugged him in a wave of abandon. Paul pushed her back. It was not tears and pity that he wanted. All that mattered was the coming battle. The promise he had made to himself the previous evening, when his drunken father had started beating his mother until she fainted on the kitchen floor. When the monster had turned around and seen him, a little boy trembling in the doorway, and had warned him: be back. I'll be back to kill both of you!”
So Paul had armed himself and was awaiting his return, sword in hand.
But he never did come back. Not the next day, nor the day after that. By one of destiny's coincidences, Jean-Pierre Nerteaux was murdered on the very night that he had made his threat. His body was discovered two days later, in his own taxi, near the gasoline warehouses in the port of Gennevilliers.
When she learned of the murder, his wife, Françoise, reacted in a strange way. Instead of going to identify the body, she wanted to go to the place of the crime to check that his Peugeot 504 was still in one piece and that there would be no problems with the cab company.
Paul remembered the slightest details: the bus ride to Gennevilliers, the mutterings of his devastated mother, his own apprehension faced with something he did not really understand. But when they reached the warehouses, he was struck with amazement. Huge crowns of steel rose up from the wasteland. Weeds and shrubs sprouted between the concrete ruins. Steel rods were rusting like metal cactuses. It was a landscape for a Western, like the deserts in the comic books he read.
Under a sweltering sky, the mother and child crossed the storage areas. At the far end of these abandoned fields, they found the Peugeot. Half sunken into the gray dunes. Paul soaked up everything that an eight-year-old could understand. The police uniforms, the handcuffs glinting in the sunlight, the muted explanations, the black hands of the servicemen in white light as they busied themselves around the car…
It took him a while to understand that his father had been knifed at the wheel. But only a second to see the lacerations in the back of the seat, through the half-open rear door.
The killer had attacked his victim through the seat.
The child was at once struck by how coherent the event was. A day before, he wanted his father to die. He had armed himself, then revealed his criminal plans to his mother. This confession had acted like a curse:
Some mysterious force had made his wish come true. He might not have held the knife himself, but it was he who had mentally ordered the murder.
From that moment, he had no more memories. Not of the funeral, nor of this mother's complaining, nor of the financial difficulties that marked their daily lives. Paul was completely drawn in on this truth: he was the real murderer.
The true organizer of the massacre.
Much later, in 1987, he enrolled in the law department of the Sorbonne. By doing odd jobs, he had managed to save enough money to rent a room in Paris, away from his mother, who now drank all the time. As a cleaning woman in a supermarket, she was thrilled at the idea that her son was to become a lawyer. But Paul had other ideas.
When he obtained his master's degree in 1990, Paul joined the Cannes-Ecluse police academy. Two years later, he was first in his class and could have chosen one of the jobs most coveted by apprentice police officers: OCRTIS, the temple of dope chasers.
His career looked set. Four years in a central office or an elite unit, then he could take the internal examination to become a commissioner. Before he was forty Paul Nerteaux would have a top-ranking job in the Ministry of the Interior, on Place Beauvau, amid the gilded paneling of headquarters.
But Paul was not interested in such a career. His vocation as a policeman lay elsewhere, still linked to his feelings of guilt. Fifteen years after their expedition to Gennevilliers, he was still haunted by remorse. His career was guided by the sole desire to wash away his crime and recover his lost innocence.
He had had to invent personal techniques and secret methods of concentration to master his anxiety attacks. Thanks to this discipline, he had found the means to become an unbending cop. In his company he was hated, feared and sometimes admired, but never liked because no one understood that his inflexibility and desire to succeed were his defenses, a security barrier. It was the only way for him to control his demons. No one knew that in the right-hand drawer of his desk, he still kept a copper paper knife…
He tightened his grip on the wheel and concentrated on the road.
Why was he digging up that shit again now? Was it the influence of the rain-soaked landscape? Because it was Sunday, the day of death for the living?
On either side of the highway, all he could see were the dark furrows of plowed fields. The horizon itself looked like a final groove, opening out onto the nothingness of the sky. Nothing could ever happen in this region, except for a slow descent into despair.
He glanced down at the map on the passenger seat. He now had to turn off the highway and take the A road toward Amiens. After that, he had to take the D235. Ten kilometers later, he would be there.
So as to chase away his dark thoughts, he focused his mind on the man he was going to see: probably the only policeman he did not really want to meet. At the Inspection Générale des Services, he had photocopied his file and could now recite his CV by heart…
Jean-Louis Schiffer was born in 1943 in Aulnay-sous-Bois, Seine-Saint-Denis. Depending on the context, he was nicknamed either "the Cipher" or "Mr. Steel." The Cipher because of the impenetrable mysteries that surrounded the cases he dealt with: Mister Steel because of his reputation of being implacable-and also for his silvery hair, which was long and silky.
After his leaving certificate in 1959, Schiffer was called up for military service in Algeria, in the Aurès mountains. In 1960, he returned to Algiers, where he became an intelligence agent and an active member of the DOP (Détachements Operationnels de Protection).
In 1963, he returned to France, ranked sergeant. He then joined the police force, first as an ordinary officer, then a sergeant in the territory brigade in Paris 's sixth arrondissement. He rapidly became noticed for his instinctive street savvy and liking for infiltration. In May 1968, he dived into the throng and mixed with the students. At the time, he wore his hair in a ponytail, smoked dope and discreetly noted the names of the ringleaders. During the clashes on Rue Gay-Lussac, he also saved a riot police officer from under a hail of paving stones.
His first act of bravery. His first distinction.
But that was only the beginning. After being recruited by the Brigade Criminelle in 1972, he was made inspector and continued to act heroically, fearing neither fire nor combat. In 1975, he received a medal for bravery. It seemed that nothing could stop his ascent. But then, in 1977, after a short period spent in the famous "anti-gang" squad, he was suddenly transferred. Paul had found a report written at the time and signed by Commissioner Broussard in person, who had noted in the margin unmanageable.
Schiffer then found his true hunting ground in the First Division of the Police Judiciaire in Paris 's tenth arrondissement. Refusing all offers of promotion or transfer, for twenty years he dominated the west of the sector, imposing law and order in an area running from the central boulevards to the Gare du Nord and the Gare de l'Est, including part of Sentier, the Turkish quarter, with its high immigrant population.
During that time, he headed a network of informers, put a check on illegal activities-gambling, drugs and prostitution-while maintaining ambiguous but effective relations with the leaders of the various communities. He also obtained a record success rate in the solving of cases.
According to a widely held opinion in high places, it was thanks to him and him alone that a relative calm reigned in that part of the tenth arrondissement from 1978 to 1998. Schiffer even enjoyed the exceptional honor of prolonging his time on the force from 1999 to 2001.
In April of that year, he finally retired officially. He had been decorated five times, including with the Order of Merit, and could boast of two hundred thirty-nine arrests and four deaths by shooting. At the age of fifty-eight, he had never risen higher than the rank of inspector. He was a cop on the beat, devoted to fieldwork in a single territory.
So much for Mr. Steel.
His Cipher side emerged in 1971, when he was caught beating up a prostitute on Rue de Michodière, by the Madeleine. The official inquest and investigations by the vice squad led to nothing. No one wanted to testify against the man with silver hair. Another complaint was made in 1979. It was rumored that Schiffer was racketing whores on Rue Jérusalem and Rue Saint-Denis.
Another inquiry another failure.
The Cipher knew how to cover his tracks.
Things turned really serious in 1982. A stock of heroin disappeared from the Bonne-Nouvelle station, after the rounding up of a network of Turkish dealers. Schiffer's name was on everyone's lips. He was put under investigation. But a year later, he was cleared. No proof, and no witnesses.
As the years went by, suspicions mounted: percentages gleaned from protection rackets, or from illegal gambling syndicates, fiddles involving local bars, or pimping… Apparently, he had a finger in every pie, but no one managed to trap him. Schiffer had his sector in a grip of steel. Even inside the force, internal investigators were confronted by the silence of their fellow officers.
Yet everyone still saw the Cipher more as Mr. Steel. A hero, a champion of law and order, with a prestigious career behind him.
But one last scandal nearly brought him down. In October 2000, the body of Gazil Hemet, a Turkish illegal immigrant, was found on the tracks of the Gare du Nord. The day before, he had been arrested by Schiffer himself as a suspected drug dealer. When accused of excessive violence, Schiffer riposted that he had freed the suspect before the end of the legal period of detention-which was rather unlike him.
Had Hemet been beaten to death? The autopsy gave no clear answer, because the body had been torn to pieces by the 8:10 express from Brussels. But an independent forensic report spoke of mysterious wounds on the Turk's body, which could have been caused by torture techniques. This time, it looked as though Schiffer's career was going to finish behind bars.
Then, in April 2001, the prosecutor decided to drop the charges again. What had happened? Who was pulling strings for Jean-Louis Schiffer? Paul had questioned the officers charged with the internal police investigation. They were so disgusted they did not want to reply. Especially because, a few weeks later, Schiffer personally invited them to his farewell drinks party.
He was bent, a bastard, and cocky with it.
Such was the shit that Paul was about to encounter.
The highway exit to Amiens brought him back to the present. He turned off and took the A road. There were just a few more kilometers to go before he saw the sign to Longéres.
Paul drove down the side road as far as the village. He crossed it without slowing down, then spotted another road that led down into a waterlogged valley. While driving between the tall grasses, brilliant from the rain, he had a sort of revelation. He suddenly realized why he had thought of his father while driving to meet Jean-Louis Schiffer.
In his own way the Cipher was the father of all cops. Half hero, half demon, he alone incarnated the best and the worst, rigor and corruption, Good and Evil. A founding father, a Grand Old Man, whom Paul admired despite himself, just as he had admired, from the depths of his hatred, his violent alcoholic father.
When Paul saw the building he was looking for, he nearly burst out laughing. With its enclosing wall and two clock towers shaped like lookout posts, the Longéres police officers' retirement home looked just like a prison.
On the other side of the wall, the comparison became even clearer. The yard was surrounded by three main buildings, laid out like horseshoes, each pierced by galleries with dark arcades. Some men were braving the rain and playing boules. They wore overalls that recalled the dress of the inmates in all the world's prisons. Just near them, three uniformed officers, presumably visiting a relative, were playing the part of wardens.
Paul savored the irony of the situation. Longères, financed by the National Police Mutual Association, was the largest retirement home open to officers. It welcomed all ranks so long as they "suffered from no psychosomatic disorder based on or resulting in alcoholism." He now discovered that this famous haven of peace, with its enclosed spaces and masculine populace, was just another prison house. Return to sender, he thought.
Paul reached the entrance of the main building and pushed open the glass door. A very dark, square hall led to a staircase topped with a dormer window of frosted glass. The place was as hot and stifling as a terrarium, and it stank of medication and urine.
He turned toward the swinging doors to his left, from which a strong smell of food was wafting. It was noon. The inmates were presumably having lunch.
He discovered a refectory with yellow walls and a floor covered with bloodred linoleum. On the long lines of stainless-steel tables, the plates and cutlery were carefully arranged. Vats of soup were steaming. Everything was in place, but the room was deserted.
Noises came from the next room. Paul approached the din, feeling his heels sink into the sticky floor. Every detail added to the overall atmosphere of gloom. He felt himself age with every step he took.
He passed the door. About thirty pensioners in shapeless tracksuits were standing with their backs to him, concentrating on the TV. "Now Hint of Joy has gone past Bartok…" Horses were galloping across the screen.
As Paul approached, he noticed a single old man sitting in another room to the left. Instinctively, he craned his neck to get a better look at him. Slumped over his plate, the man was toying with a steak at the end of his fork.
Paul had to face facts: this debris was his man.
The Steel and the Cipher. The officer with two hundred and thirty-nine arrests.
He crossed the room. Behind him, the commentary was blaring: "Hint of Joy, it's still Hint of Joy." Compared with the last photos Paul had seen of him, Jean-Louis Schiffer had aged twenty years.
His regular features had shriveled over his bones, as though stretched on the rack. His gray, scaly skin hung loose, especially around his neck, making him look like a reptile. His eyes, which had once been chrome blue, were barely visible beneath his heavy eyelids. The former officer no longer had the long hair that had made him famous. It was now short, almost in a crew cut. The silvery mane had given way to an iron skull.
His still-powerful frame was obscured in a royal blue coverall, whose collar divided into two wavy wings over his shoulders. Beside the plate, Paul spotted a stack of betting slips. Jean-Louis Schiffer, the street legend, had become the bookmaker for a crew of retired traffic cops.
How had he ever imagined that such a wreck could help him? But it was too late to turn back now Paul adjusted his belt, gun and handcuffs and put on his most impressive look-eyes ahead, and jaws clenched. The glassy eyes had already located him. When he was only a few paces away, the man said straight off: "You're too young to be a cop's cop."
"Captain Paul Nerteaux, first section, tenth arrondissement." He rattled this off in a military tone that he at once regretted.
"On Rue de Nancy?"
This question was an indirect compliment. It was the address of the neighborhood station. Schiffer had recognized the investigator in him, the cop on the beat.
Paul grabbed a chair, glanced around automatically at the gamblers, who were still stuck in front of their television. Schiffer followed his eyes and laughed.
"You spend your life putting crooks behind bars, then what happens? You end up doing time yourself"
He raised a piece of meat to his lips. His jawbones went to work beneath the skin like fluid, alert machinery Paul revised his judgment. The Cipher was not as far gone as all that. All he had to do was blow the dust off the mummy.
"What do you want?" the man asked, after swallowing his meat.
Paul adopted his most modest tone. "I've come to ask you for some advice."
"About this." He removed a brown paper envelope from the pocket of his parka and placed it next to the betting slips. Schiffer pushed aside his plate and unhurriedly opened it. He took out a dozen color photographs.
He looked at the first one and asked: "What is it?"
He turned to the next pictures.
Paul added, "The nose was sliced off with a box cutter. Or a razor. The lacerations and tears on the cheeks were made using the same instrument. The lips were cut off with scissors."
Without a word, Schiffer turned back to the first photo.
"Before that," Paul went on, "there was a beating. According to the forensic scientist, the mutilations were done postmortem."
"Who was she?"
"We don't know. Her fingerprints aren't on record."
"How old was she?"
"What was the actual cause of death?"
"You've got a choice. Blows. Wounds. Burns. The rest of the body's in the same state as the face. Apparently she underwent more than twenty-four hours of torture. I'm expecting more details. The autopsy's being carried out now."
The old man raised his eyes. "Why are you showing me this?"
"The body was found at dawn yesterday, by Saint-Lazare Hospital.”
"So, that was your territory. You spent over twenty years in the sector."
"But that doesn't make me an expert on faces."
"I think the victim is a Turkish working girl."
"First because of the area. Then there are her teeth. They have traces of gold fillings that are now used only in the Near East." He then added: "Do you want the names of the alloys?"
Schiffer moved his plate back in front of him and started eating again. "Why an immigrant worker?" he asked after a long chew.
"Because of her fingers," Paul replied. "The tips are crisscrossed with scars typical of certain types of sewing work. I've checked."
"Does her description match anyone reported missing?"
The old man was pretending not to understand.
"No reported disappearance," Paul muttered patiently "No one came asking after her. She's an illegal alien. Schiffer. Someone with no official status in France. A woman no one will come to the police about. The ideal victim."
The Cipher slowly and calmly finished his steak. Then he dropped his knife and fork to pick up the photos again. This time, he put on his glasses. He observed each image for a few seconds, attentively examining the wounds.
Paul could not help looking down at the pictures. He saw, upside-down, the dark sliced opening of the nose, the lacerations in the face, a purple, horrific harelip.
Schiffer laid down the packet and grabbed a yogurt. He carefully raised the top before plunging in his spoon.
Paul sensed that his reserves of calm were quickly running out.
"I've been doing the rounds," he went on. "The sweatshops, the homes, the bars. Nothing doing. No one's gone missing. Which is normal, because no one really exists. They're illegal aliens. How can you identify a victim in an invisible community?"
Schiffer silently scooped up his yogurt.
Paul pressed on. "None of the Turks have seen anything. Or else they won't tell me. In fact, no one's been able to tell me anything. Because none of them speaks French."
The Cipher continued toying with his spoon. Finally, he deigned to add, "And so, someone mentioned me…"
"Everyone mentioned you. Beauvanier, Monestier, the inspectors, the boys on the beat. If they're to be believed, you're the only person who can make this damned case advance."
Silence again. Schiffer wiped his lips with a napkin, then grabbed his little plastic pot. "That's all a long time ago. I'm retired, and I've got other things on my mind." He pointed to the betting slips. “I now devote myself to my new responsibilities."
Paul grabbed the edge of the table and leaned over it. "Listen, Schiffer. He smashed her feet to pulp. The X-rays show over seventy shards of bone sticking in her flesh. He sliced off her breasts so that you can now count her ribs through her skin. He rammed a bar covered with razor blades into her vagina.-He banged the table. "He's got to be stopped!"
The old cop raised an eyebrow. " 'Got to be stopped'?"
Paul wiggled on his seat, then clumsily removed the file that was rolled up inside pocked of his parka. Reluctantly, he added, "We've got three of them."
"The first one was found last November. Then a second in January. And now this one. Every time, in the Turkish quarter. And always tortured and disfigured in the same way"
Schiffer stared at him in silence, spoon in midair.
Paul started yelling, drowning out the cries from the racecourse. "Jesus Christ, Schiffer, don't you understand? There's a serial killer in the Turkish quarter. Someone who attacks only asylum seekers. Women who don't exist, in an area that isn't part of France anymore!"
At last, Jean-Louis Schiffer put down his yogurt and took the file from Paul's hands. "You should have come to see me before."
Outside, the sun had come out. Silvery puddles enlivened the large gravel courtyard. Paul was pacing up and down in front of the main entrance, waiting for Jean-Louis Schiffer to finish packing.
There was no other solution. He had realized that right from the start. The Cipher could not help from a distance. He could not advise him from his retirement home, nor help him out over the phone when Paul had run out of ideas. No. It was necessary for the former officer to question the Turks alongside him and exploit his contacts by returning to the neighborhood he knew better than anyone else.
Paul shivered at the possible consequences of what he was doing. No one had been informed, neither the magistrate nor his superiors. And it wasn't good practice just to let loose such a bastard, known for his violent, unrestrained methods. He was going to have to keep him on a very short leash.
He kicked a pebble into a puddle, thus disturbing his own reflection. He was still trying to convince himself that he had had the right idea. How had he come to this? Why was he so obsessed by this case? Why, since the first murder, had it seemed that his entire existence depended on the outcome?
He thought for a moment while staring at his troubled image. Then had to admit to himself that this rage had just one sole source. Everything had started with Reyna.
MARCH 25, 1994
Paul had started out in narcotics. He was getting good results in the field. Leading an ordered existence, studying for the examination to become commissioner and was even noticing that the lacerated leatherette seating was sinking into the depths of his consciousness. His cop casing was acting as a solid defense against his old panic attacks.
That evening, he was transferring a North African dealer, whom he had questioned for over six hours in his office in Nanterre, to the Paris Prefecture. A routine procedure. But when he arrived at headquarters. He discovered total chaos. Police vans were arriving in droves, containing hordes of screaming and gesticulating youths. Riot police were running around in all directions along the riverbank, while sirens constantly blared as ambulances surged into the courtyard of Hotel-Dieu.
Paul asked around. A demonstration against a job reinstatement plan-a proposed minimum wage for young people-had degenerated. On Place de la Nation, there were apparently over a hundred police officers wounded, plus several dozen demonstrators and millions of francs' worth of damage to property.
Paul grabbed his suspect and legged it down to the basement. If he could not find any room downstairs, then he could always go to the Prison de la Santé, or even farther afield, with his prisoner handcuffed to his wrist.
The detention center greeted him with its usual din, but this time multiplied a thousand fold. There were insults, screams, spitting. Demonstrators were hanging off the bars, yelling out curses, to which the police replied with their truncheons. He managed to off-load his dealer and headed off at once, fleeing the racket and spittle.
He was about to leave when he spotted her.
She was sitting on the floor, arms wrapped around her knees, apparently disdainful of the surrounding chaos. He went over to her. She had prickly black hair, an androgynous form, a sort of Joy Division look straight from the 1980s. She even had a blue-checked head scarf, like the ones only Yasser Arafat still dares to wear.
Beneath her punkish hair, her face was of a startling regularity: as even as an Egyptian figurine cut in white marble. Paul thought of the sculptures he had seen in a magazine. Naturally polished shapes, both heavy and soft, ready to slip into the palm of your hand or stand up on a finger in perfect balance. Magical stones, signed by an artist called Brancusi.
He talked with the jailers, checked that the girl's name had not yet been put in the daybook, then took her to the narcotics squad offices on the third floor. While climbing the stairs, he mentally went through his good and bad points.
In terms of strengths. He was a reasonably good-looking. That was at least what he heard from the prostitutes who whistled at him and called to him when he went through the red-light districts looking for dealers. He had the smooth black hair of an Indian. His features were regular, his eyes brown. A dry yet vibrant figure, not very tall, but posed on thick-soled Paraboots. As he looked so cute, he had adopted a harsh stare, which he worked on in front of his mirror, and a three-day growth that concealed his boyish looks.
In terms of weaknesses, there was just one. A huge one. He was a cop.
When he checked the girl's records, he realized that this obstacle was likely to be a major one. Reyna Brendosa, age twenty-four, living at 32 Rue Gabriel-Péri in Sarcelles, was an active member of the extreme wing of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire. She had links with the Tutte Bianche, or "White Overalls," an Italian antiglobalization group that practiced civil disobedience. She had been arrested several times for vandalism, disturbing the peace and assault and battery. A real hell-raiser.
Paul turned from his computer and looked once more at the vision staring back at him from the other side of his desk. Just her dark irises, emphasized by eyeliner, knocked him out more thoroughly than the two Zairian dealers who had given him a beating at Chateau Rouge, on one evening of inattention.
He toyed with her identity card, as all cops do, and asked her: "So you like smashing things, do you?"
"Isn't there a better way to demonstrate your ideas?"
"You get off on violence, do you?"
No answer. Then, suddenly, a slow deep voice: "Private property is the only real violence. The robbing of the masses. The alienation of minds. And worst of all, written down and authorized by law."
"Those ideas are a bit past it. Hasn't anyone told you?"
"Nothing and nobody will prevent the fall of capitalism."
"In the meantime, you're in for three months behind bars."
Reyna Brendosa smiled. "You're playing at soldiers, but you're only a pawn. If I blow, you'll vanish."
Paul smiled back. Never had he felt such a mixture of irritation and fascination for a woman; such a violent desire, mingled with fear.
After their first night, he asked to see her again. She called him a "fucking pig." A month later, she was sleeping at his place every night, so he asked her to move in with him. She told him to go fuck himself Even later, he mentioned marriage. She burst out laughing.
They got married in Portugal, near Porto, in her native village. First at the Communist town hall, then in a little church. A syncretism of socialism and sun. It was one of Paul's best memories.
The following months were the happiest in his life. He was constantly amazed. Reyna seemed ethereal, immaterial, then a moment later a gesture or expression gave her an unbelievable presence and an almost animalistic sensuality. She could spend hours talking about her political ideas, her utopian dreams, quoting philosophers he had never heard of. Then, with just one kiss, she could remind him that she was a full-blooded, organic, vibrant being.
Her breath smelled of blood-she kept biting her lips. Wherever she went, she seemed to capture the spirit of the world, to move with nature's fundamental mechanics. She had a sort of internal perception of the universe: something hidden, an underground stream that linked her to the vibrations of the earth and the instincts of the living.
He loved her slowness, which gave her the gravity of a death knell. He loved her suffering when faced with injustice, misery, the desperation of humanity. He loved the martyr's life she had chosen and that raised their daily existence to the level of a tragedy. Living with his wife was like asceticism before an oracle. A transcendently religious path of discipline.
Reyna, and a life of fasting… This feeling was a hint of the future. At the end of the summer of 1994, she told him she was pregnant. He felt betrayed. His dream had vanished. His ideal had now slumped down into the banality of bodies and family life. Deep down, he sensed that he was going to lose her. At first physically, then emotionally. Reyna's vocation was obviously going to change. Utopia for her was going to reincarnate itself in her internal transformation…
And that was exactly what happened. From one day to the next, she turned over in bed and refused his touch. She reacted only vaguely to his presence. She became a kind of Forbidden City, closed around her one idol-her child. Paul might have been able to follow this shift, but he then sensed a deeper lie that he had been blind to before.
After the birth, in April 1995, their relationship froze forever. They both stood there on either side of their daughter like strangers. Despite the presence of their newborn baby, the morbid atmosphere of a funeral parlor hung around them. Paul realized that he had now become totally repulsive to Reyna.
One night, he could no longer stop himself from asking. You don't want me anymore?"
"You never will again?"
He hesitated, then asked the fatal question: "And you never have?”
His policeman's flair had deserted him on that score… Their meeting, life together. Marriage had been a pure fraud, an illusion.
A setup with the sole aim of having a child.
The divorce took only a few months. In front of the judge, Paul felt as if he was hovering. He heard a raucous voice being raised in the office, and it was his. He felt sandpaper biting into his face, and it was his own beard. He was gliding through the room like a ghost, a phantom in a comedy. He said yes to everything, to the alimony and custody: he did not put up the slightest fight. He did not give a damn, and instead dwelled on how much he had been taken in. He had been the victim of a rare form of collectivization: Reyna the Marxist had taken over his sperm. She had practiced a Communist-inspired in vitro fertilization.
The funniest thing of all was that he could not bring himself to hate her. On the contrary, he admired her as an intellectual, free from desire. He was sure that she would never again have a sexual relationship. Neither with a man nor with a woman. And the idea of this idealist who wanted quite simply to give life, without the slightest physical pleasure or desire, left him drained, without any idea about what she was doing.
It was then that he started to drift, like wastewater looking for its sea of sludge. At work, he began to wander. He never showed up at his office in Nanterre. He spent all his time in the roughest neighborhoods, hanging around with the lowest of the low, smoking endless joints with pushers and druggies, sinking into the dregs of humanity.
Then, in the spring of 1998, he agreed to see her.
She was called Céline and she was three. The first weekends were terrible: parks, rides, cotton candy, terminal boredom. Then, bit by bit, he discovered an unsuspected presence. Something transparent in the child's movements, face, expressions, with their supple bounding whimsical shifts, whose turns and turns-about he observed.
A tightly clenched fist to emphasize what was obvious, the way she leaned forward then rounded off the movement with an impudent grin, her husky voice with its own special charm that made him tingle as though touched by some material or bark. A woman was already lurking there within the child. It was not her mother-absolutely not-but another unique, sparkling being.
There was something new under the sun: Celine was there.
Paul changed completely, and now started to relish the time they spent together. Those days spent with his daughter brought him back to life. He struggled to regain his self-respect. He dreamed of himself as a hero, an untouchable supercop, washed clean of any stain.
A man whose gaze would make his morning mirror glisten.
For this recovery, he chose the sole territory that he knew: crime. He forgot about taking the exam to become a commissioner and instead applied for a job in Paris 's Brigade Criminelle. Despite his bout of depression, he became captain in 1999. He then turned into a determined, inspired investigator. And started to hope for a case that would take him to the top-the sort of inquiry that all motivated officers long for: the pursuit of a beast, a face-to-face duel with an enemy who was up to his expectations.
It was then that he heard about the first body.
A redhead who had been tortured and disfigured then dumped in a doorway off Boulevard de Strasbourg on November 15. 2001. No suspects. No motive, and an almost nonexistent victim… The body did not match any person who had been reported missing. The fingerprints were not on record. The squad had already closed the case. Just another bust-up between some whore and her pimp. The red lights of Rue Saint-Denis were not even two hundred yards away. But Paul instinctively sensed that there was something else. He read the file -the witness who had found the body, the forensic report, photos of the stiff. At Christmas, while his colleagues were with their families, and Céline had gone to see her grandparents in Portugal, he studied the file in detail. He immediately saw that this had been no usual murder. Neither the diversity of the torture methods nor the mutilations to the face fitted with the idea that it had been a pimp. What was more, if the girl had really been in the game, then her fingerprints would have been identified-all the whores of the tenth arrondissement were on record.
He decided to keep an eye on events in the Strasbourg-Saint-Denis area. He did not have to wait long. On January 10, 2002, a second body was found in the courtyard of a Turkish sweatshop on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis. The same type of victim a redhead who had not been reported missing. The same marks of torture. The same lacerations to the face.
Paul forced himself to stay calm, but he was sure that he now had his serial killer. He rushed to see Thierry Bomarzo, the investigating magistrate, and was put in charge of the case. Unfortunately the leads were already cold. The local cops had made a mess of the scene of the crime, and forensics had found nothing.
Deep down, Paul sensed that he should track the killer on his own turf, by infiltrating the Turkish community. He got himself transferred to the local police station on Rue de Nancy and demoted to the rank of plain sergeant in the Service d’Accueil de Recherche d'Investigation Judiciaire (the SARIJ). He rediscovered the routine of a lowly cop, dealing with robbed widows, shoplifting in grocery stores and neighbors from hell.
The month of February passed by. Paul was champing at the bit. He was both fearing and hoping for another corpse. His life alternated between moments of excitement and days of utter gloom. When things could not get any worse, he visited the anonymous tombs of the two victims in the paupers' cemetery in Thiais, Val-de-Marne.
While staring at the stone slabs with just a number on them, he swore that he would avenge the victims and find the madman who had massacred them. Then, in the back of his mind, he also made a promise to Céline. Yes, he would catch the killer. For her. For himself. So that everyone would see what a great cop he was.
On the dawn of March 16, 2002 another body was found.
The boys on night duty called him up at five in the morning. The garbage collectors had phoned in: they had come across a corpse in a ditch by Saint-Lazare Hospital, a disused brick building off Boulevard Magenta. Paul ordered that no one should go there for another hour. He grabbed his coat and headed for the scene of the crime. He discovered a deserted zone, without a single officer or flashing light to disturb his concentration.
It was a miracle.
He was going to be able to sniff out the trace of the killer, to enter into contact with his scent, his presence, his craziness… Once again, he was disappointed. He had been hoping for some material clues, a particular disposition that would reveal a modus operandi. But all he had was a corpse in a concrete trench. A livid, mutilated body topped by a disfigured face beneath a ginger mane.
Paul realized that he was caught between the silence of the dead and the silence of the quarter.
He went back home in desperation, even before the police van arrived. He wandered down Rue Saint-Denis and watched Little Turkey wake up. The shopkeepers opening their stores, the workers running to their sweatshops, the thousand and one Turks going about their business… He felt sure that this immigrant neighborhood was the forest in which the killer was concealed, a dense jungle where he had fled to seek refuge and security.
There was no way Paul could unmask him alone.
He needed a guide to light the way.
Jean-Louis Schiffer looked better in civvies.
He was wearing an olive green Barbour hunting jacket and lighter green corduroy trousers that tumbled down over his Church-style shoes, which glistened like chestnuts.
These clothes conferred a certain elegance on him, but without diminishing the brutality of his figure. His broad back and chest, along with his arched legs, gave him an aura of power, solidity and violence-someone who could certainly take the recoil from the official Manhurin.38 without budging an inch. His posture even suggested that he had already taken its recoil and incorporated it into his gait.
As though reading Paul's mind, the Cipher lifted his arms: "Search me if you want, kid. I'm not carrying."
"I hope not," Paul replied. "Just remember, there's only one serving officer around here. And I'm not a kid."
Schiffer clicked his heels together to mimic standing at attention. Paul did not even grin. He opened the car door, got in and pulled off at once. Trying to swallow his apprehensions.
The Cipher said nothing during the journey. He was absorbed in the photocopy of the file. Paul knew it by heart. He could recite everything that was known about the bodies, which he had now baptized his "Corpuses."
When they had reached the outskirts of Paris, Schiffer asked, "Searching the scenes of the crimes didn't turn up anything?"
"Forensics didn't find a single dab, a single trace?"
"Not on the bodies either?"
"Especially not on the bodies. Forensics thinks the killer cleans them with industrial detergent. He disinfects the wounds, washes their hair and cleans under their nails."
"And what about your neighborhood inquiries?"
"I've already told you. I've questioned workers, shopkeepers, whores and the garbage collectors near the scene. I've even spoken to tramps. No one's seen anything."
"What do you reckon?"
"I think the killer goes around in a car and dumps the bodies as soon as he can, at dawn. A lightning raid."
Schiffer flicked through the pages. He stopped at the photos of the corpses. "What do you reckon about the faces?"
Paul took a deep breath. He had thought about those mutilations for nights on end. "There are several possibilities. Firstly, the killer might just be trying to throw us off the track. The women knew him, and if we identify them, then we could get to him."
"Why not mess up their teeth and fingers, then?"
"Because they're illegal immigrants and not on any records."
The Cipher accepted this point with a nod of his head. "And secondly?"
"A more… psychological motive. I've read a few books on the subject. According to the specialists, when a murderer destroys the means of identification, it's because he knows his victims and can't stand the way they look at him. So he takes away their status as a human being. He keeps them at a distance by reducing them to mere objects."
Schiffer leafed through the papers again. "I'm not much of a one for the trick-cyclists. And next?"
"The murderer has a thing about faces in general. Something in the faces of these redheads scares him, brings back a trauma. He has to kill them but also disfigure them. I reckon these women looked alike. It's their faces that spark off the attack."
"That sounds even more iffy"
"You haven't seen the bodies," Paul replied, raising his voice slightly. "This is a real sicko. A pure psycho. So we've got to think as crazy as he does."
"And what's this here?"
He had just opened a final envelope, which contained photographs of antique sculptures. Heads, masks and busts. Paul had cut them out of museum catalogues, tourist guides and magazines such as Archaeologia and the Bulletin du Louvre.
"It's an idea I had." he replied. "I noticed that the cuts look like cracks, notches, marks in stone. Then there's the fact that the noses and lips have been sliced off and the bones filed down, as though worn by time. I wondered if the killer might be inspired by old statues."
"Come off it."
Paul felt himself blush. His idea was a little far-fetched, and despite all his research he had never managed to find a single detail that was in any way reminiscent of the wounds of the Corpuses. Nevertheless, he blurted out: "For the killer, these women are maybe goddesses, to be hated but also respected. I'm sure he's Turkish and up to his eyes in Mediterranean mythology."
"You've got too much imagination."
"Haven't you ever followed your intuition?"
"I've never followed anything else. Just take my word for it. All this psycho stuff is off the point. What we have to do is concentrate on the technical problems he has."
Paul was not sure if he understood correctly.
Schiffer went on: "We have to think through his modus operandi. If you're right, and these women really are illegal immigrants, then they're Muslims. And not Muslims from Istanbul in high heels. They're peas ants, timid souls who keep themselves to themselves and can't speak a word of French. To catch them, you need to know them. And speak Turkish. Our man maybe runs a sweatshop. Or else is a shopkeeper. Then there's the question of timing. These working girls live underground, in cellars and hidden workshops. The killer must grab them when they resurface. When? How? Why do they agree to go with him? It's by answering questions like those that we'll identify him."
Paul agreed. But such questions merely revealed the depth of their ignorance. Quite literally, anything was possible.
Schiffer took a different tack: "I suppose you've checked out any other similar homicides."
"I've looked at the new Chardon archives. And also Anacrime, the gendarmerie's records. I've quizzed everyone in the squad. There's never been anything this weird before in France. I also checked out the Turkish community in Germany. Nothing doing there, either."
"And in Turkey itself?"
"Zero there, too."
Schiffer changed subjects. He wanted a full situation report. "Have patrols been increased in the area?"
"We made an agreement with Monestier, the commissioner at Louis-Blanc. There's an increased police presence, but a discreet one. We don't want to panic everyone."
Schiffer burst out laughing. "Don't be daft. All the Turks know what's happening."
Paul paid no attention.
"In any case, up till now, we've avoided any media attention. That's the only guarantee I have if I want to go it solo. If word leaks out, then Bomarzo will put other people on the case. Right now, it's just a business with Turks, so no one gives a damn. I've got a free hand."
"Why isn't the Brigade Criminelle on a case like this?"
"That's where I used to be. And I still have contacts there. Bomarzo trusts me."
And you haven't asked for more men?"
"You haven't set up a team?"
The Cipher could not help smirking. "You want him just for yourself, don't you?"
Paul did not reply.
Schiffer brushed some fluff from his trousers. "Never mind what you want. Never mind what I want either. We'll nail him. I promise you that."
On the bypass. Paul drove west, toward Porte & Auteuil.
"Aren't we going to La Rapée?" Schiffer asked, surprised.
"The body's in Garches. At Raymond-Poincaré Hospital. There's a forensics unit there that does autopsies for the courts in Versailles."
“I know. Why there?"
"For reasons of discretion. To avoid the hacks and amateur profilers that are always prowling round the Paris morgue."
Apparently Schiffer was no longer listening. He was observing the traffic in fascination. Occasionally, he would half close his eyes. As though getting used to the light. He looked like a con on conditional release.
Half an hour later, Paul crossed the Suresnes bridge and drove up Boulevard Sellier, then Boulevard de la République. He then went through the town of Saint-Cloud before reaching the outskirts of Garches.
The hospital finally appeared at the top of the hill. Fifteen acres of buildings, surgical theaters and white rooms. It was like a town, inhabited by doctors, nurses and thousands of patients, most of them victims of car accidents.
Paul drove toward the Vésale Unit. The sun was high and sparkled off the fronts of the brick buildings. Each wall offered a fresh tone of red, pink or cream, as though it had been carefully baked in an oven.
As they went on, they passed groups of visitors carrying flowers or cakes. Everyone walked with stiff, almost mechanical seriousness, as though contaminated by the surrounding rigor mortis.
They had now reached the inner courtyard of the unit. The gray-and pink building, with its porch supported by thin columns, looked like a sanatorium, or a spa concealing mysterious curative powers.
They walked into the morgue, following a corridor of white tiles. When they got to the waiting room, Schiffer asked: "Where are we now?"
It was not much, but Paul was pleased he could pull a little surprise on him.
A few years before, the Garches forensic unit had been renovated in rather an original way. The first room was painted entirely turquoise. The color covered the floor, walls and ceiling indifferently, thus wiping out any sense of scale or reference points. It was like plunging into a crystal sea, giving off a tonic limpidity. "The quacks in Garches called in a contemporary artist," Paul explained. "We're not in a hospital anymore, we're in a work of art."
A male nurse appeared and pointed to a door on their right. "Dr. Scarbon will join you in the departure hall."
They followed where he led, through further rooms that were also blue and empty, sometimes topped by a rim of white light, projected a few inches away from the ceiling. In the corridor, marble vases had been placed high on the walls, providing an array of pastel shades: pink, peach, yellow, ecru, white… Everywhere, there seemed to be a strange desire for purity at work.
The last room made Schiffer whistle in admiration.
It was a single rectangle of about a hundred square yards, absolutely empty and covered entirely in blue. To the left of the entrance, three high bay windows brought in light from outside. Facing these luminous forms, three arches had been cut into the opposite wall, like vaults in a Greek church. Within, a line of marble blocks, like huge ingots, which had also been painted blue, seemed to rise directly out of the floor.
On one of them, the shape of a body could be seen beneath a sheet. Schiffer went over to a white marble basin that stood in the middle of the room. Heavy and polished, it was full of water and resembled a plain holy-water basin of classical design. Moved by a pump, the sparkling water spun around, giving off a scent of eucalyptus, intended to lessen the stink of death and the smell of formaldehyde.
The officer dipped his fingers into it. "All this doesn't make me feel any younger."
At that instant, Dr. Scarbon could be heard approaching. Schiffer turned around. The two men looked each other up and down. Paul at once saw that they knew each other. When he had phoned the doctor from the retirement home, he had not mentioned his new partner.
"Thank you for coming, Doctor," Paul said, saluting him.
Scarbon nodded curtly, without taking his eyes off the Cipher. He was wearing a dark woolen coat and was still holding his kidskin gloves in his hand. He was old and emaciated. His eyes were constantly blinking, as if the glasses he wore on the tip of his nose were of no use to him. His bushy mustache filtered the Gallic tones in his drawling voice, as though he were a character in a pre- World War II movie.
Paul gestured toward his protégé. "Let me introduce you to-"
Schiffer butted in. "We know each other. Hi, Doctor."
Without answering, Scarbon took off his coat and put on one of the white coats that were hanging beneath a vault, then slipped on some latex gloves whose pale green color went well with the surrounding blue. Only then did he fold back the sheet. The smell of decaying flesh spread through the room, driving everything else out of their minds.
Despite himself, Paul looked away. When he had worked up the courage to look, he stared at the heavy white body, half hidden by the folded sheet.
Schiffer had stepped under the arch. He was now slipping on his surgical gloves. Not a trace of disgust could be seen on his face. Behind him, a wooden cross and two black iron chandeliers stood out against the wall. He murmured in hollow voice: "Okay, Doctor, you can begin."
"The victim is a Caucasian female. Her muscular tonicity indicates that she was between ages twenty and thirty. Rather plump. One hundred and fifty-four pounds and five foot three inches tall. If we add that she has the white pigmentation characteristic of redheads, and the hair to go with it, then it can be asserted that physically she matches the profiles of the first two victims. That's the way our boy likes them: thirtyish, plump, redheaded." Scarbon's voice was monotonous. It sounded as if he were mentally reading out the pages of his report, lines written during a sleepless night.
Schiffer asked, "No distinguishing sign?"
"Tattoos. Pierced ears. Traces of a wedding ring. Things the killer couldn't get rid of."
The Cipher grabbed the corpse's left hand and turned it over, palm up. Paul shivered. Never would he have dared do such a thing.
"No traces of henna?"
"Nerteaux tells me that her fingers show that she was a seamstress. What's your opinion?"
Scarbon nodded. "These women had all clearly been doing manual work for some time."
"Do you agree that it was sewing?"
"It's hard to be really precise. There are marks of pinpricks in the lines of the fingers. There are also calluses between the thumb and the index. Maybe from using a sewing machine, or an iron." He looked up across the slabs. "They were found in the Sentier area, weren't they?"
"They're Turkish workers."
Schiffer paid no attention to the certitude in Scarbon's tone. He was staring at the corpse. Paul managed to force himself to approach. He saw the dark lacerations covering the flanks, the breasts, shoulders and thighs. Several of them were so deep that they revealed the whiteness of the bones.
"Tell us about all this," the Cipher ordered.
The doctor quickly flicked through a set of stapled pages. "In this case, I counted twenty-seven wounds. Some are superficial; others are deep. It looks as if the killer intensified the torture as time went by. There were about the same number on the other two." He lowered his report to look at his questioners. "In general, everything I am now going to say applies to the previous victims, too. The three women were mutilated in the same way"
"With what sort of weapon?"
"A chrome-plated combat knife, with a jagged edge. The marks of the teeth can be seen on several of the wounds. For the first two bodies, I ordered some research to be done into the size and positioning of the teeth, but we didn't come up with anything of interest. It was standard military equipment, matching dozens of different models."
The Cipher bent down over the wounds that spread out over the chest-there were strange black halos there, suggesting love bites. When Paul had noticed this detail on the first body, it made him think of the devil-a creature of fire who had salivated over this innocent form.
"What about those?" Schiffer pointed. "What are they exactly? Bites?"
At first sight, they do look like love bites. But I've found a rational explanation for them. I think the murderer uses a car battery to inflict electric shocks. To be more precise, I reckon he uses standard serrated clips on them. The marks have been left by their teeth. In my opinion, he probably dampens the body to increase the power of the shock. Which would explain these black marks. There are over twenty of them on this one. It's all in my report." He brandished his wad of paper.
Paul knew all this. He had read over and again the first two autopsy reports. But every time, he felt the same disgust, the same rejection. There was no way of entering into empathy with such craziness.
Schiffer stood beside the victim's legs-her bluish-black feet were bent at an impossible angle. "And this?"
Scarbon moved to the other side of the corpse. They looked like two topographers studying the contours of a map.
"The X-rays are spectacular. The tarsi, metatarsi and phalanxes have all been shattered. There are approximately seventy shards of bone stuck in the flesh. No fall from any height could have done such damage. The killer went at her feet with a blunt object. An iron bar or a baseball bat, probably. The other two got the same treatment. I checked. This is a specifically Turkish torture technique, called felaka or felika. I can't remember."
In a guttural accent, Schiffer spat out: "Al-Falaqua."
Paul remembered that the Cipher spoke fluent Turkish and Arabic. "From memory" he went on, "I could cite ten countries that use this method."
Scarbon pushed his glasses back up his nose. "Yes, well. It's all highly exotic, anyway"
Schiffer moved up toward the abdomen. Once again, he seized one of the blackened, puffy hands.
The expert said: "The nails were torn out with pliers. The tips were burned with acid."
"Impossible to say"
"It was something done after death, to remove the fingerprints?"
"If it was, then the killer messed up. The dermatoglyphs are perfectly visible. No, I think it was more like another form of torture. This killer isn't the sort who messes up anything."
The Cipher laid the hand back down. All of his attention was now focused on the gaping vagina. The doctor also looked at the wound. The topographers were now starting to look like vultures.
"Was she raped?"
"Not in the sexual sense, no."
For the first time, Scarbon hesitated. Paul lowered his eyes. He saw the gaping, dilated, lacerated orifice. The internal parts-labia majora, labia minora and the clitoris-were all turned inside out, in an unbearable twisting of flesh.
The doctor cleared his throat and started: "He pushed in some kind of truncheon, decked with razor blades. You can see the lacerations here, inside the vulva, and there, along the thighs. It's absolute carnage. The clitoris was severed, the labia cut away. It set off internal bleeding. The first victim had exactly the same kind of wounds. But the second .." He hesitated once more.
Schiffer tried to meet his stare. "What?"
"With the second one, it was different. I think he used something… that was alive."
"Yes, a rodent. Or something like that. The internal genitalia were bitten and torn as far as the uterus. Apparently torturers use this kind of technique in Latin America…"
Paul's head was spinning. He knew every detail, but each of them hurt him, made him want to be sick. He walked back to the marble basin. Absentmindedly, he dipped his fingers in the scented water, then remembered that his partner had done just the same a few minutes before. He quickly removed them.
"Go on," Schiffer ordered in a husky voice.
Scarbon did not reply at once. Silence filled the turquoise room. The three men seemed to realize that there was no going back. They now had to confront the face.
"This is the most complex part," the expert at last went on, framing the disfigured face with his two index fingers. "There were several steps to the violence."
"What do you mean?"
"First there's the hematoma. The face is one big bruise. The killer beat her savagely for some time. Perhaps with brass knuckles, and certainly with something metallic and more accurate than a bar or truncheon. Then there are the cuts and mutilations. The wounds did not bleed. They were made postmortem."
They were now standing by the mask of horror. They could see the depth of the wounds in all their savagery and without the distance of the camera. Cuts crossed the face, making stripes on the forehead and temples, crevices in the cheeks. And the mutilations, the sliced-off nose, the split chin, the blackened lips.
"You can see as well as I can what he cut, filed and tore off What is interesting is how focused he was. He took time over his work. It's his signature. Nerteaux thinks he's trying to copy-
"I know what he thinks. What about you?"
Scarbon retreated slightly, his hands behind his back. "The murderer is obsessed with these faces. For him, they are both a source of fascination and fury. He sculpts them and fashions them, while at the same time destroying their humanity" Schiffer's shrug showed his skepticism.
"In the end, what did she die of?"
"I've told you: internal hemorrhaging set off by the butchering of the sexual organs. She must have bled dry onto the floor."
"And the other two?"
"The first, also from internal bleeding, unless her heart gave out before. As for the second, I'm not exactly sure. Probably quite simply from terror. To sum up, you can say that all three of them died in agony. We're analyzing her DNA, but I don't think it will tell us any more than for the previous victims." Scarbon pulled the sheet back up, with an overhasty yank.
Schiffer paced up and down for a moment before asking: "Can you deduce a chronology of events?"
"I couldn't give you a detailed timetable, but I would say she was kidnapped three days ago, on the evening of Thursday. She was probably going home after work."
"Her stomach was empty, as was the case for the first two. He must jump them on their way home."
"Let's leave your suppositions out of it."
The doctor puffed with irritation. "Then she endured twenty-four hours' nonstop torture."
"How can you judge the duration?"
"She struggled. Her bonds made friction burns on her skin and bit into her flesh. The wounds became septic. We can gauge the time thanks to the infection. If I say between twenty and thirty hours, then I can't be far from the mark. In any case, at such a pitch, that's the limit of human endurance."
As he walked. Schiffer stared at the blue mirror of the floor. "Do you have any indication of the scene of the crime?"
Paul butted in. "What?"
Scarbon clicked his lips like a clapboard. "I had already noticed it with the first two. But with the third, it's even more obvious. The victim's blood contains nitrogen bubbles."
Paul took out his notepad.
"It's rather odd. It could mean that, while still alive, the body was subjected to a greater air pressure than that of the surface of the earth. Like the pressure found at the bottom of the sea."
It was the first time that the doctor had mentioned this particularity. "I'm no diver," he went on. "But it's a well-known phenomenon. The deeper you go, the higher the pressure is. The nitrogen in the bloodstream dissolves. If you go up again too quickly, without respecting levels of decompression. then the nitrogen suddenly turns back to gas and forms bubbles inside the body."
Schiffer looked extremely interested. "And that's what happened to the victim?"
All three of them. Nitrogen bubbles have formed and exploded throughout their bodies, causing lesions and, of course, more suffering. This is by no means sure, but these women may well have gotten the bends."
While jotting this down, Paul asked, "They were immersed at a great depth?"
didn't say that. According to one of my assistants, who goes diving, they must had undergone pressure of at least four bars. Which corresponds to a depth of about a hundred twenty feet. It seems to me a bit tricky finding so much water in Paris. So I think they were in fact placed in a high-pressure chamber."
Paul was writing feverishly.
"Where do you find things like that?"
"You'll have to ask around. There are tanks that professional divers use to decompress, but I wouldn't think there are any in the Paris region. There are also chambers used in hospitals."
"That's right. To oxygenate patients suffering from bad circulation-diabetes, high cholesterol… High air pressure makes it easier to distribute oxygen in the organism. There must be three or four machines like that in Paris. But I shouldn't think your killer had access to a hospital. You'd do better to check out industry"
"What sectors use this kind of technology?"
"No idea. You'll have to find out. That's your job. And don't forget, I'm not sure about all this. These bubbles might have a completely different explanation. But if so, I don't know what it is."
Schiffer said. "And there's nothing about the three bodies that gives us any physical information about our man?"
"Nothing. He washes them down carefully. Anyway. I'm sure he wears gloves when he's at work. He doesn't have sex with them. He doesn't caress them. That's not his thing. Not at all. He's more clinical. Robotic, even. This killer is… inhuman."
"Does the madness increase with each murder?"
"No. Each time, the tortures are carried out with the same rigor. He's an evil obsessive, but he never loses his cool." He smiled wearily "He's an orderly killer, as the textbooks put it."
"What do you reckon turns him on?"
"Suffering. Pure suffering. He tortures them diligently, obsessively until they die. It's their pain that excites him. that he feeds off. Deep down, he has a visceral hatred of women. Of their bodies, and their faces."
Schiffer turned toward Paul and sneered. "Looks like I'm up to my ears with trick-cyclists today."
Scarbon flushed. "Forensic science always involves psychology. The acts of violence we examine are just the symptoms of diseased minds…"
The officer nodded but continued to smile. He picked up the wad of typed pages that had been placed on one of the slabs. "Thanks, Doctor."
He headed for the door that stood out beneath the three bays of light. When he opened it, a violent burst of sunlight shot into the room, like a flood of milk across the blue sea.
Paul grabbed another copy of the autopsy report. "Can I take this one?" The doctor stared at him silently, then said, "Do your superiors know about Schiffer?"
Paul grinned back. "Don't worry Everything's under control.”
“It's you I'm worried about. He's a monster."
Paul shivered. The scientist went on. "He killed Gazil Hemet."
The name brought back memories. October 2000. The Turk crushed by the Brussels express, Schiffer accused of murder. Then April 2001. The charges were mysteriously dropped. lie replied in a frozen voice: "The body was flattened. The autopsy didn't prove a thing."
"It was me who gave the second opinion. The face bore terrible wounds. An eye had been torn out. The temples had been drilled open." He pointed at the sheet. "It was just as bad as her."
Paul felt his legs go weak. He could not admit such a suspicion about the man he was now working with. "The report just mentioned some lesions and-"
"They suppressed my other findings. They covered for him.”
“Who do you mean by 'they'?"
"They were scared. All of them were scared."
Paul stepped back into the whiteness outside.
Claude Scarhon inflated then removed his elastic gloves. "You've teamed up with the devil."
"They call it the Iskele. Pronounced is-kay-lay.”
"You could translate it as 'jetty' or 'departure dock.' “
“What are you talking about?"
Paul had joined Schiffer in the car but had not yet driven off. They were still in the courtyard of the Vasale Unit, in the shadow of its slender pillars.
The Cipher went on. "It's the main mafia organization behind getting illegal Turkish immigrants into Europe. They also help get them work and accommodations. They try to organize it so that there are groups from the same region in each workshop. Some sweatshops in Paris contain the entire population of a village in the backwaters of Anatolia."
Schiffer came to a halt, tapped his fingers on the glove compartment, then continued: "The price varies. The rich take the plane and bribe customs guards. They arrive in France with a fake work permit or false passport. The poor go in cargoes via Greece, or in trucks via Bulgaria. Whichever way you have to pay at least two hundred thousand francs. The family in the village chip in and get together about a third of that amount. The worker then slaves away for ten years to pay off the rest."
Paul observed Schiffer's clear profile against the brightness of the window. He had been told dozens of times about these networks, but it was the first time he had been given so many details.
The silver-headed cop gave him more: "You have no idea how well organized they are. They keep records. Everything is written down: each immigrant's name, origin, workshop and outstanding debt. They communicate via e-mail with their opposite numbers in Turkey who keep up the pressure on the families. Meanwhile, they deal with everything in Paris. They look after sending money orders or giving phone calls at lower prices. They replace the post office, the banks and the embassy. You want to send a toy to one of your kids? You ask the Iskele. You need a gynecologist? The Iskele provides you with the name of a quack who's not too bothered about your legal status in France. You've got a problem with your workshop? The Iskele will sort it out. Nothing happens in the Turkish quarter without their knowing about it and putting it in their records."
Paul at last realized where the Cipher was heading.
"You think they know about the murders?"
"If those girls really were illegal immigrants, their bosses will have contacted the Iskele first. One, to find out what happened. Two, to get replacements. More than anything, murdered girls mean wasted money."
A hope began to form in Paul's mind. "You… you think they could identify the girls?"
"Each file contains a photograph of the immigrant. Their Paris address. And their employer's name and address."
Paul hazarded another question, but he already knew the answer. "And you know these people?"
"The head of the Iskele in Paris is called Marek Cesiuz. But everyone calls him Marius. He has a concert hall on Boulevard de Strasbourg. I was present when one of his sons was born." He winked at him. "Are you starting this car. or what?"
Paul stared at Jean-Louis Schiffer for a moment. You've teamed up with the devil. Maybe Scarbon was right. But for the kind of game he was after, what better partner could he hope for?
On Monday morning, Anna Heymes discreetly left her flat and took a cab to the Left Bank. As far as she recalled, there were several medical bookshops grouped together around the Odéon crossroads.
In one of them, she browsed through various studies of psychology and neurosurgery in search of information about biopsies performed on the brain. The expression Ackermann had used still echoed in her mind: stereotaxic biopsy. She soon found some photographs and a description of the technique.
She saw the patients' heads, shaved, inserted in a square casing. A sort of metal cube that was screwed onto their temples. The frame was topped by a trepan-like a drill.
She followed the illustrations of each step of the operation: the bit piercing the bone, the scalpel entering the opening and in turn penetrating the dura mater that encircled the brain, the hollow-headed needle going inside the cerebrum. In one of the photographs, the pinkish color of the organ could even be seen while the surgeon was extracting the probe.
Anything but that.
Anna had made a resolution. She had to get a second opinion, find another specialist, and quickly, who would suggest a different treatment.
She rushed into a café on Boulevard Saint-Germain, ran downstairs to the phone and thumbed through the directory. After several fruitless requests to absent or overbooked doctors, she finally came across a certain Mathilde Wilcrau, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, who was apparently available.
The woman's voice was deep, but her tone was light, almost mischievous. Anna briefly mentioned her memory problems and insisted on how urgent the situation was. The psychiatrist agreed to see her at once. Near the Panthéon, just five minutes away from Odéon.
Anna was now sitting alone in a small waiting room full of old, carved and varnished furniture that seemed to come straight from the Chateau de Versailles. She looked at the photographs on the walls. They depicted images of sporting exploits in the most extreme conditions.
In one of them, someone was taking wing from the side of a mountain, suspended on a hang glider. In the next, a hooded climber was ascending a wall of ice. In another, a sharpshooter dressed in a ski suit and watch cap was taking aim at an unseen target.
"My exploits of yesteryear."
Anna turned around toward the voice.
Mathilde Wilcrau was a large broad-shouldered woman with a radiant smile. Her arms burst out from her suit brutally and almost incongruously. Her long, slender legs were curvaceously muscular. Between forty and fifty, thought Anna as she noticed her wrinkled eyelids and crow's-feet. But this woman was to be evaluated in terms of energy, not age. It was more a question of mega wattage than years.
The psychiatrist moved aside. "Step this way."
The consulting room matched the antechamber: wood, marble and gold. Anna sensed that this woman's true nature lay more in the photographs of her exploits than in these rather precious furnishings.
They sat on either side of the flame-colored desk. The doctor picked up a fountain pen and jotted down the usual information on a ruled notepad: name, age, address… Anna was tempted to give a false identity, but she had sworn to herself to be completely open.
While answering, she observed the woman in front of her. She was struck by her brilliant, ostentatious, almost American manner. Her brown hair glistened on her shoulders. Her broad, regular features scintillated around her extremely red, sensual mouth, which drew one's eyes. She thought of crystallized fruit, full of sugar and energy. This woman inspired immediate trust.
"So what's the problem?" she asked merrily.
Anna tried to be brief. "I have memory gaps."
"What sort of gaps?"
"I don't recognize familiar faces."
"None of them?"
"Especially my husband."
"Be more precise. You don't recognize him at all? Never?"
"No. They come in short fits. Suddenly, his face means nothing to me. A complete stranger. Until recently, these attacks only lasted a second. But they seem to be getting longer."
Mathilde tapped the page with the nib of her pen: a black lacquered Montblanc. Anna noticed that she had discreetly taken off her shoes.
"Is that all?"
She hesitated. "The opposite also sometimes happens "
"I think I recognize strangers' faces."
“In particular, with one person. I've been working in the Maison du Chocolat, on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, for the last month. There's a regular customer. A man in his forties. Every time he comes into the shop, I get the feeling I know him. But I've never managed to locate a precise memory"
"And what does he say?"
"Nothing. Apparently he's never seen me anywhere but behind my counter."
Beneath the desk, the psychiatrist was wriggling her toes in her black tights. There was something wickedly sparkling about her entire being.
"So to sum up, you don't recognize the people you should recognize, but you do recognize the people you shouldn't, is that it?" She lengthened the final syllables in a strange way, like the vibrato of a cello.
"Well, yes, you could put it like that."
"Have you tried a good pair of glasses?"
Anna suddenly felt furious. A burning sensation rose up her face. How could she make fun of her illness? She got to her feet and grabbed her bag.
Mathilde Wilcrau grabbed her arm. "Sorry-I was only joking. It was silly of me. Please, do stay"
Anna froze. That red smile was enveloping her like a benevolent halo. Her resistance faded. She allowed herself to drop down onto the chair.
The psychiatrist went back to her place and her modulated tone returned. "So, shall we proceed? Do you sometimes feel uneasy in front of other faces? I mean, the ones you pass every day. in the street, in public places?"
"Yes. But that's a different sensation. I suffer from… some kind of hallucinations. On the bus, at a dinner party, anywhere. The faces mingle together, mixing and forming hideous masks. I no longer dare look at anyone. Soon I won't be able to go outdoors…"
"How old are you?"
"And how long have you been suffering from these symptoms?”
“For about six weeks."
"Are they accompanied by a physical malaise?"
"No… Well, yes. Signs of anxiety, mostly Trembling. My body becomes heavy. My limbs freeze. Sometimes it feels as though I'm suffocating. Recently I got a nosebleed."
"But otherwise you're in good health?"
"Fine. Nothing wrong at all."
The psychiatrist paused. She was writing on her notepad. "Do you suffer from any other memory blocks? About your past life, for instance?"
Anna nodded rapidly and replied: "Yes. Some of my memories are losing their consistency. They seem to be drifting away, fading…”
“Which? Ones about your husband?"
She stiffened against the wooden back of the chair. "Why are you asking me that?"
"Apparently, it's mostly his face that sparks off the attacks. Your past life with him may be posing the problem."
Anna sighed. This woman was talking to her as if her state might have been provoked by her feelings or subconscious. As if she was willing away certain parts of her memory. This idea was totally different from how Ackermann saw the problem. But wasn't it just this that she had come to hear?
"That's true," she conceded. "My memories of being with Laurent are breaking up and vanishing." She paused for a moment, then continued more firmly: "But in a way, that's logical."
"Laurent's the center of my life and of my memory. Most of what I can remember involves him. Before the Maison du Chocolat, I was just a housewife. Our married life was my sole preoccupation."
"You've never worked?"
Anna adopted a bitter, self-disparaging tone. "I've got a law degree, but I've never set foot in a lawyer's office. I have no children. Laurent is my 'one and all,' if you like, my sole horizon…"
"How long have you been married?"
"Do you have normal sexual relations?"
"What do you call 'normal'?"
Anna did not understand.
The smile grew broader. "Another joke. All I want to know is if you have sex regularly"
"Everything's fine in that department. On the contrary, I… I feel a great desire for him. Increasingly so, in fact. It's strange."
"Perhaps not as strange as all that."
"What do you mean?"
Silence was all she got in reply.
"What's your husband's job?"
"He's a policeman."
"At the Ministry of the Interior. Laurent directs the Centre des Etudes et de Bilans. He oversees thousands of reports and statistics about criminality in France. I've never really understood what he does exactly, but it sounds important. He's very close to the minister."
Mathilde then asked, as if the question followed logically: "Why don't you have any children? Is there a problem?"
"Not a physical one, at least."
Anna hesitated. Saturday night came back to her: the nightmare. Laurent's revelations, the blood on her face…
"I don't know, actually. Two days ago, I asked my husband. And he told me that I'd never wanted any. That I even made him swear not to ask. But I can't remember that." Her voice went up a tone, detaching each syllable. "How can I have forgotten that? I just can't remember!"
The doctor jotted something down, then asked, "What about your childhood memories-are they fading, too?"
"No, they seem more distant but still present."
"And your memories of your parents?"
"None. I lost my family very young. In a car crash. I was brought up in a boarding school, near Bordeaux, with my uncle as my guardian. I don't see him anymore. I've never seen much of him, in fact."
"So what can you remember?"
"The countryside. The huge beaches of the southwest. Pine forests. Images like that are still intact in my mind. Right now, they're even getting clearer. Those landscapes seem more real to me than the rest."
Mathilde continued to write. Anna noticed that in fact, she was doodling. Without looking up, the specialist went on: "How's your sleep? Do you suffer from insomnia?"
"The opposite, more like. I sleep all the time."
"When you make an effort to remember, does it make you feel sleepy?”
“Yes, I get a feeling of torpor."
"Tell me about your dreams."
"Since the beginning of my illness, I've been having a strange dream.”
Anna described her recurring nightmare. The station and the peasants. The man in the black coat. The flag decked with four moons. The sobbing children. Then the terrible gust of wind, the hollowed torso, the face in ribbons…
The psychiatrist whistled in admiration. Anna was not sure if she appreciated the woman's familiar manner, but she felt comforted by her presence. Suddenly, Mathilde froze her heart: "You've consulted someone else, I suppose?"
“… what makes you think that?"
"Your symptoms are rather clinical. Those memory blocks and hallucinations bring to mind a neurodegenerative disease. In such cases, patients generally consult a neurologist. A doctor who directly pinpoints the cause and treats it with medication."
Anna gave in. "He's called Ackermann. A childhood friend of my husband."
"You know him?"
"We were at university together."
Anna asked anxiously "And what do you think of him?"
"He's brilliant. What was his diagnosis?"
"He just made me do tests. Scanners. X-rays. an MRI."
"Didn't he do a PET scan?"
"Yes. We did the tests last Saturday. In a hospital full of soldiers.”
"No, at the Henri-Becquerel Institute in Orsay."
Mathilde jotted down the name on a corner of her paper. "And what were the results?"
"Nothing very clear. Ackermann thinks I'm suffering from a lesion in the right hemisphere, in the ventral temporal cortex "
"The region that recognizes faces."
"That's right. He reckons it must be a tiny necrosis. But the machine failed to localize it."
"And according to him, what caused the lesion?"
Anna spoke quickly, feeling good that she was making a clean breast of it. "That's the problem. He doesn't know. So he wants to carry out more tests" Her voice broke. "A biopsy to analyze that part of my brain. He wants to study the nerve cells, or something. I.." She paused for breath. "He says that he needs to do that in order to treat me."
The psychiatrist laid down her pen and crossed her arms. For the first time, she seemed to be looking at Anna with neither irony nor cheekiness. "Did you tell him about your other problems? Your memories fading away? Faces mixing together?"
"Why, don't you trust him?"
Anna did not answer.
Mathilde pressed the point. "Why did you come to see me? Why tell me all this?"
Anna gestured vaguely, then, her eyes lowered, she said, "I refuse to have the biopsy. They want to enter inside my mind."
"Who do you mean?"
"My husband and Ackermann. I came here in the hope that you'd have a different idea. I don't want them to make a hole in my head!”
She looked up, on the verge of tears. "Can I… can I smoke?" The psychiatrist nodded.
Anna lit up at once. When the smoke cleared, the smile had returned to the face in front of her.
Inexplicably, a childhood memory came to mind. Long walks on the moors with her class, then back to the boarding school, her arms full of poppies. They were then told they should burn the stalks of the flowers to make their colors last longer…
Mathilde Wilcrau's smile reminded her of that strange alliance between fire and life in the petals. Something had burned inside that woman and was keeping her lips red.
The psychiatrist paused once more, then asked calmly "Did Ackermann tell you that amnesia can be set off by a psychological shock, and not necessarily by a physical lesion?"
Anna exhaled abruptly "You mean… my problems could have been caused by a traumatic experience?"
"That is possible. Violent emotions can lead to memory loss."
A wave of relief invaded her. She knew that she had come there to hear those words. She had chosen a psychoanalyst in order to return to the purely mental side of her illness. She could barely contain her excitement. "But this shock," she said between puffs, "I'd remember it, wouldn't I?"
"Not necessarily. Amnesia generally wipes out its own source. The founding moment."
"And this trauma might have something to do with faces?”
“That's likely. Faces, and also your husband."
Anna leapt to her feet. "What do you mean, my husband?"
"To judge by the signs you mentioned, they seem to be the two main blocks."
"You think Laurent caused an emotional shock?"
"That's not what I said. But in my opinion, everything is connected. The shock you had, if there was one, has brought about an association between your amnesia and your husband. That's all I can say for now."
Anna was silent. She stared at the glowing tip of her cigarette. "Can you gain some time?" Mathilde asked.
"Before the biopsy"
"You.. you'd agree to treat me?"
Mathilde picked up her pen and pointed it at Anna. "Can you put off the biopsy, yes or no?"
"I think so. For a few weeks. But if the attacks-“
"Do you agree to plunge into your memory using language?”
"Do you agree to come here on an intensive basis?"
"To use techniques of suggestion, such as hypnosis, for example?”
"And injections of a sedative?"
"Yes, yes, yes."
Mathilde dropped her pen. The white star of the Montblanc was glittering. "Trust me. We'll decipher your memory"
Her heart was aflame.
She had not felt so happy for a long time. The simple idea that her symptoms might be caused by a psychological trauma, and not by physical deterioration, gave her new hope. After all, it might mean that her brain had not been altered or attacked by a necrosis that was spreading through her nervous system.
In the cab back, she congratulated herself once more for having taken this initiative. She had turned her back on lesions, machines and biopsies and had opened her arms to understanding, language and Mathilde Wilcrau's smooth voice… She already missed her strange intonation.
When she reached Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore at about 1:00 in the afternoon, everything seemed clearer, more precise. She savored every detail of her neighborhood. They were like isles, an archipelago of specialties threading down the street.
At the junction of Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré and Avenue Hoche, music was king: the dark lacquer of Hamm pianos answered to the dancers of the Salle Pleyel just opposite. Then it was Russia that dominated between Rue de la Neva and Rue Daru. with Muscovite restaurants and an Orthodox church. Finally, they reached the world of delicacies: the teas of Mariage Freres and the sweetness of the Maison du Chocolat: two brown mahogany facades, two varnished mirrors, like frames in a museum of delights.
Anna found Clothilde cleaning the shelves. She was busying herself with the ceramic vases, the wooden basins and the porcelain plates, which shared nothing with the chocolate apart from their familiar brownish tones, a copper gleam, or just an idea of happiness and wellbeing. A life of comfort that chinks and is drunk warm…
Clothilde turned around on her stool. " Ala, there you are! Can you give me an hour? I have to go to the supermarket."
It was fair enough. Anna had vanished all morning, so she could keep shop now during lunchtime. They exchanged roles without exchanging any more words-just a smile. Anna picked up the duster and took over the task at once, dusting, rubbing and polishing with all the vigor of her newly recovered good mood.
Then suddenly, her energy faded, leaving a black hole in the middle of her breast. In a few seconds, she measured how false her joy was. What had been so positive about her consultation that morning? Whether it was a lesion or a trauma, what did that change about her state, her anxieties? What more could Mathilde Wilcrau do to cure her? How did that make her any the less mad?
She slumped down behind the main counter. The psychiatrist's idea was perhaps even worse than Ackermann's. The idea that an event, a psychological shock, had sparked her amnesia heightened her terror. What could be hiding behind such a zone of darkness?
Sentences echoed constantly in her mind, and above all the answer: Faces, and also your husband. How could Laurent be linked with all this?
"Good afternoon." The voice sounded above the tinkle of the bell. She did not need to look up to know who it was.
The man in the threadbare jacket advanced with his usual slow steps. At that moment, she was absolutely certain that she knew him. It lasted only for a fraction of a second, but the impression was as powerful and piercing as an arrow. And yet her memory refused to give her the slightest clue.
Mr. Corduroys continued to advance. He did not look at all embarrassed and paid no particular attention to. Anna. His casual mauve, gilded gaze strayed over the rows of chocolates. Why did he not recognize her? Was he playacting? A crazy idea stung her mind: What if he was a friend of Laurent's, an accomplice whose job it was to spy on her and test her out? But why?
He smiled at her silence, and said offhandedly, "The usual, please."
"Right away, sir." Anna headed for the counter, feeling her hands trembling against her body. She had to make several attempts before she managed to pick up a bag and slip the chocolates inside. Finally, she laid the Jikolas on the scales.
"Two hundred grams. That will be ten euros fifty, please."
She glanced at him again. Already she was not so sure… but the echo of the anxiety, the malaise, remained. The vague impression that this man, like Laurent, had altered his face using plastic surgery. It was the face in her memory, but it was not him…
The man smiled again, turning his mauve eyes to her. He paid. then left, uttering a barely audible "good-bye."
Anna remained still for some time, petrified, in a stupor. Never before had an attack been so violent. It was as if it had eradicated all of that morning's hope. As if, after believing she would be cured, she had fallen even lower. Like prisoners who try to escape and, once they are caught, find themselves in a cell several feet underground.
The bell rang once more.
"Hi." Clothilde crossed the shop, soaked to the skin, her arms full of carrier bags. She disappeared for a moment into the stockroom, then returned with an aura of freshness.
"What's up with you? You look like you've just seen a ghost."
Anna did not reply. The desire to vomit and the desire to cry were fighting for possession of her throat.
Is something the matter?" Clothilde asked again.
Devastated, Anna looked at her. Then she got to her feet and said, "I’am going for a walk."
Outside, it was raining even harder than when Clothilde had returned. Anna dived into the deluge. She let herself drift in the humid gusts of wind, in the twists of rain. With her dazed eyes, she looked at Paris as it swam and sank beneath the gray skies. Clouds were pushing in waves above the rooftops, the façades of the buildings were streaming, the sculpted heads on the balconies and windows looked like blue or green drowning faces, engulfed by the floods of heaven.
She went back up Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, then Avenue Hoche to her left, as far as Parc Monceau. There, she passed by the black-and-gold railings of the gardens and took Rue Murillo.
The traffic was heavy. Cars were splashing water and light. Hooded bikers were snaking away like little rubber Zorros. The pedestrians were struggling against the gusts, molded and fashioned by the wind that wrapped their clothes like damp drapings around unfinished statues.
Everything was a dance of brown and black, with glimmers of dark oil mingled with silver and sickly light.
Anna went along Avenue de Messine, between the bright buildings and huge trees. She did not know where her feet were taking her, nor did she care. She was wandering both physically and mentally. Then she saw it.
On the opposite pavement, a shop window was exhibiting a color portrait. Anna crossed the road. It was a reproduction of a painting. A troubled, twisted, tormented face of violent colors. She approached, as though hypnotized. It reminded her exactly of her hallucinations.
She looked for the name of the painter. Francis Bacon. A self-portrait dating from 1956. An exhibition of the artist's work was being held on the first floor of the gallery. She found the entrance, a few doors to her right in Rue de Téhéran. then went upstairs.
Red hangings separated the white rooms and gave the exhibition a solemn, almost religious atmosphere. A crowd was bustling around the paintings-but in total silence. A sort of icy respect, imposed by the images themselves, was filling the space.
In the first room, Anna found some canvases measuring six feet, all depicting the same subject: a holy man sitting on a throne. Dressed in purple robes, he was screaming as though on an electric chair. He was painted in red, then black, and then again in violet. But the same details recurred: the hands gripping the armrests, already burning, as though stuck to carbonized wood; the mouth screaming, opening to reveal a woundlike hole, while purplish blue flames were rising all around…
Anna went through the first curtain.
In the next room, naked crouching men were trapped in pools of color or primitive cages. Their bodies were twisted, deformed, like wild beasts. Or zoomorphic creatures, midway between several species. Their faces were mere scarlet splashes, bleeding maws, truncated features. Behind these monsters, the panels of paint were like the tiles of a butcher's shop or a slaughterhouse. A place of sacrifice, where bodies were reduced to carcasses, flayed masses, living carrion. Each time, the lines trembled, shifted, like a documentary filmed with a handheld camera, shaking with urgency. Anna felt her malaise mount, but she had not yet found what she was looking for: faces of suffering.
They were waiting for her in the last room.
A dozen smaller canvases were protected by red velvet cordons. Savage, broken, fractured portraits: a chaos of lips, noses, bone, where eyes desperately searched for a direction.
These paintings came in groups of three. The first, entitled Three Studies of the Human Head, was dated 1953. Livid, blue, cadaverous faces bore traces of their first wounds. The second triptych seemed like a natural continuation, breaking through into a higher level of violence. Study for Three Heads, 1962. White faces shifted away from the viewer, the better to return and display their scars beneath a clown's makeup. Strangely, these wounds seemed to be trying to raise a laugh, like the children who were disfigured in the Middle Ages in order to turn them forever into clowns and buffoons.
Anna moved on. She did not recognize her hallucinations. She was simply surrounded by masks of horror. Their mouths, cheekbones and stares spun around, twisting their deformities into unbearable spirals. The painter had clearly been relentless with these faces. He had attacked them, sliced them up with the sharpest weapons. Brushes, spatulas, knives… he had opened their wounds, flaying their skins, ripping into their cheeks…
Anna's head sank into her shoulders as she walked, doubled up with fear. She now only glanced at the portraits from beneath shivering eyelids. A series of studies, devoted to a certain Isabel Rawsthorne, was an apotheosis of cruelty. The woman's features had been quite literally shattered. Anna retreated, desperately looking for a human expression in this swirl of flesh. But all she found were scattered fragments, tortured mouths, bulging eyes with circles like cuts.
Suddenly, she gave in to the panic, turned on her heels and rushed to the exit. She was crossing the gallery's entrance hall when she noticed a copy of the exhibition's catalogue, lying on a white counter. She stopped.
She had to see… to see his own face.
She feverishly flicked through the book, past photos of his workshop, reproductions of works, before finally coming across a portrait of Francis Bacon himself A black-and-white photo, in which the artist's stare gleamed more brightly than the glossy paper.
Anna placed both her hands on the page in order to look him straight in the eye.
His eyes were blazing, avid, in a broad, almost moonlike face, supported by powerful jaws. A short nose, scruffy hair and cliff like brows completed the portrait of this man who seemed quite capable of standing up to the flayed masks of his paintings each morning.
Then a detail caught Anna's attention.
One of the painter's eyebrows was higher than the other. The hawkish, staring, astonished eye seemed to be fixed on some distant point. Anna grasped the unbelievable truth: Francis Bacon physically looked like his portraits. His appearance shared their madness and distortion. Had this asymmetric eye inspired the artist's deformed visions, or had his paintings finally disfigured their creator? In either case, the works merged with the artist's features…
This simple realization produced a revelation.
If the deformities of Bacon's canvases had a real source, why shouldn't her own hallucinations have an underlying truth? Who could say that her own delusions did not arise from a sign, some detail that really existed?
Another suspicion froze her. What if, beneath her madness, she was fundamentally right? What if Laurent and Mr. Corduroys had really changed their appearances?
She leaned on the wall and closed her eyes. Everything fit together. Laurent, for some unknown reason, had taken advantage of her fits of amnesia to change his features. He had gone to see a plastic surgeon, to hide inside his own face. Mr. Corduroys had done the same thing.
The two were accomplices. Together, they had committed some terrible crime and for that reason had altered the way they looked. That was why she had a malaise when she looked at them.
With a shudder, she rejected how impossible or ridiculous such reasoning might seem. She quite simply sensed that she was getting near the truth, no matter how crazy it might sound.
It was her brain against the others.
Against all the others.
She ran to the door. On the landing, she noticed a painting she had not seen before, just above the banister.
A mass of scars was trying to smile at her.
At the bottom of Avenue de Messine, Anna spotted a café. She ordered a Perrier at the bar, then went straight downstairs in search of a phone book. She had already lived out the same scene, that very morning, when she had looked for the number of a psychiatrist on Boulevard Saint-Germain. It was perhaps a ritual, an act to be repeated, like crossing the circles of initiation, recurring ordeals, before reaching the truth…
Flicking through the dog-eared pages, she looked for Plastic Surgery. She looked not at the names but the addresses. She had to find a doctor in the immediate neighborhood. Her finger stopped on the line that read "Didier Laferrière, 12 Rue Boissy-d'Anglas." So far as she recalled, this street was just by La Madeleine, about five hundred yards away.
Six rings, then a man's voice. She asked: "Dr. Laferriére?"
Luck was on her side. She did not have to pass the obstacle of a receptionist.
"I'd like to make an appointment, please."
"My secretary's not here today. Hang on…"
She heard the sound of a computer keyboard.
"When would suit you?" The voice was strange, silky lacking in tone. She answered, "At once. It's an emergency"
"If you let me see you, I'll explain."
There was a pause, a second's hesitation, as though he was full of mistrust. Then the cotton-wool voice asked, "How long will it take you to get here?"
"Half an hour."
Anna heard a slight smile in the voice that answered. In the end, this urgency seemed to amuse him. "I'll be expecting you."
"I don't understand. What sort of operation are you interested in, exactly?"
Didier Laferriére was a small man, with a neutral face and gray frizzy hair, which precisely matched his toneless voice. A discreet character, with furtive, imperceptible gestures. He spoke as though through a screen of rice paper. Anna realized that she would have to penetrate this veil if she was going to obtain the information she wanted.
"I haven't really decided yet," she replied. "To start with, I'd like to know more about how operations can change a person's face.-
"Change it in what way?"
The surgeon adopted a professorial tone. "In order to effect profound improvements, it is necessary to attack the bone structure. There are two main techniques: grinding operations. Which aim at reducing prominent features, and bone grafts. Which instead build up certain regions."
"How does it work, exactly?"
He took a deep breath and paused for thought. His office was plunged into shadows. The windows were covered by shutters. A weak light caressed the Asian-style furniture. There was a confession-box atmosphere about the place.
"When it comes to grinding." he went on. "We reduce the height of the bones by passing beneath the skin. For grafts, we first remove the fragments, generally from the parietal bone, at the top of the skull, then we introduce them into the regions concerned. We sometimes also use prostheses."
He opened his hands, and his voice softened. "Anything is possible. All that counts is your satisfaction."
"Such operations must leave traces, mustn't they?"
He smiled briefly. "Not at all. We work using an endoscope. We slide optic tubes and micro instruments beneath the tissue. Then we operate on the screen. The resulting incisions are minute."
"Can I see some photos of the scars?"
"Of course. But let's begin at the beginning. I want us to define together the sort of operation you are interested in."
Anna realized that he would at best show her toned-down pictures, with no visible marks. She tried a different approach: "What about the nose? What can be done here?"
He furrowed his brow skeptically. Anna's nose was straight, narrow, slight. Nothing to be changed. "It's a region you want to modify?"
"I'm looking at all the possibilities. What can you do with the nose?"
"A lot of progress has been made in this field. We can, quite literally, sculpt the nose of your dreams. We could draw the line together, if you like. I have some software that allows us to-"
"But what exactly happens during the operation?"
The doctor shifted about in his white jacket, which was standing in for his surgical coat. "After we have made the zone more supple – “
“How? By breaking the cartilage-is that it?"
The smile was still there, but the eyes were becoming inquisitive. Laferrière was trying to work out Anna's intentions. "We do indeed have to go through such a… radical step. But the whole thing is carried out under anesthetic."
"Then what do you do?"
"Then we position the bones and cartilage according to the required line. I repeat. We can now offer you tailor-made work."
Anna pursued this direction. "But that sort of operation must surely leave behind traces?"
"None. The instruments are introduced through the nostrils. We don't even touch the skin."
"And what about face-lifts?" she went on. "What technique do you use?"
"Endoscopy again. We pull the skin and muscles using minute tweezers.”
“So no scars either?"
"Not a single one. We pass via the upper lobe of the ear. It's absolutely undetectable." He waved a hand. "Forget about scars; they're things of the past."
Laferrière frowned. "We were speaking about the face."
"But there's liposuction for the throat, isn't there?"
"True. It's even one of the easiest operations to perform."
"Does that leave scars?"
This was one question too many. The surgeon replied hostilely, "I don't understand. What are you interested in, improvements or scars?"
Anna lost her composure. In a flash, she felt the panic she had experienced in the gallery come back. Heat was rising under her skin, from her throat up to her forehead. Her face was now presumably scarlet.
She murmured, hardly able to articulate: "Sorry. I'm very nervous. I'd. I'd like… In fact, before deciding, I'd like to see some photographs of operations."
Laferrière's voice softened, a touch of honey in dark tea. "That's out of the question. Such pictures are extremely off-putting. All that we need concern ourselves about are the results. Follow me? As for the rest, that's my business."
Anna gripped the armrests of her chair. One way or another, she had to drag the truth out of this doctor. "I'll never let you operate on me unless I see, with my own eyes, what you're going to do."
The doctor stood up, making an apologetic gesture. "I'm sorry, but I don't think you're ready psychologically for such an operation."
Anna did not move. "What have you got to hide?"
Laferrière froze. "I beg your pardon?"
"I ask you about scars. You say they don't exist. I ask to see pictures of an operation. You refuse. So what have you got to hide?"
The surgeon leaned both of his fists on the desk. "I carry out over twenty operations a day, young lady. I teach plastic surgery at Salpetrière Hospital. I know my job. It consists in bringing people happiness by improving the way they look. Not in traumatizing them by talking about scars and showing them pictures of broken bones. I don't know what you're looking for, but you won't find it here."
Anna returned his stare. "You're an impostor."
He stood up, breaking into an incredulous laugh. "What?"
"You refuse to show your work. You lie about the results. You try to pass yourself off as a magician, but you're nothing but a fraud. Just like all those other quacks."
The word quack produced the desired result. Laferriere's face started to go white until it was gleaming in the darkness. He swiveled around and opened a flexible slatted filing cabinet. From it, he removed a file of plastic-covered sheets and dumped it down on the desk in front of her. "Is that what you want to see?"
He opened the file to reveal the first photograph. A face turned inside out like a glove, the skin stretched apart using hemostatic clamps. "Or this?"
He showed a second picture: lips turned up, surgical scissors stuck in bleeding gums. "How about this one?"
Third sheet: a hammer nailing a probe into a nostril. Her heart in her throat, Anna forced herself to look.
In the next photo, a lancet was slicing an eyelid, just above a bulging eye.
She raised her head. She had succeeded in fooling the doctor; all she had to do was continue. "It's impossible that such operations never leave scars," she said.
Laferrière sighed. He rummaged through his cupboard again, then laid a second folder on the desk. With a weary voice, he commented on the first image: "Grinding of the forehead. By endoscopy. Four months after the operation."
Anna looked attentively at the transformed face. Three vertical lines, each measuring about five inches, crossed the forehead, along the roots of the hair. The surgeon turned the page.
"Removal of a piece of parietal bone for a graft. Two months after the operation."
The photograph showed a skull topped by spiky hair, under which could clearly be seen a pinkish S-shaped scar.
"The hair will soon cover the mark, which will in turn disappear," he added. He flicked over the page, and continued. "A triple face-lift, by endoscopy. The stitches are intradermic and are absorbed. A month later, you see almost nothing."
Two shots of an ear, face-on and in profile, shared the page. On the upper crest of the lobe, Anna noticed a slight zigzag.
"Liposuction of the throat," Laferrière went on, revealing a further image. "The line you can see there will disappear. It's the operation that leaves the least trace."
He turned another page and emphasized, in an almost sadistic voice, "And if you want the lot, here's a scan of a face that has undergone a graft of the cheekbones. Beneath the skin, the traces of the operation remain forever."
It was the most impressive picture. A bluish death's-head, whose bone structure was covered with screws and fissures.
Anna closed the folder.
"Thank you, Doctor. It was something I just had to see."
The doctor walked around his desk and stared at her intently, as though still trying to detect beneath her features the real reason for this consultation. But…sorry, I don't understand. What are you after?"
She stood up and put on her smooth black coat. For the first time, she smiled. "I'm going to have to see for myself first."
It was two in the morning.
It was still raining: a drum roll. a cadence, a slight hammering, with its different accents, beats and resonances on the windows, balconies, stone parapets.
Anna was standing in front of the living-room windows. In her sweatshirt and tracksuit bottom, she was shivering with cold.
In the darkness, she stared through the windows at the form of the ancient plane tree. It was like a skeleton of bark, floating in the air. With charred bones, marked with scraps of lichen, looking almost silvery under the streetlights. Bare claws awaiting their covering of flesh-spring leaves.
She looked down. On the table in front of her lay the objects she had bought that afternoon, after her visit to the surgeon: a Maglite flashlight and a special Polaroid camera for night shots.
For the last hour. Laurent had been asleep in the bedroom. She had stayed by his side, waiting for the moment. She had watched out for the slightest twitch as his body started to slumber. Then she had listened to his breathing as it became regular and unconscious.
First sleep. The deepest.
She picked up her equipment. Mentally, she said farewell to the view outside, the large room with its glistening parquet and white settees. And to her routine now associated with this apartment. If she was right. if what she had imagined was true, then she was going to have to flee. And then try to understand.
She walked up the corridor. She advanced so cautiously that she could hear the breathing of the building the cracking of the parquet, the humming of the water heater, the rustling of the windows as the rain hit them…
Then she slid inside the bedroom.
Once beside the bed, she put her camera silently onto the table, then pointed her flashlight toward the floor. She covered it with her hand, so as to turn on its slender beam, which now heated her palm.
Only then did she hold her breath and lean over her husband.
Lit by the flashlight, she could see his motionless profile, and the outline of his body in the vague folds of the covers. Her throat tightened. She almost stopped, decided to drop it, but then she forced herself to continue.
She played the beam over his face. No reaction. She could start.
First, she raised his fringe of hair slightly and looked at his brows. Nothing. There was no trace of the three scars shown in Laferriere's photo.
She moved the beam down to his temples. Nothing again. She played it over the lower part of his face, below his jaws and chin. Not the slightest hint of any anomaly.
She started trembling again. What if all this was just one more sign of her madness? She pulled herself together and continued her investigations.
She turned to his ears, pressing gently on the upper lobe so as to examine its top. No marks. She gingerly raised his eyelids slightly looking for an incision. There was none. She observed his nose and the inside of his nostrils. Nothing.
She was now covered in sweat. She tried once more to control the noise of her respiration, but her breaths were escaping through her lips and nose.
She remembered another possible scar. The stitched S on the scalp. She stood up, gently putting a hand into Laurent's hair, raising each lock of it, aiming her torch at the roots. There was nothing. No marks. No irregularities. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
Anna held back her tears. She was now rummaging recklessly around that head that had betrayed her, that had showed that she was mad, that she was -
A hand grabbed her wrist brutally.
"What the hell are you doing?"
Anna leapt back. Her flashlight rolled onto the floor.
Laurent had already sat up. He lit the lamp on the bedside table and repeated, "What the hell are you doing?"
Then he saw the Maglite on the ground and the Polaroid camera on the table.
"What's all this about?" he murmured, his lips tight.
Anna, prostrate against the wall, did not answer. Laurent pulled aside the covers and got up, picking up the flashlight. He examined it in disgust, then brandished it at her face.
"You were observing me, is that it? In the middle of the night? Jesus Christ, what were looking for?"
Not a word.
Laurent wiped his brow and sighed wearily. He was dressed only in boxer shorts. He went into the adjacent room, which served as a boudoir, and grabbed a sweater and a pairs of jeans, which he silently put on. Then he left the bedroom, leaving Anna to her solitude and insanity.
She slid down the wall and curled up on the carpet. She thought of nothing, noticed nothing. Except for the beating inside her breast, which seemed to be getting louder and louder.
Laurent reappeared in the doorway, holding his mobile phone. He was smiling strangely, nodding with compassion, as if in the last few minutes he had calmed down and reasoned with himself. He said softly, pointing at the phone, "Everything will be okay. I've called Eric. take you to the institute tomorrow."
He bent down over her, then slowly drew her toward the bed. She put up no resistance. He sat her down cautiously, as though afraid he might break her-or else liberate some dangerous energy from her.
"You'll be all right now"
She nodded, staring at the flashlight that he had put on the bedside table, next to the camera. She stammered: "Not the biopsy. Not the probe. I don't want surgery"
"To begin with. Eric will just carry out some more tests. He'll do everything he can to avoid taking a sample. I promise you that." He kissed her. "Everything's going to be fine."
He offered her a sleeping pill. She refused.
"Please," he insisted.
She agreed to swallow it. Then he slid her between the sheets and lay down beside her, hugging her tenderly. He said not a word about his own concern. Not a single mention of his own violent response to his wife's utter insanity. What did he really think? Wasn't he relieved to be rid of her?
Soon, she felt his breathing slip into the regularity of sleep. Flow could he just doze off like that at such a moment? But maybe hours had already gone by… Anna had lost all notion of time. Her cheek against her husband's torso, she listened to his heartbeat. The calm pulse of someone who was not mad, who was not afraid.
She felt the effects of the tranquilizer gradually invade her. A flower of sleep started to bloom inside her body…
It now felt as if the bed were rising and leaving solid ground. She was slowly floating in the shadows. There was no point putting up any resistance, no trying to struggle against that current. She just had to let herself drift away along that running wave..
She snuggled up against Laurent, thought of the plane tree glistening in the rain in front of the living-room windows. Its bare boughs waiting to be covered with buds and leaves. A coming spring that she would not see.
She had just lived out her last season among the sane.
"Anna? What are you doing? We're going to be late!"
In the scalding shower, Anna could barely hear Laurent's voice. She just stared at the droplets exploding on her feet, savoring the streams pouring around her neck, occasionally lifting her face up beneath those liquid tresses. Her entire body was limp, drowsy, overtaken by the water's fluidity. As perfectly docile as her mind.
Thanks to the tablet, she had managed to get a few hours' sleep. That morning, she felt relaxed, neutral, indifferent to what might happen to her. Her despair had shifted into a strange calm. A sort of distant peace.
"Anna? Come on, now!"
"Okay I'm coming."
She got out of the shower and jumped onto the floorboards in front of the basin. It was 8:30. Laurent, dressed and perfumed, was pacing up and down in front of the bathroom door. She got dressed quickly, slipping on her underwear, then a black woolen dress by Kenzo. Which evoked a stylized, futuristic mourning.
She grabbed a brush and started to do her hair. Through the steam left by the shower, all she could see in the mirror was a misty reflection. She preferred it that way.
In a few days, maybe a few weeks, her daily reality would be her image in a dark glass. She would recognize nothing, see nothing, become totally alien to everything around her. She would not even bother about her own madness, letting it destroy what little remained of her sanity. “Anna?"
She smiled at Laurent's haste. Was he afraid of being late to the office, or in a hurry to off-load his loony wife?
The mist started to fade from the mirror. She saw her face appear, red and puffy from the hot water. Mentally, she said good-bye to Anna Heymes. And also to Clothilde, the Maison du Chocolat, and to Mathilde Wilcrau, the poppy-lipped psychiatrist..
She imagined she was already at the Henri-Becquerel Institute. A locked, white room, without any contact with reality. That was what she needed. She was almost impatient to surrender herself to strange hands, to give herself up to the nurses.
She even started to come to terms with the idea of a biopsy, of a probe that would slowly descend into her brain and might locate the source of her illness. In fact, she could not care less about recovering. All she wanted to do was disappear, vanish, be of no more trouble to other people..
Anna was still brushing her hair when everything came to a halt. In the mirror, beneath her bangs, she noticed three vertical scars. She could not believe it. With her left hand, she wiped away the last traces of steam and breathlessly took a closer look. The marks were tiny, but definitely there, crossing her forehead.
Scars from plastic surgery. The ones she had been looking for last night-on Laurent.
She bit her fist to stop herself from screaming and doubled up, feeling her guts wrench up in spray of lava.
"Anna! What the hell are you doing?" Laurent's cries seemed to be coming from another planet.
Trembling all over, Anna stood up and looked at her reflection once more. She turned her head and with a finger bent down her right ear. She found a white mark across the peak of the lobe. Then an identical one behind the other ear.
She drew back, trying to control her shaking body both hands gripping the basin. Then she raised her chin, looking for further clues, the slight trace left by liposuction. She had no difficulty locating it.
An abyss was opening in front of her, a free fall into the pit of her stomach.
She lowered her head, separating her hair in search of the final sign: an S-shaped scar, showing that some bone had been removed. Sure enough, that pink serpent was there waiting for her on her scalp, like a familiar revolting reptile.
She held on tighter to avoid collapsing as the truth exploded into her mind. She stared at herself, head down, hair flowing, measuring the depth of the pit into which she had fallen.
The only face that had changed was hers.
"Anna! For heaven's sake, answer!"
Laurent's voice echoed in the bathroom, drifting through the last of the steam, joining the damp air outside through the open dormer window. His cries filled the courtyard of the building, pursuing Anna as far as the cornice she had now reached.
"Anna! Let me in!"
She was edging along sideways, back to the wall, balanced on the parapet. The cold stone stuck to her shoulder blades; the rain poured down her face as the wind blew her soaked hair into her eyes.
She avoided looking down at the courtyard, some sixty feet below, and stared straight ahead at the wall of the building opposite.
`Let me in!"
She heard the bathroom door crack. A second later, Laurent could be seen in the window frame she had just escaped through-his features ravaged, his eyes red.
At the very moment, she reached the balustrade at the end of the balcony. She grabbed the stone rim and pulled herself over it, falling onto her knees and hearing the black kimono she had pulled over her dress rip open.
"Anna! Come back!"
Through the columns, she could see her husband looking around for her. She got to her feet, ran along the terrace, scrambled over the farther balustrade and flattened herself against the wall in order to start along the next cornice.
At that instant, all hell broke loose.
A radio transmitter appeared in Laurent's hands. In a panicked voice, he yelled: "Calling all units! She's escaped. I repeat: she's running away!"
Seconds later, two men ran into the courtyard. They were dressed in civilian clothes but wore the red armbands of policemen. They aimed their rifles at her.
Almost at once, a window opened on the third floor of the building opposite. A man appeared, holding a chrome-plated revolver in both hands. He glanced around until he found her, a perfect target.
More running could be heard on the ground. Three more men had joined the first two. One of them was their driver, Nicolas. They were all carrying the same automatic rifles with curved magazines.
She closed her eyes and put out her arms to balance. A profound silence inhabited her, wiping out any thoughts and bringing her a strange serenity.
She walked on, eyes tight shut, arms stretched.
She heard Laurent shout once more: "Don't shoot! For Christ's sake, we need her alive!"
She opened her eyes again. From an incomprehensible distance, she contemplated the perfect symmetry of the ballet. To her right, impeccably groomed Laurent was yelling into his radio and pointing at her. Opposite, the motionless sniper was gripping his gun-she could now see the mike close to his lips. Downstairs, five men in firing position were crouching, their faces raised.
And there she was, right in the middle of this army. A chalk white shape dressed in black, posed like Christ.
She felt the curve of the gutter. She gathered herself, slid one hand over to the far side and crossed over the obstacle. A few feet farther on, a window stopped her. She remembered the layout of the building: this window led to the back staircase.
She raised her arm and elbowed it violently. The glass resisted. She tried again, swinging her arm with all her strength. The window shattered. She pressed down on her feet and leapt backward.
The frame gave way.
Laurent's cry accompanied her as she fell: "Don't shoot!'
There was an endless moment, then she hit a hard surface. A black flame crossed her body. The shocks were multiple and violent. Her back, arms, heels crashed down on the sharp shards, while pain exploded in a thousand echoes through her limbs. Her legs shot up over her head. Her chin pressed down into her rib cage, taking her breath away.
First the taste of dust. Then of blood. Anna came to. She was lying, curled up in the fetal position, at the bottom of the stairs. Looking up, she saw a gray ceiling and a globe of yellow light. She was where she had wanted to be: on the back staircase.
She grabbed the banister and pulled herself to her feet. Apparently, nothing was broken. All she found was a cut along her right arm a shard of the window had torn her dress and stuck into her shoulder. Her gums had also been injured. Her mouth was full of blood, but her teeth seemed to be still in place.
She slowly pulled out the piece of glass and then rapidly tore off a piece of her kimono to make an improvised tourniquet-cum-bandage.
She tried to assemble her thoughts. She had slid down one story on her back, so this was the second floor. Her pursuers would soon appear on the ground floor. She leapt up the stairs four at a time, passing her own story then the fourth and the fifth.
Laurent's voice suddenly burst into the stairwell: "Hurry up! She's trying to get to the newt building via the top floor!"
She speeded up and reached the seventh floor, mentally thanking Laurent for the tip.
She rushed down the corridor of what had been the servants' quarters, passing doors, a glass roof, basins, and then at last reached another staircase. She ran down it, passing several landings, then suddenly caught on-she was running into a trap. Her pursuers were communicating by radio. Some of them would be waiting for her at the bottom of this building, while the others were chasing her from behind.
At that moment, she heard the noise of an elevator to her left. She did not know which floor she was on, but that did not matter. This door must open onto an apartment, which would in turn lead to another staircase.
She banged on it as hard as she could.
She felt nothing. Not the blows from her hand, nor the beating in her rib cage.
She knocked again. There was already a thundering of feet above her, approaching at high speed, and it seemed that she could also hear others coming up toward her. She pummeled on the door once more, using her fists like hammers, screaming for help.
At last, it opened.
A little woman in a pink pinafore appeared in the entrance. Anna shouldered her aside, then closed the reinforced door. She turned the key twice in the lock, then pocketed it.
She spun around to discover a huge, immaculately white kitchen. The stupefied cleaning lady was clinging to her broom. Anna yelled into her face: "Don't open it again, got me?" She grabbed the woman's shoulders and repeated: "Don't open it. okay?"
There were already knocks from the other side. "Police! Open up!"
Anna ran across the apartment. She went down a corridor, past several bedrooms. It took a moment for her to realize that it was laid out in the same way as hers. She turned right to go into the living room. Large paintings, furniture of redwood, oriental rugs, settees broader than mattresses. She now had to turn left to find the vestibule.
She rushed onward, tripping over a large placid dog, then bumped into a woman in a dressing gown, with a towel over her hair.
"Who… who are you?" the woman yelled, holding her turban as though it were a precious jar.
Anna nearly burst out laughing. That was not the right question to ask her today. She pushed her aside, reached the hall and opened the door. She was about to leave when she saw some keys and a remote control on a mahogany sideboard: the garage. These buildings all led down to the same one. She grabbed the beeper and dived down the purple carpeted staircase.
She could make it she just knew she could.
She went straight down to the basement. Her chest was burning. She was breathing in short gasps. But her plan was coming together in her mind. The police trap was going to close in on the ground floor. Mean while, she would sneak out via the slope of the garage, which led to the other side of the building, on Rue Daru. There was a good chance that they had not thought of that exit yet…
When she reached the garage, she ran across the concrete floor, without turning on the light, toward the swing door. She was just aiming the remote control when the door opened. Four armed men were running down the slope. She had underestimated the enemy. She just had time to hide behind a car, her two hands on the ground.
She saw them pass by feeling the vibrations from their boots in her chest, and nearly burst into tears. They were now peering in between the cars, playing their flashlights across the floor.
She leaned back against the wall and noticed that her arm was sticky with blood. The tourniquet had unraveled. She tightened it up again, pulling at the material with her teeth, while her mind raced in search of inspiration.
Her pursuers were slowly drawing away, searching, examining and combing every square inch of the basement. But they would also eventually retrace their steps and find her. She glanced around once more and, a few yards to her right, noticed a gray door. If her memory was right, this exit led to another building that also opened onto Rue Daru.
Without another thought, she slid between the wall and the bumpers, reached the door and opened it just enough to be able slip through it. A few seconds later, she burst into a bright, modern hallway. Nobody. She jumped down the stairs and leapt out.
She was running along the road, savoring the feel of the rain, when a screech of brakes brought her to a halt. A car had just come to a stop a few inches away from her, brushing against her kimono.
Scared and broken, she stepped back. The driver wound down his window and shouted: "You ought to look where you're going, darling!"
Anna paid no attention to him. She was peering left and right in search of police officers. It seemed to her that the air was charged with electricity and tension, as though a storm was brewing.
And the storm was her.
The driver slowly passed her. "You should get your head examined, lady!”
The man braked. "What did you say?"
Anna threatened him with her bloodied finger. "I told you to piss off!"
He hesitated, his lips trembling slightly. Then he seemed to understand that something was wrong, that this was not just any street shouting match. He shrugged and drove of.
Another idea. She dashed toward Paris 's Orthodox church, a few numbers up the road. She went past the grating, across a gravel courtyard, then up the steps that led to the old varnished wooden door. She pushed it open and threw herself into the shadows.
The nave seemed to her to be plunged in utter darkness, but in reality it was the beating in her temples that was blinding her. Little by little, she made out the brown tints of gold, the reddish icons, the coppery backs of chairs, like so many dampened flames.
She walked on cautiously noticing other discreetly mild glimmers. Each object here was fighting for the few drops of light that were distilled by the stained-glass windows and the candles on their cast-iron chandeliers. Even the characters in the frescoes looked as if they wanted to extract themselves from their shadows to drink a little brightness. The entire space had an aura of a silvery glow-a gleaming play of shadows, containing a silent battle between light and dark.
Anna got her breath back. Her chest was burning up. Her skin and clothes were soaked in sweat. She stopped, leaned against a pillar and savored the stone's coolness. Before long, her heartbeat started to slow down. Everything about the place seemed to have calming virtues: the candles swaying on their chandeliers, the long melting faces of Christ like bars of wax, the gleaming lamps hanging like lunar fruit.
"Is something the matter?"
She turned around to see Boris Godunov in person-a huge priest, dressed in black vestments, with a long white beard covering his chest. She could not help wondering which picture he had walked out of.
In his deep voice, he asked, "Are you all right?"
She glanced around at the doorway, then asked, "Do you have a crypt?"
"I beg your pardon?"
She forced herself to articulate each syllable. "A crypt. A place where funerals are held."
The priest thought he knew what she wanted. He adopted an appropriate expression and buried his hands in his sleeves. "Who are you burying, my daughter?"
When she got to emergency admissions at Saint-Antoine Hospital, she realized that she was in for another ordeal. A struggle against her madness and disease.
The strip lights in the waiting room reflected off the white tiles, wiping out any light from outside. It could as easily have been 8:00 in the morning as 11:00 at night. The heat increased this stifling feeling. A suffocating, inert energy weighed down on her body like a lead casing drenched in antiseptic smells. Here, you entered the transit zone between life and death, which lay outside the succession of hours or days.
On the seats screwed to the walls sat a surrealistic sample of the dregs of humanity. A man with a shaved head, who was constantly scratching his forearm, leaving a deposit of yellow dust on the floor: his neighbor, a tramp strapped into a wheelchair, who was swearing at the nurses in a throaty voice while begging them to put his guts back into place; just beside them, an old woman was standing dressed in just a paper coat, which she kept taking off, while mumbling unintelligibly, to reveal a gray body, with elephant wrinkles and a baby's diaper. Only one person looked normal. She could see him in profile sitting by the window. But when he turned around, the other half of his face was encrusted with shards of glass and scabs.
Anna was neither astonished nor scared by this chamber of horrors. On the contrary, it seemed like an excellent place to remain unnoticed.
Four hours before, she had dragged the priest down into the crypt. She had convinced him that she had Russian origins, was a fervent believer, had a terminal illness and wanted to be buried in holy ground. He had looked skeptical, but had still listened to her for half an hour. Thus he had unwittingly sheltered her while the men with red armbands had been combing the neighborhood.
When she had resurfaced, the coast was clear. The blood from her wound had clotted. She could walk the streets, with her arm in her kimono, without attracting too much attention. As she rushed on, she blessed the name of Kenzo and the extravagances of fashion, which meant that you could walk the streets in a dressing gown while looking quite simply trendy.
For over two hours, she wandered aimlessly in the rain, mingling in among the crowds on the Champs-Elysées. She forced herself not to think, not to near the gulches surrounding her consciousness.
She was free. Alive.
And that was already a lot.
At noon, she was in Place de la Concorde, where she took the metro. Line number one, direction Chateau de Vincennes. Sitting at the rear of the compartment, she decided that she wanted confirmation, before even thinking about running away. She had mentally run through the hospitals on this line and had picked Saint-Antoine, just by the Bastille.
She had been waiting for twenty minutes when a doctor appeared carrying a large envelope of X-rays. He put it down on an empty counter, then bent down to rummage through one of the drawers. She rushed over to him.
"I have to see you at once."
"Wait your turn," he said over his shoulder, without even looking at her. "The nurse will call you."
Anna grabbed his arm. "Please. I must have an X-ray"
The man turned around angrily, but his expression changed when he saw her. "Have you checked in at reception?"
"Have you any health coverage?"
The doctor looked her up and down. He was large, dark-haired and hearty, in a white robe and cork-heeled clogs. With his tanned skin, coat open in a V to reveal a hairy chest and gold medallion, he looked like a parody of a ladies' man. He stared at her blatantly, a connoisseur's smile across his lips. Pointing at the ripped kimono and dried blood, he asked: "Is it for your arm?"
"No. My… my face hurts. I need an X-ray"
He frowned slightly, scratching his body hair-the harsh mane of a stallion. "Was it a fall?"
"No, I've just got facial pain. I don't know."
"Or just sinusitis." He winked. "There's a lot of it going around."
He looked around at the room and its occupants: the junkie, the wino, the grandma… the usual suspects. He sighed, then suddenly seemed more inclined to take some time out with Anna. He treated her to a broad Mediterranean grin, then whispered warmly, "I'll give you a good scanning, young lady. A full frontal."
He grabbed her arm. "But first of all, let's strap you up."
An hour later, Anna was standing in the stone gallery that ran along the borders of the hospital garden. The doctor had showed her there while she was waiting for the results of the tests.
The weather had changed. Darts of sunshine were melting into the downpour, transforming it into a silver mist of unreal clarity. Anna attentively observed the leaps and bounds of the rain on the leaves of the trees, the glinting puddles and the narrow streams sketched out between the gravel and roots of the thickets. This minor occupation allowed her to keep her mind empty and her latent panic at bay. Above all, no questions. Not yet.
The footfalls of clogs sounded to her right. The doctor was coming back, beneath the arcades of the gallery, holding the images. His smile had completely disappeared. "You should have told me about your accident."
Anna jumped. "What accident?"
"What happened to you? Was it a car crash?"
She stepped back in fear.
He was shaking his head in disbelief.
"It's amazing what they can do now with plastic surgery. To look at you, I'd never have guessed…"
Anna seized the printout from his hands.
It showed a skull that had been fractured, stitched and then totally stuck back together again. Black lines revealed grafts that had been performed on her brows and cheekbones. Marks around her nose showed that it had been completely resculpted. Screws in her jawbones and temples were keeping prostheses in place.
Anna broke into a nervous laughter, a laughing sob, before fleeing beneath the arcades, the printout waving in her hand like a blue flame.
For the past two days, they had been roaming around the Turkish quarter. Paul Nerteaux could not understand Schiffer's strategy. On Sunday evening, they should have gone straight to see this Marek Cesiuz, alias Marius, the head of the Iskele, the main network of illegal Turkish immigrants. They should have shaken up this slave trader and gotten him to give them his files on the three victims.
Instead of that, the Cipher had decided to regain contact with "his" neighborhood, to find his feet again, as he put it. So for two days now, he had been sniffing around, checking and observing his old bailiwick, but without questioning anyone. Only the driving rain had allowed them to remain invisible in their car-to see without being seen.
Paul was champing at the bit, but he did have to admit that in forty-eight hours he had learned more about Little Turkey than he had during the three months of his inquiries.
Jean-Louis Schiffer had started by introducing him to the adjacent diasporas. They had gone to Passage Brady, off Boulevard de Strasbourg, the center of the Indian world. Beneath a long glass roof, tiny brightly colored shops and dark restaurants hung with blinds stretched into the distance. Waiters were calling out to the passersby, while women in saris let their navels do the talking among the heavy fragrances of spices. In this rainy weather, with waves of humidity expanding and enlivening each odor, they could have been in a market in Bombay during the monsoon.
Schiffer had showed him the addresses that were used as meeting points for the Hindis, Bengalis and Pakistanis. He had pointed out the heads of each confession: Hindu, Muslim, Jain, Sikh and Buddhist… Within a few doorways, he had summarized this concentrated exoticism, which, he said, wanted nothing better than to dissolve.
"In a few years' time," he said with a grin, "the traffic cops around here will all be Sikhs."
Then they had taken up position on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Martin opposite the Chinese businesses: groceries that looked like caverns, soaked with the smell of garlic and ginger; restaurants with drawn curtains that opened like velvet cases; the glistening windows and chrome counters of delicatessens, covered with salads and dumplings. At a distance, Schiffer had introduced him to the main community leaders, shopkeepers whose stores provided a mere five percent of their total turnover.
"Never trust these buggers," he said, grimacing. "Not a single one of them's straight. Their heads are like their food. Full of things diced to pieces. Stuffed full of monosodium glutamate so as to put you to sleep."
Later, they went back to Boulevard de Strasbourg, where West Indian and African hairdressers shared the pavement with cosmetics wholesalers and joke shops. Under the copings, groups of blacks sheltered from the rain, presenting a perfect ethnic kaleidoscope of all those who frequented the boulevard: Baoulés, Mbochis and Betés from the Ivory Coast, Laris from Congo. Bas-Congos and Baloubas from the former Zaire, Bamelekes and Ewondos from Cameroon…
Paul was intrigued by these ever-present, yet perfectly idle Africans. He knew that most of them were drug dealers or con men, but this did not stop him feeling a certain warmth toward them. Their lightness of mood, their humor and that tropical life, which they managed to transmit even to the asphalt thrilled him. Above all, he found the women fascinating. Their smooth, dark stares seemed to have some hidden relationship with their lustrous hair, which had just been uncurled at Afro 2000 or Royal Coiffure. Fairies of burned wood, masks of satin with large dark eyes…
Schiffer gave him a more realistic, and detailed, description: "The Cameroonians are kings of forgery, from banknotes to credit cards. The Congolese specialize in threads: stolen clothes, fake labels and so on. The Ivorians are nicknamed ' SOS Africa.' Their specialty is false charities. They're always hitting you up for the starving Ethiopians or orphans of Angola. A lovely example of solidarity. But the most dangerous of all are the Zairians. Their empire is built on drugs. They reign over the entire neighborhood. The blacks are the worst of all," he concluded. "Pure parasites. Their only aim in life is to suck our blood."
Paul did not respond to any of these racist remarks. He had decided to remain oblivious to anything that did not directly concern their investigations. All he wanted was results. Nothing else mattered. Meanwhile, he was slowly progressing on other fronts. He had brought in two officers from the SARIJ, named Naubrel and Matkowska, so that they could follow up the lead about pressure tanks. The two lieutenants had already visited three hospitals, with negative results. They had now extended their inquiries to the contractors who work in the depths of Paris, under pressure so as to prevent the water table from leaking into their sites. Every evening, the workers used a decompression chamber. Darkness, underground… the lead sounded good to Paul. He was expecting a report later on that day.
He had also asked a young recruit in the Brigade Criminelle to collect other guidebooks and archaeological catalogues dealing with Turkey. The officer had made his first delivery the previous evening to Paul's apartment on Rue du Chemin Vert, in the eleventh arrondissement. A stack that he had not had time to go through yet but that would soon be accompanying him in his insomnia.
On the second day, they entered the true Turkish area. This neighborhood was bordered to the south by Boulevards Bonne-Nouvelle and Saint-Denis, to the west by Rue du Faubourg-Poissonière and, to the east by Rue du Faubourg Saint-Martin. To the north, the intersection of Rue La Fayette and Boulevard Magenta capped the district. Its spinal cord ran along Boulevard de Strasbourg, which went up toward the;are de l'Est. Its nerves spread out to each side: Rue des Petites-Ecuries, Rue du Chateau d'Eau… Its heartbeat in the depths of Strasbourg Saint-Denis metro station, irrigating this fragment of the East.
From an architectural point of view, the neighborhood was unexceptional: some of its old gray buildings had been renovated, but many more were decrepit, as though they had lived a thousand lives. They all had the same layout: the ground and first floors were occupied by businesses; the second and third by sweatshops; then the upper stories below the roof contained living accommodations-overcrowded apartments cut into two, or three, or four, covering the surface like little paper squares.
In the streets, there was an atmosphere of impermanence, of passing through. Several of the businesses seemed devoted to movement, to the nomadic life, a precarious existence, always on the lookout. There were kiosks selling sandwiches that you could snack on while walking down the street; there were travel agents, to prepare departures and arrivals; there were currency exchangers, to give out euros; there were photocopy stores to duplicate identity papers… not to mention the numerous real estate agents and signs marked FOR SALE…
In all of these details, Paul read the power of a permanent exodus, a human flood from a distant source, pouring endlessly and messily along the streets. But this quarter also had another purpose: the making of clothes. The Turks did not control this trade, which was run by the Jewish community of Sentier, but since the great migrations of the 1950s they had established themselves as a vital link in the chain. They supplied the wholesalers, thanks to their hundreds of workshops and home workers. Thousands of hands working millions of hours that could almost compete with the Chinese. In any case, the Turks had the benefit of seniority and a slightly more legal social standing.
The two policemen had plunged into these crowded, agitated, earsplitting streets. Among the deliverymen, the open trucks, the bags and trolleys, the clothes passed from hand to hand. The Cipher acted as a guide once more. He knew their names, their owners and their specialties. He spoke of the Turks who had been his informers, the messengers he had had in his grip for various reasons, the restaurant owners who owed him favors. The list seemed endless. At the beginning, Paul had tried to take notes, but he had soon given up. He let himself be carried onward by Schiffer's explanations while observing the agitation all around them, picking up its cries, blaring horns, smell of pollution-everything that made the quarter what it was.
Finally, at noon on Tuesday, they crossed the final frontier and reached the hub. The compact block known as Little Turkey, covering Rue des Petites-Ecuries, the courtyard and passageway of the same name, Rue d'Enghien, Rue de l'Echiquier and Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis. Only a few acres, but here all the buildings were inhabited by Turks from the basement to the attic.
This time, Schiffer deciphered the scene for him, providing the access codes to this unique village. He revealed the purpose behind each doorway, each building, each window. This yard led to a goods depot that was in fact a mosque; that unfurnished room at the far end of a patio was the headquarters of an extreme left-wing group… Schiffer lit all the lanterns for Paul, clearing up mysteries that had been baffling him for weeks-such as why there were always two fair-haired men dressed in black in the Cour des Petites-Ecuries.
"They're Lazes," the Cipher explained. "From the Black Sea, in northeastern Turkey. They're fighters, warriors. Mustafa Kemel himself employed them as bodyguards. Their legend goes back a long way. In Greek mythology, they were the guardians of the Golden Fleece in Colchis."
Or the shadowy bar on Rue des Petites-Ecuries, which contained a photo of a large man with a mustache.
"It's the headquarters of the Kurds. And the picture's of Apo, or 'uncle' Abdullah Ocalan, the head of the PKK (Partiya Karkeran Kurdistan), or Kurdistan Workers' Party who's now in prison."
The Cipher then entered into a grandiose speech that was almost a national anthem.
"The greatest nation without a state. Twenty-five million of them in all, twelve million in Turkey. Like the Turks, they're Muslims. Like the Turks, they wear mustaches. Like the Turks, they work in sweatshops. The only problem is that they're not Turks, and nothing and nobody will ever make them change."
Schiffer then introduced him to the Alevis, who met on Rue d'Enghien.
"They're called 'redheads.' They're Shiite Muslims who practice a secret rite. And they're hard nuts, take my word for it… rebels, often leftists. And also an extremely close community based on initiation and friendship. They choose an 'oath brother' or 'initiate companion' and advance together toward God. They're a real force of resistance against traditional Islam."
When Schiffer spoke like that, he seemed to have a hidden respect for these peoples he at the same time constantly derided. In reality, he had a love-hate relationship with the Turkish world. Paul even remembered a rumor according to which Schiffer had almost married a woman from Anatolia. What had happened? How had the story ended? It was generally when he was beginning to imagine a superb romance between Schiffer and the East that his partner came out with some terrible racist outburst.
The two men were now sitting in their unmarked car, an ancient Golf that police headquarters had agreed to lend Paul at the outset of his inquiries. They were parked at the corner of Rue des Petites-Ecuries and Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, just in front of the Château d'Eau bar.
Night was falling and mingling with the rain to melt the scene into colorless, muddy sludge. Paul looked at his watch. It was 8:30.
"What the hell are we doing here, Schiffer? We should have gone for Marius today and-"
"Patience. The concert's about to start."
Schiffer was fidgeting on his seat, flattening down the creases in his Barbour.
"I've already told you-Marius has a concert hall on Boulevard de Strasbourg. It's an old porn cinema. There's a show on this evening. Ills bodyguards will be taking care of the door." He winked. "It's an ideal time to pay him a call." He pointed at the street in front of them. "Start up and turn down Rue du Château d'Eau."
Paul did so moodily. Mentally, he had given the Cipher just one chance. If he failed with Marius, then he would take him straight back to the home in Longéres. But he was also impatient to see this monster at work.
"Park on the other side of Boulevard de Strasbourg," Schiffer ordered. "If we have problems, we can always leave via an emergency exit I know"
Paul drove across the street, up another block, then parked at the corner of Rue Bouchardon. "There won't be any problems, Schiffer."
"Give me the photos."
He hesitated, then passed him the envelope containing the photos of the corpses. Schiffer smiled, then opened the car door. "Just give me a free hand, and everything will be fine."
Paul then got out as well, thinking, One chance, you old bugger. One and no more.
In the concert hall, the beat was so strong that it obscured any other sensation. The shock wave hit you in the belly, stripping bare your nerves, then dived into your heels before surging back up your vertebrae, making them vibrate like the strips of a vibraphone.
Paul instinctively sank his head into his shoulders and bent double, as though dodging blows being rained on his stomach, chest and both sides of his head, where his eardrums were ablaze. He blinked to get his bearings in the smoky atmosphere while projectors on the stage were turning.
Finally, he made out the décor: carved, gilded balustrades, stucco columns, fake crystal chandeliers, heavy crimson curtains… Schiffer had mentioned a former cinema, but it instead reminded him of the ancient kitsch of an old cabaret. A kind of music hall for operettas with frilly shirts, in which ghosts wearing brilliantine would have refused to yield their places to furious neometal groups.
On the stage, the musicians were writhing about, chanting their endless fuckin' and killin'. Bare-chested, gleaming with sweat and fever, they were wielding their guitars, mikes and drums as if they were assault rifles, raising the first rows in violent waves.
Paul left the bar and went down onto the floor. Diving in among the crowd, he felt suddenly nostalgic for the concerts of his youth: pogoing furiously jumping like a spring to the heady riffs of the Clash: the four chords learned on his secondhand guitar, which he ended up selling when its strings started to remind him too much of the bloody zigzags in his father's car seat.
He realized that he had lost sight of Schiffer. He turned around, staring at the spectators who had remained at the top of the steps, by the bar. They were standing nonchalantly glass in hand, deigning to respond to the frenzy on the stage by a mere slight swing of their hips. Paul looked among their shadowy faces, ringed with colored beams. No Schiffer.
Suddenly, a voice burst into his ear: "Wanna score?"
Paul turned around to see a livid face, gleaming beneath its cap. "What?”
“I've got some great Black Bombays."
"You've got what?"
The man leaned over, hooking a hand over Paul's shoulder. "Black Bombays, Dutch ones. Where've you been hiding?"
Paul pushed him away and produced his tricolor card.
"That's where. Now piss off before I run you in."
The man vanished like a blown-out flame. Paul stared for a moment at his cardholder, with the stamp of the police, and measured the gulf benveen the concerts of back then and his present profile: an intransigent police officer, upholding law and order, implacably shaking up the dregs of society. Could he have imagined that twenty years back?
Someone tapped him on the back.
"Are you nuts?" Schiffer yelled. "Put that thing away!"
Paul was running with sweat. He tried to swallow but could not. Everything trembled around him and the sparkling lights dislocated the faces, crumpling them up like sheets of aluminum foil.
The Cipher tapped him again, more amicably this time, on the arm. "Come on. Marius is here. We'll catch him in his lair."
They headed off between the crush of shifting, waving bodies: a frenetic sea of shoulders and hips writhing in time, brutally, instinctively, with the rhythms being spat from the stage. By elbowing their way through, the two cops managed to reach the front.
Schiffer then turned right, below the acute wafflings of the guitars that were surging from the loudspeakers. Paul had a hard time keeping up with him. He noticed that Schiffer was talking with a bouncer while the amplifier hummed furiously. The man nodded and opened a concealed door. Paul just had time to slip in through the gap. It led into a narrow, corridor. Posters gleamed on the walls. On most of them, the Turkish crescent and the Communist hammer were joined into a political symbol.
Schiffer explained, "Marius is head of an extreme left-wing group on Rue Jarry. It was his pals who set fire to the Turkish prisons last year."
Paul vaguely remembered hearing about those riots, but he asked no questions. This was no time for geopolitics. The two men set off. The music continued to echo dully in their backs.
Without stopping, Schiffer sneered, "Putting on concerts was a smart move. A real captive market."
"Marius also has a hand in dealing. Ecstasy. Uppers. Anything with speed in it."
"Or LSD. With these concerts, he can build up his own clientele. He's a winner every way"
It occurred to Paul to ask, "Do you know what Black Bombays are?”
“They're all the rage these days. It's Ecstasy cut with heroin."
How come a fifty-nine-year-old man, just out of a retirement home, knew the latest E trends? Another mystery.
"It's ideal when coming down," he went on. "After the excitement of speed, the heroin is calming. It's an easy passage from saucer eyes to pinhead pupils."
"Of course heroin puts you to sleep. A junkie's always dozing off" He stopped. "I don't get it. You've never worked on a drug bust before?"
"I spent four years in the drug squad. But that doesn't make me a druggie."
The Cipher gave him his finest smile. "How can you fight something you've never experienced? How can you understand the enemy if you don't know his strengths? You have to know what kids are looking for in that shit. And the strength of drugs is that they're good. Jesus, if you don't know that, there's no point even trying to bust them."
Paul recalled his initial idea: Jean-Louis Schiffer, father of all cops, half hero, half demon, the best and the worst brought together in one man. He swallowed his anger. His partner had set off again. A last bend, then two giants dressed in leather coats appeared on either side of a black-painted door.
The cop with the crew cut produced his card. Paul shivered. Where had this relic come from? This detail seemed to confirm their current situation. It was now the Cipher who was calling the shots. To make matters even worse, he started speaking in Turkish.
The bodyguard hesitated, then raised his hand to knock at the door. Schiffer stopped rapidly and opened the handle himself. On going in, he barked at Paul over his shoulder: "Not a word from you during the questioning."
Paul wanted to answer back appropriately, but he did not have time. This interview was going to be his initiation.
"Salaam aleikum, Marius!"
The man slumped in his desk chair nearly toppled backward. "Schiffer? Aleikum salaam, my brother!"
Marek Cesiuz was already back in control. He stood up, grinning broadly, and walked around his iron desk. He was wearing a red-and gold football shirt, the colors of Galatasaray. His scrawny body floated in the satiny material like a banner on the terraces. It was impossible to guess how old he was. His reddish gray hair looked like still-smoldering cinders. His features were frozen into an expression of cold joy, which gave him the sinister look of an ancient child. His coppery skin accentuated his robotic face and melded into his rusty hair.
The two men embraced effusively. The windowless office, with its piles of papers, was saturated with smoke. Cigarette burns dotted the carpet. All the decorations seemed to date back to the 1970s: silvery cabinets and round lamps, tom-tom stools, lamps suspended like mobiles, conic lampshades.
In a corner, Paul noticed a printing press, a photocopier, two binding machines and a guillotine. The perfect outfit for a political militant.
Marius's hearty laughter drowned out the distant din of the music. "How long has it been?"
"At my age, you stop counting."
"We missed you, my brother. We really did."
The Turk spoke French without an accent. They embraced once more. Their playacting had reached its peak.
"And the children?" Schiffer asked in a bantering tone.
"They grow up too quickly. I don't take my eyes off them for fear of missing something!"
"And my little Ali?"
Marius aimed a punch at Schiffer's belly, which stopped well before contact. "He's the quickest of them all!"
Suddenly, he seemed to notice Paul. His eyes froze over, while his lips remained smiling. "So you're back at work?" he asked the Cipher.
"Just for a simple consultation. Let me introduce you to Captain Paul Nerteaux."
Paul hesitated, then put out his hand, but no one took it. He contemplated his empty fingers in that overbright room, full of fake smiles and the smell of cigarettes. Then, to keep up appearances, he took a look at a pile of handbills lying to his right.
"Still writing your Bolshevik stuff?" Schiffer asked.
"It's ideals that keep us alive."
The officer grabbed a sheet and translated out loud: ".. When the workers control the means of production.." He laughed. "I thought you'd grown out of this sort of crap."
"Schiffer, my friend, it's the sort of crap that will outlive us.”
“Only if someone keeps reading it."
Marius had recovered his complete smile, lips and eyes in unison. "Some tea, my friends?" Without waiting for an answer, he grabbed a large thermos flask and filled three earthenware cups. Applause was making the walls tremble.
"Aren't you fed up with those creeps?"
Marius sat back down behind his desk, his chair against the wall. He slowly raised his cup to his mouth. "Music is the food of peace, my brother. Even this sort. In my country the kids listen to the same bands as they do here. Rock will unite the future generations. It will wipe out what's left of our differences."
Schiffer pressed down the guillotine and raised his cup. "To hard rock!"
The way Marius's form shifted oddly beneath his shirt seemed to express both amusement and weariness. "Schiffer, you didn't come all this way, and bring this kid with you, to talk about music or our old ideals."
The Cipher sat down on the edge of the desk, sized up the Turk for a moment, then removed the horrifying photos from the envelope. Their disfigured faces scattered over the first drafts of posters.
Marius drew back into his chair. "What on earth are you showing me, my brother?"
"Three women. Three bodies discovered in your precinct. Between November and now. My colleague thinks they're illegal immigrants. So I thought you might be able to tell us more." His tone had changed. It sounded as if Schiffer had stitched each syllable with barbed wire.
"That's news to me," Marius said.
Schiffer smiled knowingly. "The whole neighborhood must have been talking about little else ever since the first murder. So tell us what you know and we'll all save a lot of time."
The dealer absentmindedly picked up a packet of Karos. the local filterless cigarettes, and took one out. "My brother, I have no idea what you're talking about."
Schiffer stood back up and adopted the tone of a fairground barker: "Marek Cesiuz, emperor of falsity and lies, king of smuggling and con tricks…" He broke into a raucous laugh. Which was also a roar, then stared down darkly at him. "Talk, you piece of shit. before I lose my temper."
The Turk's face went as hard as glass. Sitting up straight in his chair, he lit his cigarette. "You've got nothing, Schiffer. No warrant, no witnesses, no clues. You've just come here to ask for advice that I can't give you. I'm sorry" He pointed at the door with a long flurry of gray smoke. "Now, you'd better leave with your friend and put an end to this misunderstanding."
Schiffer planted his heels in the scorched carpet and faced the desk. "The only misunderstanding here is you. Everything's fake in this fucking office. These stupid handbills are fake. You don't give a shit about the last of the Commies rotting in prison in your country"
"Your passion for music is fake. A Muslim like you thinks that rock is the work of the devil. If you could burn down your own concert hail, you wouldn't hesitate for a moment."
Marius motioned to get up, but Schiffer pushed him back.
"Your cupboards are full of fake paperwork. You're no fucking workaholic. All this is run on smuggling and slavery!" He went over to the guillotine and stroked its blade. "You know as well as I do that this thing is just for cutting up your strips of acid into tabs." He opened his arms, in a theatrical gesture, and addressed the grimy ceiling: "O my brother, tell me about these women before I turn your office over and find enough to pack you off to Fleury for years!"
Marek Cesiuz kept glancing at the door.
The Cipher stood behind him and leaned over his ear. "Three women, Marius." He massaged his shoulders. "In less than four months. Tortured, disfigured, thrown onto the street. You brought them to France. Now give me their files, and we'll go."
The distant pulses of the concert filled the silence.
Then, sounding like the Turk's heart beating inside his carcass, Marek murmured, "I don't have them anymore."
"I destroyed them. When the girls died, I threw away their records. No traces, no problems."
Paul was starting to get worried, but he appreciated this revelation. For the first time, the object of his inquiries had become real. The three victims had existed as women. They started to take form before his eyes. The corpses had become illegal immigrants.
Schiffer stood back in front of the desk. "Watch the door," he said to Paul, without looking back at him.
Before Paul had time to react, Schiffer had leapt onto Marek and crushed his face against a corner of the desk. The nose bone snapped like a nut in a cracker. The cop lifted up Marek's head in a shower of blood and pushed it against the wall. "Give me the files, you cunt."
Paul rushed over, but Schiffer shoved him away. He was about to take out his gun when the dark maw of a Manhurin.44 Magnum froze him. The Cipher had dropped the Turk and drawn at the same instant.
"Just watch the door.
Paul was horrified. Where had that gun sprung from? Marek was sliding off his chair and opening a drawer.
Schiffer swung and hit him full in the face with the barrel of his gun. Marek spun around full circle on his chair and landed amid the piles of handbills. The Cipher grabbed him by his shirt and stuck his gun under his throat.
"The files, you fucking Turk. Otherwise, I swear to you I won't leave you alive."
Marek was shaking. Blood was oozing out between his broken teeth, but his joyful expression remained in place. Schiffer put his gun away and dragged him to the guillotine.
Paul then drew and yelled. "Stop it!"
Schiffer raised the guillotine and placed the man's hand beneath it. "Give me the files, you shit heap."
"Stop or I’ll shoot!"
The Cipher did not even look up. He slowly pressed down the blade. The skin of the phalanges started to give way under the edge. Black blood was bubbling up in places.
Marek screamed, hut not as loudly as Paul: "Schiffer!"
He crouched with both hands on the grip of his gun, aiming it at the Cipher. He had to shoot. He had to.
The door opened violently behind him. He was thrown forward, rolled over and came to a stop at the foot of the iron desk, his neck and head at right angles.
The two bodyguards were drawing their guns when a spray of blood covered them. The screaming of a hyena filled the room.
Paul realized that Schiffer had finished his work. He got up onto one knee, pointing his gun at the Turks. "Pull back!"
The men, hypnotized by the scene in front of them, did not move. Trembling from head to foot, Paul raised his 9-mm up to their faces. "Pull back, fuckers!"
He shoved the barrel into their chests and managed to force them back over the threshold. He closed the door with his back and could at last take a look at the nightmare.
Marek was on his knees, sobbing, his hand still trapped in the guillotine. His fingers had not been completely severed, but the phalanges had been exposed, the flesh cut from the bone. Schiffer was still holding the handle, his face deformed by a sardonic grin.
Paul put his gun away. He had to control this madman. He was about to charge when the Turk pointed his good hand toward the silvery filing cabinets beside the photocopier.
"The keys!" Schiffer yelled.
Marek tried to take hold of the ring fixed to his belt. The Cipher grabbed it from him and presented the keys, one by one, before his eyes. With a nod, the Turk indicated the one that would open the door.
The old cop started rummaging through the files. Paul took the opportunity to release the wounded man. He gingerly raised the blade, which was sticky with red stains.
The Turk collapsed onto the floor, rolled up and groaned, "Hospital… hospital…"
Schiffer turned around, his eyes shining. He was holding a cardboard folder, tied up with a cloth strap. He flung it open to reveal the files and snapshots of the three women.
In a state of shock. Paul realized that they had won.
They took the emergency exit and ran to the Golf. Paul shot off at once, nearly hitting a passing car.
He kept his foot down, swerving right into Rue Lucien-Sampaix. He then suddenly realized that he was going the wrong way up a one-way street. He quickly took the next left onto Boulevard Magenta.
Reality was dancing before his eyes. Tears added to the rain on the windshield, blurring everything. He could just see the traffic lights, which were bleeding like wounds in the downpour.
He crossed one intersection without braking, then another, setting off a flurry of skidding cars and blaring horns. At the third light, he finally stopped. For a few seconds, his head spun, then he knew what he had to do.
He accelerated without releasing the clutch, stalled and swore.
He was turning the ignition key when Schiffer said, "Where are you going?"
"To the station," he panted. "I'm arresting you, you bastard."
From the far side of the square, the Gare de L'Est shone like a cruise ship. He was about to pull off when the Cipher shifted his leg over to the other side and stamped on the accelerator.
Schiffer grabbed the wheel and spun it to the right. They shot down Rue Sibour, a side road that ran beside Saint-Laurent Church. Still using one hand, he turned again, forcing the Golf to bounce over the separations of the cycle path and come to a halt against the pavement.
Paul took the wheel in his ribs. He hiccupped, coughed, then melted into a burning sweat. He clenched his fist and turned toward his passenger, ready to smash his jaws.
The man's pallid face dissuaded him. Jean-Louis Schiffer looked twenty years older once more. His entire profile was melting into his flabby neck. His eyes were so glassy they looked transparent. A real death's-head.
"You're a lunatic," he panted in disgust. "A fucking sicko. You can count on me to make the charge sheet look good. You're going to rot in prison, you fucking torturer!"
Without answering, Schiffer found an old map of Paris in the glove compartment and tore off a few pages to wipe the blood from his jacket. His blotchy hands were trembling. His words hissed from between his teeth: "There's no other way to deal with the fuckers."
"We're police officers."
"Marius is a shit. He manipulates whores over here by having their kids mutilated back home. An arm, a leg. It calms down the Turkish mothers."
"We represent the law" Paul was getting his breath and his poise back. His eyesight was also returning, showing him the flat black wall of the church, the gargoyles over their heads, standing like gallows, and the rain still assailing the night.
Schiffer threw away the reddened pages, opened the window and spat. “It's too late to get rid of me."
"If you think I'm scared to answer for what I've done… then you've got another thing coming. You're headed behind bars, even if I have to share your cell."
Schiffer raised a hand to switch on the roof light, then opened the folder on his lap. He removed the papers concerning the three women: they were loose laser-printed leaves, with a Polaroid photo stapled to each one. He tore off the photos and placed them on the dashboard, as if they were playing cards. He cleared his throat again and asked, "What do you see?"
Paul did not move. The light from the streetlamps was making the pictures glisten above the steering wheel. For two months, he had been looking for these faces. He had pictured them, drawn them, wiped them out again and started all over again a hundred times… Now that they were in front of him, he felt as nervous as a virgin.
Schiffer took him by the scruff of the neck and forced him to look. "What do you see?" he said huskily. Paul opened his eyes wide. Three women with gentle features, slightly stunned by the flashlight, were staring at him. Their broad faces were rimmed by red hair.
"Do you notice anything?" the Cipher insisted.
Paul hesitated. "They look alike, don't they?"
Schiffer burst out laughing and repeated, " 'They look alike'? You mean they're carbon copies!"
Paul turned toward him. He was unsure if he had understood. "And so?"
"So you were right. The killer is after a particular face. A face that he both adores and detests, which obsesses him and provokes contradictory impulses. As for his motive, anything is possible. But we now know that he's pursuing an objective."
Paul's anger turned into a feeling of victory. So his intuitions had been right: they were illegal immigrants, with identical looks. Was he also right about the ancient statues?
Schiffer continued: "These photos are a huge step forward, take my word for it. Because they also provide us with a vital piece of information. The killer knows this neighborhood like the back of his hand."
"That's nothing new."
"We figured that he's Turkish, not that he knows every sweatshop and cellar around here. Can you imagine the patience and perseverance you need to find girls who look that much alike? The bastard must have eyes everywhere."
Paul said, more calmly, "Okay. I admit that I d never have got hold of these photos without you. So I'll spare you the station. I'll just take you straight back to Longères without passing by the police."
He turned the ignition key. but Schiffer grabbed his arm. "Don't be silly, kid. You need me now more than ever."
“It's all over for you."
The Cipher picked up one of the pieces of paper and held it under the light. "We haven't just got their faces and identities. We've also got the addresses of their workshops. That's a solid lead."
Paul released the key. "Maybe their colleagues saw something?"
"Remember what forensics said. Their stomachs were empty. They were going home after work. We'll have to question women who go the same way every evening. And also the bosses of the workshops. But to do that, you need me, my boy."
Schiffer did not have to press the point. For three months, Paul had been banging his head against the same wall. He imagined himself starting his inquiries again on his own and obtaining an infinite series of zeros.
"I'll give you one day." he conceded. "We'll go around to the workshops. We'll question their colleagues, neighbors and partners, if there are any. Then you go back to the home. And I'm warning you: the slightest fuckup, and I'll kill you. This time, I won't hesitate."
His partner forced a laugh, but Paul sensed that he was scared. Fear now gripped both of them. He was about to start the car up when he paused once more-he wanted everything to be clear. -Why were you so violent with that Marius?"
Schiffer looked up at the gargoyles, which rose into the darkness. Devils curled around their perches, incubuses with turned-up noses, demons with bat's wings. He remained silent for a while, then murmured, "There was no other way. They've decided not to speak."
"Who do you mean by 'they'?"
"The Turks. The whole neighborhood's gone dumb. We're going to have to rip out each scrap of the truth."
Paul's voice cracked, rising up a tone. "But why are they doing that? Why don't they want to help us?"
The Cipher was still staring at those faces of stone. His pallor competed with that of the roof light.
"Don't you get it? They're protecting the killer."
Between his arms, she had been a river.
A fluid, supple, open energy. She had breezed through the nights and days like a ripple touches underwater greenery, without ever altering its languid pace. She had flowed between his hands, crossing shadowy forests, beds of moss, dark rocks. She had risen up in the clearings that burst into her eyes when pleasure came. Then she had abandoned herself once more, in a slow shift, translucent beneath his palms…
Over the years, there had been distinct seasons. Light, laughing rivulets of water. Manes of foam shaken by anger. Fords, too, truces during which their physical contact ceased. But such pauses were sweet. They had the lightness of reeds, the smoothness of bare pebbles.
When the current picked up again, pushing them again to the farthest shores, beyond sighs, their lips apart, it was to reach at last the ultimate pleasure, where everything was one and the other was all.
"You understand, Doctor?"
Mathilde Wilcrau jumped. She looked at the Knoll couch, just two yards away-the only piece of furniture in the room that did not date from the eighteenth century. A man was lying there. A patient. Lost in a daydream, she had completely forgotten about him and had not listened to a word he had said.
She concealed her embarrassment by saying, "No, I'm afraid I don't. You're not being very clear. Can you try and put it another way please?"
The man launched into another explanation, his nose facing the ceiling, hands crossed on his chest. Mathilde discreetly took a jar of moisturizing cream from a drawer. The freshness of the product on her hands brought her back to herself. Such moments of abstraction were becoming increasingly frequent and profound. She was now pushing the neutrality of the analyst to its extreme: she was quite literally no longer there. In the past, she used to listen to her patients' every word. She observed every slip of the tongue, hesitation and excess. They formed a thread that allowed her to find a path back through their neuroses and traumas… But now?
She put the cream away and continued to rub it into her hands. Nourish. Hydrate. Soothe. The man's voice was now just a murmur, rocking her profound melancholy.
Yes, between his arms she had been a river. But the fords had multiplied, the truces grown longer. At first, she had refused to worry, to see in these pauses a sign of a falling away. She had been blind with hope and faith in love. Then a taste of dust settled on her tongue, a sharp pain had gripped her limbs. Soon, even her veins seemed to have dried up, like lifeless mineral deposits. She felt empty. Even before their hearts had put a name to the situation, their bodies had spoken.
Then the breakup burst into their minds, and their words finished off the motion: their separation became official. The period of formalities began. They had to see a magistrate, calculate the alimony, organize the move. Mathilde had been irreproachable. Ever alert. Ever responsible. But her mind was already elsewhere. As soon as she could, she tried to remember, to travel within herself, in her own story, amazed to find so few traces in her memory, so few instants from the past. Her entire being was like a burned desert, an ancient site where only some meager ridges among the overly white stones still gave a sign of what had been.
She reassured herself by thinking of her children. They incarnated her destiny, were her last source of life. She devoted herself to them. She abandoned herself completely during the final years of their education. But they too, had ended up leaving her. Her son had vanished into a strange town, both tiny and huge, made up entirely of chips and microprocessors, while her daughter had found her path in traveling and ethnology or so she claimed. All that she was sure of was that her path lay far away from her parents.
So Mathilde now had to take an interest in the only person she had left: herself. She denied herself nothing-clothes, furniture, lovers. She went on cruises and trips to places that had always fascinated her.
In vain. Such extravagance seemed merely to hasten her downfall into old age.
Desertification was continuing its ravages. Lifeless sand spread ever farther inside her. Not only in her body but also in her heart. She became harder, harsher toward others. Her judgments were abrupt, her opinions strong and final. Her generosity, understanding and compassion deserted her. The slightest indulgent gesture cost her an effort. Her feelings became paralyzed, making her hostile to other people.
She ended up arguing with her closest friends and found herself alone, really alone. Having run out of enemies, she took up sports so as to confront herself. Her achievements included mountain climbing, rowing, hang gliding, shooting… Training became a permanent challenge for her, an obsession that drained way her anxieties.
Now she had gotten over such excesses, but her life was still dotted by frequent exertions. A hang gliding course in the Cevennes, the yearly climbing of the Dalles near Chamonix, the triathlon event in the Val d'Aosta. At the age of fifty-two, she was fit enough to make any teenager green with envy. And, every day with a hint of vanity she looked at the trophies that shone on her authentic Oppenordt School chest of drawers.
In reality, what delighted her was a different sort of victory: an intimate, secret triumph. During all those years of solitude, she had never once resorted to drugs. She had never taken a single tranquilizer or antidepressant.
Every morning, she looked at herself in the mirror and recalled this achievement. The jewel in her crown. A personal certificate of endurance that proved that she had not exhausted her reserves of courage and willpower.
Most people live in hope of the best.
All that Mathilde Wilcrau feared was the worst.
Of course, in the middle of that desert, there was her work. The consultations at Sainte-Anne Hospital and appointments in her private practice. The hard style and the soft style, as they say in the martial arts, which she had also practiced. Psychiatric care and psychoanalytic attention. But after a time, these two poles had ended up merging into the same routine.
Her timetable was now marked by several strict, compulsory rituals.
Once a week, when possible, she had lunch with her children, who spoke only of success for themselves, and the failure of her and their father. Every weekend, she visited antiques shops, between two training sessions. Then, on Tuesday evening, she attended the seminars at the Society of Psychoanalysis. where she would still see a few familiar faces. Particularly former lovers, whose names she had even forgotten and who had always seemed bland to her. But perhaps she was the one who had lost the taste for love. As when you burn your tongue and can no longer taste your food…
She glanced at the clock. Only five more minutes before the end of the session. The man was still talking. She wriggled on her chair. Her body was already prickling with the sensations in perspective-the dryness in her throat when she pronounced the concluding words after a long silence; the smoothness of her fountain pen on her diary when she jotted down the next appointment; the rustling of leather when she got up…
A little later, in the hallway, the patient turned around and asked her anxiously, "I didn't go too far, did I. Doctor?"
Mathilde shook her head with a smile and opened the door. So what had he revealed this time that was so important? It did not matter. He was sure to do even better next time. She went out onto the landing and switched on the light.
She screamed when she saw her.
The woman was hunched up against the wall, clutching her black kimono. Mathilde recognized her at once: Anna something. The one who needed a good pair of glasses. She was white and shaking from head to foot. What was this all about?
Mathilde pushed the man downstairs and turned angrily toward this little brunette. She did not tolerate it when her patients just showed up like that, without warning, without making an appointment. A good psychiatrist should always be a good bouncer.
She was about to give her a piece of her mind when the woman beat her to it, holding up to her nose a face scan.
"They've wiped away my memory and my face."
The diagnosis was clear. Anna Heymes claimed that she had been manipulated by her husband and Eric Ackermann, as well as by some other men who were members of the French police force. Against her will, she was supposed to have been brainwashed and part of her memory removed. Her face had been altered using plastic surgery. She did not know why or how, but she had been the victim of a plot, or an experiment, that had damaged her personality.
She explained all this while hurriedly brandishing her cigarette like a conductor's baton. Mathilde listened to her patiently noting as she did how thin Anna was-anorexia could be another symptom of her paranoia.
Anna Heymes then came to the end of her unbelievable yarn. She had uncovered the plot that very morning, in the bathroom, when she discovered the scars on her face while her husband was about to take her to Ackermann's clinic.
She had escaped through the window and had been chased by policemen in civilian dress who were armed to the teeth and equipped with radio transmitters. She had hidden in an Orthodox church, then had had her face x-rayed at Saint-Antoine Hospital to obtain tangible proof of her operation. Then she had wandered around till nightfall, waiting to take refuge with the only person she now trusted Mathilde Wilcrau. There we are.
Mathilde had treated hundreds of similar people at Sainte-Anne Hospital. The first thing to do was to calm the patient down. After a good deal of comforting words, she had managed to give her an intra-muscular injection of fifty milligrams of Tranxene.
Anna Heymes was now sleeping on her couch. Mathilde was sitting behind her desk, in her usual position.
All she had to do now was to phone up Laurent Heymes. She could even see to it that Anna was sectioned, or else contact Eric Ackermann, who was treating her. In a few minutes, everything would be sorted out. It was just routine.
So why hadn't she called? For the last hour, she had been sitting there, without picking up the phone. She stared around at the furniture, which glinted in places, reflecting the light from the window. For years, she had been surrounded by these rococo-style furnishings, most of which had been bought by her husband. She had fought hard to retain possession of them during their divorce. First to piss him off, then, she realized, to keep something of him. She had never made up her mind to sell them. She was now living in a sanctuary, a mausoleum of varnished antiques that reminded her of the only years that had really counted.
Paranoid psychosis. A textbook case.
Except that there were the scars. The traces she herself had observed on the young woman's forehead, ears and chin. She could even feel the screws and implants under her skin that were holding up her face's bone structure. That terrifying printout then gave her the details of the operations.
During her years of practice, Mathilde had encountered many paranoiacs, but very few of them went around with concrete proof of their delusions written into their faces. Anna Heymes was wearing a sort of mask that had been stitched onto her flesh. A rind of skin that had been fashioned and molded to dissimulate her smashed bones and atrophied muscles.
Was she quite simply telling the truth? Had these men-including even policemen-made her undergo such treatment? Had they shattered the bones of her face? Had they interfered with her memory?
There was another disturbing element in this business: the presence of Eric Ackermann. She remembered a tall redhead with a face pitted with acne. One of her countless suitors at university, but above all a man of extraordinary intelligence, which verged on the sublime.
At the time, what fascinated him was the human brain and "inner travel." He had followed the experiments on LSD conducted by Timothy Leary at Harvard and, via this approach, he claimed to be exploring uncharted regions of consciousness. He took all sorts of psychotropic drugs while analyzing his own altered states. He sometimes even spiked fellow students' coffee, by slipping LSD into it, "just to see." Mathilde smiled as she remembered his weirdness. It had been a crazy period, with psychedelic rock, protest movements, the hippies.
Ackermann had predicted that one day machines would allow us to travel inside the brain and observe its activity in real time. And time had proved him to be right. He had become one of the best-qualified neurologists in his field, thanks to new technologies such as the positron camera and the encephalogram.
Was it possible that he was conducting an experiment on this young woman?
She looked in her address book for the phone number of a student who had taken her courses at Sainte-Anne in 1995. On the fourth ring, the woman answered.
"This is Mathilde Wilcrau."
"Professor Wilcrau?” It was past eleven, and her tone of voice was suddenly alert.
"What I am going to ask you will probably sound rather odd, especially at this time of the night…"
"What do you want?"
"I just want to ask you a few questions about your doctoral thesis. It was about mental manipulation and sensory isolation, if I remember correctly"
"It didn't seem to interest you very much at the time."
Mathilde noticed a slightly aggressive tone in the woman's answer. She had in fact refused to direct the student's work. She had not believed in this line of research. For her, brainwashing was more part of a collective fantasy or an urban legend.
She soothed out her voice with a smile. "Yes, I know. I was rather skeptical. But right now I need some information for an article I have to write on a short deadline."
"You can always ask."
Mathilde did not know where to start. She was not even sure what she wanted to find out. She started at random. "In the synopsis of your thesis, you wrote that it is possible to efface someone's memory. Is it… is it true?”
“The techniques were developed in the 1950s."
"By the Soviets, is that right?"
"The Russians, the Chinese, the Americans, just about everybody. It was a major element in the Cold War. Destroying the memory. Removing convictions. Modeling personalities."
"What methods were used?"
"Always the same ones: electroshock, drugs, sensory isolation." There was silence.
"Which drugs?" Mathilde asked.
"I worked mostly on the CIA 's program, MK-Ultra. The Americans used sedatives. Phenothiazine. Sodium amytal. Chlorpromazine."
Mathilde knew the names. They were the heavy artillery of psychiatry. In hospitals, these products were grouped together under the generic term chemical straitjacket. But in reality they were more like a grinder, a machine to mold the mind.
"What about sensory isolation?"
Valérie sneered. "The most advanced experiments were conducted in Canada, from 1954 onward, in a clinic in Montreal. First, the psychiatrists interviewed some of their female patients, who were depressives. They forced them to confess their faults, and any fantasies they were ashamed of them, they locked them in completely dark rooms, in which they could no longer see the floor, walls or ceiling. After that, they placed football helmets on their heads, in which extracts from their confessions were played on a loop. The women constantly heard the same words, the same sentences, which were the most painful parts of their confessions. The only respite was the sessions of electroshock therapy and sleep cures under sedation."
Mathilde glanced over at Anna, asleep on the couch. Her chest rose and fell slightly as she breathed.
The student went on:
"When the patients could no longer remember their names or their pasts, when they had no willpower left, the real treatment began. The therapists changed the tapes in the helmets, which now played out orders and commands, which were supposed to forge their new personalities."
Like all psychiatrists. Mathilde had heard of such aberrations, but she could not convince herself of either their reality or their effectiveness. "What were the results?" she asked in a neutral voice.
All the Americans managed to produce were zombies. The Russians and Chinese seem to have obtained better results, using more or less identical methods. After the Korean War, over seven thousand American prisoners of war returned to their country, absolutely convinced of values. Their personalities had been conditioned."
Mathilde scratched her shoulder. A tomblike chill was rising up her limbs. "And do you think that laboratories have continued to work in this field since then?"
"What sort of labs?"
Valérie laughed sarcastically. "You're really on another planet, aren't you? We're talking about military research centers. All armies work on manipulating brains."
"In France, too?"
"In France, in Germany, in Japan, in the USA. Everywhere that has the technological means. New products are constantly coming out. Right now, there's a lot of talk about a chemical compound called GHB, which wipes out what you have experienced during the previous twelve hours. It's called the rapist's drug because a drugged victim won't remember a thing. I'm sure the army is still working on that kind of product. The brain is the most dangerous weapon in the world."
"Thank you, Valérie."
She sounded surprised. "You don't want any precise sources? A bibliography?"
"That's all right. I'll call you back if necessary"
Mathilde went over to Anna, who was still asleep. She examined her arm for traces of injections. Nothing. She looked at her hair. Repeated absorption of sedatives provoked an electrostatic inflammation of the scalp. No particular sign.
She stood up in amazement at having almost believed the woman's story. No, really, she herself must be out of her mind as well… At that moment, she once again noticed the scars on the forehead-three tiny vertical lines barely an inch apart. She could not resist touching the temples and jaws. The prostheses shifted around beneath the skin.
Who had done that? How could Anna have forgotten such an operation?
Right from her first visit, she had mentioned the institute where the tomographic tests had been carried out. It was in Orsay. A hospital full of soldiers. Mathilde had written the name down somewhere in her notes. She looked quickly through her pad and came across a page full of her usual doodling. In the top right-hand corner, she had written Henri-Becquerel.
Mathilde got a bottle of water from the closet next to her consulting room; then, after taking a long swig from it, she picked up the phone and dialed a number.
"Rene? It's Mathilde. Mathilde Wilcrau."
A slight hesitation. The time. The years gone by. The surprise… Then a deep voice finally said, "How are things?"
"I'm not disturbing you?"
"Of course not. It's always a pleasure to hear your voice."
René Le Garrec had been her teacher and professor when she was studying at Val-de-Grace Hospital. A military psychiatrist and specialist in the traumas of war, he had set up the first medicopsychiatric emergency units open to victims of terrorism, war or natural disasters. He was a pioneer who had proved to Mathilde that you can wear a uniform without necessarily being an idiot.
"I just wanted to ask you something. Do you know the Henri Becquerel Institute?"
She noticed a slight hesitation.
"Yes, I do. It's a military hospital."
"What do they work on there?"
"They used to work on nuclear medicine."
Another hesitation. Mathilde was now sure of one thing: she was venturing into forbidden territory.
“I don't know exactly" the doctor replied. "They treat certain forms of trauma."
"I think so. I'd have to ask."
Mathilde had worked for three years in Le Garrec's department. Never had any mention been made of this institute.
As though trying to cover the clumsiness of his lie, the soldier went on the attack. "Why arc you asking me this?"
She made no attempt to duck and dive. "I have a patient who's had tests done there."
"What sort of tests?"
"I didn't know they had a PET scanner."
"It was Ackermann who carried them out."
Eric Ackermann had written a book about the techniques for exploring the brain, bringing together the work of various teams from around the world. It had since become the standard reference book. Since its publication, the neurologist had the reputation of being one of the greatest topographers of the human brain. A traveler who voyaged around this region of the anatomy as though it were the sixth continent.
Le Garrec observed, "It's odd he's working with us."
The us amused her. The army was more than just a corporation. it was a family "You're right," she said. "I knew Ackermann at the university. He was a real rebel. A conscientious objector, drugged up to his eyeballs. I find it hard to picture him working with soldiers. I think he was even condemned for illegal production of narcotics."
Le Garrec could not help laughing. "But that could be the reason. Do you want me to contact them?"
"No thanks. I just wanted to know if you had heard about their work, that's all."
"What's your patient's name?"
Mathilde now realized that she had gone a step too far. Le Garrec was going to start asking questions himself or, even worse, refer the matter to his superiors. Suddenly, the world Valérie Rannan had described seemed more probable. A universe of secret, impenetrable experiments, conducted in the name of a higher reason.
She tried to deflate the tension. "Don't worry it was only a detail.”
“What's the patient's name?" the officer insisted.
Mathilde felt the chill rise higher in her body. "Thanks," she replied. "I'll call Ackermann myself"
"As you wish."
Le Garrec was retreating, too. They both adopted their usual roles, their usual casual tone. But they knew that during this brief conversation, they had crossed a minefield. She hung up after promising to call him back for lunch sometime.
So it was certain that the Henri-Becquerel Institute had its secrets. And Eric Ackermann's presence in this business deepened the mystery even more. Anna Heymes's "delusions" were now seeming less and less psychotic…
Mathilde went into the private part of her apartment. She had a particular gait: shoulders up, arms along her body fists raised and, above all, hips slightly swaying. When she was young, she had spent a long time perfecting this oblique step, which she thought suited her figure. It had now become second nature to her.
When she reached her bedroom, she opened a varnished writing desk, decked with palm leaves and bunches of reeds. A Meissonnier 1740. She used a miniature key, which she always kept on her, and then pulled open a drawer.
She opened a coffer of woven bamboo, encrusted with mother-of-pearl. At the bottom, there was a piece of chamois leather. With her thumb and forefinger, she pulled aside the rolls of cloth and revealed the glittering presence of a forbidden object: A Glock 9-mm automatic pistol.
It was an extremely light weapon, with a mechanical lock and a safe-action catch. Before, this pistol had been used as a piece of sports equipment, and its use had been authorized by an official license. But now this gun, loaded with sixteen armor-plated bullets, was no longer authorized. It had become an instrument of death, forgotten by the labyrinthine French bureaucracy..
Mathilde weighed the gun in her palm, thinking over her current situation. A divorced psychiatrist with a lousy sex life, hiding an automatic pistol in her writing desk. She smiled and murmured, "How symbolic can you get?"
When she returned to her consulting room, she made another phone call, then went over to the couch. She had to shake Anna extremely hard before the woman showed any signs of waking up.
Finally, the young woman rolled over slowly. She stared at her hostess, showing no surprise, her head to one side.
In a low voice, Mathilde asked, "You didn't tell anyone that you'd come to see me?"
Anna shook her head.
"No one knows that we know each other?"
Same answer. It occurred to Mathilde that she might have been followed. It was now double or nothing.
Anna was rubbing her eyes with the palms of her hands, making herself look even more strange, with her lazy eyelids, that languidness about her temples, above her cheekbones. She still had the marks from the blanket on her cheek.
Mathilde thought of her own daughter, the one who had left home after tattooing on her shoulder the Chinese ideogram for "the truth.”
“Come on," she whispered. "We're going."
"What did they do to me?"
The two women were speeding along Boulevard Saint-Germain toward the Seine. The rain had stopped but left its presence everywhere in the glints, glitters and blue splashes of the night's vibrato.
To conceal her doubts, Mathilde adopted a professorial tone. "A treatment," she said.
"What sort of treatment?"
"Clearly something new which has allowed them to alter parts of your memory"
"Is that possible?"
"Normally speaking, no. But Ackermann must have come up with something… revolutionary technique connected with tomography and the brain's regions."
While driving, she constantly peered over at Anna, who was slumped on the seat, staring forward, her two hands clenched between her thighs.
"A shock can cause partial amnesia," she went on. "I treated a soccer player after a collision during a match. He could remember part of his existence, but not all of it. Maybe Ackermann has found a way to do the same thing using drugs, irradiation, or some other technique. A sort of screen that has been pulled across your memory"
"In my opinion, the answer lies in Laurent's work. You must have seen something that you shouldn't have, or else you have some information connected with his activities, or maybe you're just a guinea pig.. Anything is possible. We're in a world of madmen."
At the end of Boulevard Saint-Germain, the Institut du Monde Arabe appeared to their right. Clouds were drifting across its glassy sides.
Mathilde was amazed at how calm she felt. She was driving at over sixty miles an hour, an automatic pistol in her bag, with this death's-head by her side, and she did not feel at all afraid. Instead, she had a sensation of a certain distance, mingled with childlike excitement.
"And can my memory be restored?" Anna spoke awkwardly. Mathilde recognized this tone. She had heard it a thousand times during consultations at the hospital. It was the voice of obsession, of madness. Except that this time, the patient's delusions corresponded to reality.
Mathilde chose her words carefully: "I can't answer that until I know what technique was used. If it was a chemical substance, then maybe there's an antidote. If surgery was used, then… I'd more pessimistic."
The little Mercedes glided past the zoo in the Jardin des Plantes. The sleep of the animals and stillness of the park seemed to unite in the darkness to dig out an abyss of silence.
Mathilde saw that Anna was crying, in the small staccato sobs of a little girl. After a while, she recovered her voice, which was mixed with tears. "But why change my face?"
"That's a mystery. Maybe you were in the wrong place at the wrong time. But that wouldn't mean having to change your appearance. Unless the situation's even crazier, and they've altered your entire identity"
You mean I was someone else before?"
"That's what the plastic surgery could lead us to suppose.”
“I’m. I'm not Laurent Heymes's wife?"
Mathilde did not reply. Anna went further: "But what about my.. feelings? My… intimacy with him?"
Anger gripped Mathilde. In the midst of this horror, Anna was still thinking about love. There was nothing to be done about it. When a woman was shipwrecked, it was always desire and feelings first.
"All my memories of being with him… I can't have just invented them!"
Mathilde shrugged, as though to alleviate the seriousness of what she was about to say "Maybe your memories were implanted. You told me yourself that they're fading away, that they seem unreal… Normally speaking, such a thing is impossible. But someone like Ackermann is capable of anything. And the police must have given him unlimited means."
"Wake up, Anna. The Henri-Becquerel Institute. The soldiers. Laurent's job. Except for the Maison du Chocolat, your universe was entirely made up of policemen and uniforms. They were the ones who did this to you. And now they're looking for you."
They had reached the perimeter of Gare d'Austerlitz, which was being renovated. One of its façades revealed its own inner void, like a movie set. The windows gaping below the sky looked like the leftovers of a bombing. On the left, in the background, the Seine ran on. Dark silt drifting slowly.
After a long pause, Anna said, "There's someone in this story who isn't a policeman."
"The customer in the shop. The one I recognize. My colleague and I call him Mr. Corduroys. I don't know how to explain this, but I sense that he's not part of all this. That he belongs to the part of my life that they've wiped out."
"But why has he crossed your path?"
"Maybe it's a coincidence."
Mathilde shook her head. "Look, one thing I'm sure of is that there aren't any coincidences in this business. You can be certain that he's working with the others. If his face rings a bell, it's probably because you saw him with Laurent."
"Or because he likes Jikolas."
"Chocolates with a marzipan filling. It's one of the shop's specialties." She laughed breathlessly then wiped her tears. "In any case, it's logical enough if he doesn't recognize me, given that my face has completely changed." Then she added, in despair, "We must find it. We must uncover something about my past!"
Mathilde refrained from commenting. She was now driving up Boulevard de l'Hopital, under the iron arches of the overhead metro line.
"Where are we going?" Anna cried out.
Mathilde drove across the street diagonally, then parked in the wrong direction beside the campus of La Pitie-Salpetrière Hospital. She switched off the ignition, then turned toward the little Cleopatra.
"The only way we can understand your story is to find out who you were before. To judge by your scars, the surgery was carried out about six months ago. Somehow or other, we're going to have to go back beyond that point." She pressed her finger against her forehead. "You must remember what happened before that date."
Anna glanced up at the signpost of the teaching hospital. "You want… you want to question me under hypnosis?"
"We don't have time for that."
"So what are you going to do?"
Mathilde pushed a black lock of hair back behind Anna's ear. "If your memory can't tell us anything and your face has been obliterated, there's still one thing that remembers who you are."
The biological research unit of La Pitié-Salpetrière was lodged in the faculty of medicine. A long six-story block, it was dotted with hundreds of windows, giving a dizzying idea of the number of laboratories it must contain. This typically 1960s architecture reminded Mathilde of the universities and hospitals she had studied in. She had a particular feeling for such places, and to her mind, their style was forever associated with knowledge, authority and learning.
They walked toward the gate, their feet clacking on the silvery pavement. Mathilde entered the security code. Inside, cold and darkness welcomed them. They crossed a huge hall to an iron elevator to the left, which looked like a safe.
Its interior smelled of grease. It felt to Mathilde that she was ascending a tower of knowledge, alongside the superstructures of science. Despite her age and experience, she felt crushed by this place, which evoked a temple for her. It was sacred territory.
The elevator continued to rise. Anna lit a cigarette. Mathilde's senses were so acute, it was as though she could hear the crackling of the burning paper.
She had dressed her protegée in some of her daughter's clothes, which had been left in her apartment after a New Year's party. The two women were the same size, and now dressed in the same shade: black. Anna was wearing a slim-fitting velvet coat, with long, narrow sleeves, silk bellbottoms and highly polished shoes. These party clothes made her look like a little girl in mourning.
At last, on the fifth floor, the doors opened. They went up a corridor covered with red tiles, punctuated by doors with frosted glass windows. A soft light was coming from the far end. They approached it.
Mathilde opened the door without knocking. Professor Alain Veynerdi was expecting them, standing beside a white bench.
This small, vigorous sixty-year-old had the dark skin of a Hindu and the dryness of papyrus. Beneath his impeccable white coat, he was clearly wearing even more impeccable evening dress. His hands had been manicured: his nails looked lighter than his skin, like little mother-of-pearl lozenges at the tips of his fingers. His gray hair was carefully combed back, held in place with Brylcreem. He looked like a painted figure straight out of a Tintin comic. His bow tie gleamed like the key of some secret mechanism, waiting to be wound up.
Mathilde took care of the introductions and went through, once more, the main points of the lie she had told the biologist over the phone. Anna had had a car accident, eight months before. Her vehicle had burned, her identity papers were inside and her memory had been obliterated. The injuries to her face had required extensive surgery. And the mystery of her identity remained entire.
The story was barely believable, but Veynerdi did not live in a rational world. All that mattered to him was the scientific challenge that Anna represented.
He pointed at the stainless-steel table. "Shall we start straightaway?”
“Hang on," Anna protested. "Maybe you'd better tell me what you're going to do first."
Mathilde turned to Veynerdi. "Can you explain. Professor?"
lie looked at the young woman. "I'm afraid we'll have to give you a little anatomy lesson…"
"Don't put on your airs and graces with me."
He smiled briefly, as bitterly as a lemon. "The elements that make up the human body regenerate according to specific cycles. The red corpuscles are reproduced every hundred and twenty days. The skin sloughs completely in five days. The lining of the intestines is renewed in just forty-eight hours. However, within this constant reconstruction, the immune system contains cells that conserve traces of contact they have had with foreign bodies for long periods of time. They are called memory cells."
He had a smoker's voice, deep and husky. Which did not fit with his immaculate looks.
"When confronted with a disease, the cells produce molecules for defense or recognition, which carry the mark of the attack. When they are reproduced, they transmit this defensive information. It's a sort of biological record, if you will. The entire principle of vaccination is based on this system. It is enough to put the human body in contact with a pathogen just once for cells to produce protective molecules for years. What applies to illness also applies to any other external element, We always keep traces of our past life, of our countless contacts with the world. It is possible to study these marks and give them a date and origin."
He bowed slightly "This as yet little-known field is my specialty"
Mathilde remembered when she had first met Veynerdi. during a seminar on memory in Majorca in 1997. Most of the guests were neurologists, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts. They had discussed synapses, networks, the subconscious, and had all mentioned the complexity of memory. Then, on the fourth day, a biologist in a bow tie had spoken, and their horizons had completely changed. Behind his reading desk, Main Veynerdi was talking about physical not mental memory.
The specialist presented a study he had conducted on perfumes. The constant impregnation of alcoholized substances in the skin ends up "engraving" certain cells, thus forming an identifiable marker, even after the subject has stopped using the fragrance. He cited the example of a woman who had used Chanel No. 5 for ten years, and whose skin still bore its chemical signature four years later.
That day, the audience left the lecture hall in rapture. Suddenly, memory had become something physical that could be analyzed chemically, under the microscope… Suddenly, that abstract entity which constantly evaded the instruments of modern technology, had turned out to be material, tangible. observable. A human science had become an exact one.
Anna's face was lit up by the low lamp. Despite her weariness, her eyes were sparkling brightly. She was beginning to understand. "In my case, what sort of things can you find out?"
"Trust me," the biologist replied. "In the secret of your cells, your body has kept marks of your past. We are going to reveal traces of the physical environment in which you lived before your accident. The air you breathed. The sort of food you ate. The signature of the perfume you wore. One way or another, I am sure you are the same woman as before."
Veynerdi switched on various machines. Their glittering lights and computer screens revealed the true dimensions of the laboratory: a large room, cluttered with analytical equipment, whose walls were divided between bay windows and cork lining. The bench and stainless-steel table reflected each light source, stretching them into green, yellow, pink and red filaments.
The biologist pointed to a door on the left. "Get undressed in the changing room, please."
Anna disappeared. Vetnerdi put on some latex gloves, laid sterile sachets on the tiles of the counter, then stood behind a long line of test tubes. He looked like a musician preparing to play a glass xylophone.
When Anna returned, she was wearing just a pair of black panties. Her body was thin and scrawny. Every time she moved, her bones seemed to be about to tear through her skin.
"Lie down, please."
Anna climbed up onto the table. Whenever she made an effort, she seemed more robust. Her dry muscles swelled her flesh, giving a strange impression of strength and power. This woman was concealing a mystery, a latent energy. Mathilde thought of the shell of an egg, transparently revealing the form of a tyrannosaurus.
Veynerdi removed a needle and a syringe from their sterile packs. "We'll start with a blood test."
He stuck the needle into Anna's left arm, without causing the slightest reaction. He frowned, and asked Mathilde, "Have you given her a sedative?"
"Yes, an intramuscular dose of Tranxene. She was highly agitated this evening, so…"
The biologist grimaced. This injection was going to interfere with his tests. He removed the needle, placed a dressing in the crook of Anna's arm, then slipped behind the bench.
Mathilde followed his every move. He mixed the blood he had collected with a hypotonic solution, in order to destroy the red corpuscles and leave only the white ones. He placed the sample in the black cylinder of a centrifuge, which looked like a little oven. Turning at a thousand rotations per second, the machine separated the white corpuscles from the final residue. A few moments later, Veynerdi extracted a translucent deposit from it.
"Your immune cells," he commented for Anna's benefit. "These are the ones that contain the information we're interested in. We'll now take a closer look…"
He diluted the concentrate with some saline solution, then poured it into a flow cytometer -a gray block in which each corpuscle was isolated and subjected to a laser beam. Mathilde knew the procedure: the machine was going to locate the defensive molecules and identify them, thanks to a catalogue of markers that Veynerdi had compiled.
"Nothing very important." he said after a few minutes. "All I've found is contact with quite ordinary illnesses and pathogenic agents. Bacteria, viruses… though fewer than average. You led an extremely healthy existence. madam. Nor have I found traces of any exogenic agents. No perfume. No particular impregnations. A real blank slate."
Anna sat motionless on the table, her arms crossed over her knees. Her diaphanous skin reflected the colors of the security lights: like a piece of glass. it was so white it was nearly blue.
Veynerdi approached. holding a far longer needle. "We're now going to perform a biopsy"
"Don't worry" he murmured. "It's painless. I'm simply going to remove a little lymph from a ganglion in the armpit. Lift your arm, please."
Anna raised her elbow above the table.
He introduced the needle while mumbling in his smoker's voice, "These ganglions are in contact with the pulmonary region. If you have breathed in any particular particles, a gas, pollen, or anything significant, these white globules will remember."
Still drowsy from the tranquilizer, Anna did not jump in the slightest. The biologist went back behind his counter and proceeded to carry out some more procedures.
Several minutes passed, then he said, "I've found nicotine and tar. You used to smoke in your past life."
Mathilde butted in. "She still does."
The biologist nodded in reply but added, "As for the rest, there is no significant trace of any particular atmosphere or surroundings." He picked up a small flask and went over to Anna once more. "Your globules have not retained the sort of memories I was hoping for, madam. So we shall now try a different sort of analysis. Some parts of the body do not conserve the print of external agents, but their actual traces. We are now going to explore these microstocks."
He brandished a jar. "I'm going to ask you to urinate in this flask." Anna got slowly up and returned to the changing room. A real zombie.
Mathilde observed, "I don't see what you'll find in her urine. We're looking for traces going back over a year and-"
The expert cut her short with a smile. "Urine is produced by the kidneys, which act as filters. And crystals build up inside them. I can detect traces of these concretions. Some date from several years ago and can tell us much about the subject's diet, for example."
Anna returned to the room, holding the bottle. She seemed increasingly absent and alienated from the work being performed on her.
Veynerdi used the centrifuge once again to separate the elements, then turned to a new machine: a mass spectrometer. He deposited the golden liquid inside, then started the process of analysis.
Greenish waves came up on the computer screen. The scientist clicked his tongue in exasperation. "Nothing. This young lady is decidedly difficult to read…"
He changed tack, concentrating even harder, taking more samples, running more tests, plunging within Anna's body.
Mathilde followed each motion and listened to his commentaries. First, he removed some dentine, living tissue inside teeth in which certain products, such as antibiotics, can build up in the blood. Then he looked at the melatonin produced by the brain. According to him. the level of this hormone, which is mostly produced at night, could reveal Anna's old routine of sleeping and waking.
Then he carefully removed a few drops of fluid from her eyes, which could contain minuscule residues of certain foods. Finally, he cut off some hair, which retained the memory of exogenic substances and then secreted them in turn. The phenomenon was well known. The body of a person poisoned with arsenic will continue to exude the substance after death, through the hair roots.
After three hours of tests, the scientist had almost admitted defeat. He had found nothing. or nearly. The portrait he could offer of the previous Anna was insignificant. A woman who smoked, otherwise leading a very healthy life: who probably suffered from insomnia, to judge from the irregular levels of melatonin; who had eaten olive oil since her childhood-he had found greasy traces of it in her eyes. The final point was that she dyed her hair black. In reality she had lighter hair, which was almost red.
Alain Veynerdi took off his gloves and washed his hands in the sink cut into the bench. Tiny beads of sweat were glistening on his forehead. He looked exhausted and disappointed. One last time. he went over to Anna. who had gone back to sleep. He walked around her, apparently still searching, seeking for a sign, a hint that would allow him to decipher that diaphanous body.
Suddenly he bent down over her hands. He took hold of her fingers and looked at them attentively. He then woke her up. As soon as she opened her eyes, he asked her with barely contained excitement: "I can see a brown stain on your fingernail. Do you know where it came from?"
Anna stared at her surroundings in confusion. Then she looked at her hand and raised her eyebrows. "I don't know," she mumbled. "It's a nicotine stain, isn't it?"
Mathilde joined them. She, too, could now see a tiny ochre mark on the tip of the nail.
"How often do you cut your nails?" the biologist asked.
"I don't know… about every three weeks."
"Do you have the impression that they grow quickly?"
Anna yawned in answer.
Veynerdi went back to his bench, murmuring. "How could I have missed that?" He picked up a tiny pair of scissors and a transparent box, then returned to cut off the piece of Anna's fingernail that seemed to interest him so.
"If they grow normally" he said softly, "these extremities date back to the period before your accident. This stain is part of your past life."
He switched the machines back on. While their motors purred again, he diluted the sample in a tube containing a solvent. "That was a close call," he said, and smiled. "In another few days, you would have cut your nails and we would have lost this precious remnant."
He placed the sterile tube in the centrifuge and turned it on.
“If it's nicotine," Mathilde commented, "I don't see what you can…"
Veynerdi placed the liquid in a spectrometer. "I may be able to work out which brand of cigarettes she smoked before her accident."
Mathilde did not understand why he was so enthusiastic. Such information would not reveal anything important. On the screen of the machine. Veynerdi observed the luminous diagrams. Minutes passed by. "Professor." Mathilde was losing patience. "I don't understand. This is nothing to get worked up about. I "
The light of the monitor was illuminating a fixed look of wonder on the scientist's face.
"It isn't nicotine."
Mathilde went over to the spectrometer. Anna sat up on the metal table.
Veynerdi turned on his seat toward the two women. "It's henna." A wave of silence smothered them.
The researcher tore off the square-ruled paper that the machine had just printed out, then he typed the data on his computer keyboard. It at once flashed up a list of chemical components.
"According to my catalogue of substances, this stain comes from a specific vegetal composition. A very rare sort of henna, cultivated on the plains of Anatolia." Alain Veynerdi stared triumphantly at Anna. He seemed to have waited all his life for this moment.
"Madam, in your previous existence, you were Turkish."
One hell of a night.
Paul Nerteaux had dreamed of a stone monster, a malignant titan prowling through the tenth arrondissement. A Moloch who dominated the Turkish quarter, demanding human sacrifices.
In his dream, the monster wore a half-human. half-bestial mask, of Greek and Persian style. Its mineral lips were white-hot, its penis stuck with blades. Every one of its steps made the earth quake, dust rise and buildings crack.
He had finally woken up at 3:00, covered in sweat. Shivering in his little three-room apartment, he had made some coffee, then examined the fresh batch of archaeological documents that the boys from the Brigade Criminelle had left in front of his door the previous evening.
Until dawn, he browsed through the museum catalogues, tourist brochures and scientific studies, observing and scrutinizing each sculpture, comparing it with the autopsy photos-and unconsciously with the mask in his dreams. Sarcophagi from Antalya. Frescoes from Cilicia. Bas-reliefs from Karatepe. Busts from Ephesus…
He had crossed over ages and civilizations without obtaining the slightest clue.
Paul Nerteaux then went to the Trois Obus café by Porte de Saint-Cloud. He confronted the smell of coffee and tobacco, forcing himself to ignore his senses and pushing down his nausea. His lousy mood was not just because of his nightmares. It was Wednesday and, like every Wednesday, he had had to call Reyna at daybreak to tell her that he could not look after Céline.
He spotted Jean-Louis Schiffer standing at the end of the bar. Closely shaven, wrapped up in a Burberry raincoat, he was looking decidedly better as he dunked his croissant in his coffee.
When he saw Paul, he grinned broadly. "Slept well?"
Schiffer stared at his rumpled appearance but made no comment on it. "Coffee?"
Paul nodded. A black concentrate rimmed with brown foam immediately appeared on the bar.
The Cipher picked up the cup and nodded toward a free table beside the window "Let's sit down. You're not looking too good."
At the table, he handed Paul the basket of croissants.
Paul refused. The very idea of swallowing something brought acid up to his nostrils. But he had to admit that Schiffer was playing at being buddies that morning. He asked, "And you, did you sleep well?"
"Like a log."
Paul pictured once more the sliced fingers and bloody guillotine. After the carnage, he had accompanied the Cipher to Porte de Saint-Cloud, where he had an apartment on Rue Gudin. Ever since then, a question had been bugging him.
"If you've got this apartment," he said, and pointed through the window at the gray square, "what the hell were you doing at Longères?"
"The herding instinct. The desire to be around cops. I was bored to death all on my own."
The explanation rang false. Paul remembered that Schiffer was registered at the home under a pseudonym, his mother's maiden name. Someone in the Special Branch had tipped him off. Another mystery. Was he hiding? If so, who from?
"Show me the files," the Cipher said.
Paul opened the folder and placed the documents on the table. They were not the originals. He had dropped into his office early that morning to make photocopies. Clutching a Turkish dictionary, he had studied each file and had managed to work out each victim's name and personal details.
The first one was called Zeynep Tütengil. She used to be employed in a workshop beside La Porte Bleue Turkish Baths, which belonged to a certain Talat Gurdilek. She was twenty-seven, childless and married to Burba Tütengil. They lived at 34 Rue de la Fidelité. She came from some village with an unpronounceable name near the town of Gaziantep, in southeast Turkey, and had been living in Paris since September 2001.
The second's name was Ruya Berkes, and she was twenty-six and single. She worked from home, at 8 Rue d'Enghien, for a certain Gozar Halman a name Paul had already seen on several police reports-a sweatshop owner who specialized in leather and furs. Ruya came from Adana, a city in south Turkey. She had been in Paris for just eight months.
The third was Rouyike Tanyol. She was thirty, single and a seamstress for a company called Sürelik, based in Passage de l'Industrie. She had been living incognito in a woman's home at 22 Rue des Petites-Ecuries. Like the first victim, she was born in the province of Gaziantep.
This information provided no common points. There was not the slightest indication, for example, of how the murderer spotted them or approached them. But above all, it did not give these women the slightest presence or sensation of reality. Their Turkish names even increased their inscrutability. To convince himself that they were flesh and blood. Paul had had to turn back to the Polaroid shots. The women's broad, rather smooth features suggested generously rounded bodies. He had read somewhere that the ideal of Turkish beauty corresponded to just such a physique, with moonlike faces…
Schiffer was still studying the data, his glasses on the tip of his nose. Still feeling nauseated, Paul hesitated before drinking his coffee. The din of voices and the chinking of glass and metal were getting on his nerves. Above all, the drunken conversations at the bar needled him. He just could not stand such wastrels, killing themselves with one arm on the counter and the other constantly raised… How many times had he gone to fetch one or both of his parents from a zinc bar? How many times had he picked them up from the sawdust and cigarette butts while he was struggling against the desire to puke over them?
The Cipher removed his glasses and concluded: "We'll start with the third workshop. The most recent victim. While memories are still fresh. Then we'll work back to the first one. After that, we'll go to their homes, their neighbors, and retrace their journeys to work. He must have jumped them somewhere, and no one's invisible."
Paul downed his coffee in one gulp. Over his burning bile, he said, "Don't forget, Schiffer, the slightest fuckup and…"
"You arrest me. I haven't forgotten. Anyway, this morning we're changing tactics." He waggled his fingers as though manipulating a puppet. "We're now playing it softly, softly"
They left the café and headed out to the Golf.
With the police light flashing, they took the bypass. The grayness of the Seine, added to the granite of the sky and the riverbanks, made for a smoothly monotonous world. Paul liked this crushingly dull and depressing weather. It made for another hurdle for this energetically willful officer to cross.
On the way, he listened to the messages on his cell phone. Bomarzo the magistrate wanted an update. His voice was tense. Paul now had just two days before he was going to put more officers from the Brigade Criminelle onto the case. Naubrel and Matkowska were pursuing their investigations. They had spent the previous day with the "moles," workmen who dig into the depths of Paris and decompress every evening in specially built chambers. They had questioned the managers of eight different companies and drawn a blank. They had also paid a call on the main manufacturer of these chambers, in Arcueil. According to the boss, the idea that a decompression chamber had been used by someone who was not a qualified engineer was absolutely ridiculous. Did this mean that the killer had such knowledge. or was it a false lead? The officers were now continuing their investigations in other sectors of industry.
When they reached Place du Chatelet, Paul spotted a patrol car turning up Boulevard de Strasbourg. He caught up with it by Rue des Lombards, and motioned to the driver to stop.
"Just a second," he told Schiffer.
From the glove compartment, he took the Kinder Surprises and chewy sweets he had bought an hour before. In his hurry, the bag tore and its contents fell onto the floor. Blushing with embarrassment, Paul picked them up and got out of the car.
The uniformed officers had stopped and were waiting beside their car, thumbs hooked over their belts. Paul rapidly explained what he wanted them to do, then spun around.
When he sat back down behind the wheel, the Cipher waved a sweet in the air. "Wednesday-no school for the kids."
Paul pulled off without responding.
"I used to use patrol cars as messengers, too. To take my girlfriends presents-"
"Your employees, you mean."
"That's right, kid, that's right…" Schiffer unwrapped the bar of caramel and folded it into his mouth. "How many kids have you got?”
"How old is she?"
"What's her name?"
"A bit fancy for a cop's kid."
Paul thought so, too. He had never understood why Reyna, the Marxist idealist, had given their child such a precious name.
Schiffer was chewing away. And the mother?
Paul drove through a red light and past Rue Réaumur. The fiasco of his marriage was the last thing he wanted to discuss with Schiffer. With relief, he spotted the red-and-yellow McDonald's sign that stood at the beginning of Boulevard de Strasbourg.
He sped up, not giving his partner the chance to ask any more questions.
Their hunting ground was in sight.
At 10:00, Boulevard de Strasbourg looked like a battlefield in full fury. The sidewalks and roads themselves dissolved into a single frenetic mass of passersby, slipping in between a maze of trapped, hooting vehicles.
Above them, the sky was colorless, as taut as a tarpaulin full of water, about to split at any moment.
Paul decided to park at the corner of Rue des Petites-Ecuries and follow Schiffer, who was already making his way through the cardboard boxes being carried on men's backs, their arms hung with clothing and the loads wobbling on the trolleys. They turned down Passage de Industrie and found themselves beneath an arch of stone, leading to an alleyway.
Sürelik's workshop was in a brick building, propped up by a framework of riveted metal. The façade was gabled. with a Gothic arch, glazed tympanums and sculpted terra-cotta friezes. The bright red edifice oozed a sort of enthusiasm, a cheerful faith in the future of industry, as though someone inside had just invented sliced bread.
A few yards from the door, Paul grabbed Schiffer by the lapels of his coat and pushed him under the porch. He then searched him thoroughly to check that he was not armed.
The old cop tutted reprovingly. "You're wasting your time, kid. Softly, softly, like I said."
Paul turned around without a word and headed toward the workshop.
Together, they pushed open the metal door and entered a large square space with white walls and a painted cement floor. Everything was spick-and-span. The light green metal structures, bulging with rivets, reinforced the overall sensation of solidity. Large windows let in oblique rays of light, while galleries ran along each wall, like the bridges of an oceangoing liner.
Paul had been expecting a pit; what he found was an artist's studio. About forty workers, all of them men, were neatly spaced out and laboring behind their sewing machines, surrounded by cloth and open boxes. In their overalls, they looked like special agents stitching up coded messages during the war. A cassette recorder was playing some Turkish music. A coffeepot was sizzling on a gas hot plate. A craftsman's paradise.
Schiffer stamped on the floor with his heel. "What you were imagining is downstairs. In the cellars. Hundreds of female workers crammed together like sardines. Illegal immigrants, the lot of them. We're inside now, but this is only the respectable front."
He pulled Paul toward the machines, walking between the workers, who forced themselves not to look up. "Lovely, aren't they? Model workers, my boy. Industrious, obedient, disciplined."
"Why be so sarcastic?"
"The Turks aren't hardworking at all. They're spongers. They aren't obedient. They're indifferent. They aren't disciplined. They follow their own rules. They're a load of fucking vampires. Pillagers who can't even be bothered to learn our language… What's the point? They're just here to earn as much as they can, then piss off back home. Their motto is `Take it all, leave nothing.' " Schiffer grabbed Paul by the arm. "They're a plague, my boy"
Paul pushed him away violently.
"Never call me that again."
He looked up as if Paul had just threatened him with a gun. He stared at him quizzically. Paul wanted to tear that expression off his face, but then a voice sounded behind them.
"What can I do for you, gentlemen?" A squat man, dressed in spotless blue overalls, was coming toward them, an oily smile glued under his mustache. "Ah, Inspector!" he said in astonishment. "It's been so long since I've had the pleasure of seeing you!"
Schiffer burst out laughing. The music had stopped. The activity of the machines had ceased. A deathly silence reigned.
"Aren't we on first-name terms anymore?"
Instead of replying, the workshop's boss looked over distrustfully at Paul.
"This is Paul Nerteaux," the cop continued. "He's a police captain.
And my immediate boss. But he's above all a pal." He slapped Paul on the back and grinned. "You can trust him like you can trust me."
Then he went over to the Turk and put his arm around the man's shoulders. The ballet was choreographed down to the slightest movement. "Let me introduce you to Ahmid Zoltanoi," he said to Paul. "The best workshop manager in all of Little Turkey. As starchy as his overalls, but with a heart of gold, deep down. People round here call him Tanoi."
The Turk bowed slightly. Beneath his coal black eyebrows, he seemed to be sizing up this newcomer. Friend or foe? He turned back to Schiffer, his voice oily: "I heard you had retired."
"Force of circumstances. When there's an emergency, who do they call up? Uncle Schiffer, that's who."
"What emergency are you talking about, Inspector?"
The Cipher swept the pieces of cloth off a table and placed the picture of Rouyike Tanyol on it.
The man bent down, hands in his pockets, thumbs out like gun triggers. He seemed to be balancing on the starchy folds of his overalls. "Never seen her before."
Schiffer turned over the snapshot. On the white edge, written in indelible marker, could distinctly be seen the victim's name and the address of the Sürelik workshop.
"Marius has coughed up. And the rest of you will follow. Believe me." The Turk's face fell. He gingerly picked up the photo, put on his glasses and stared at it. "Yes, her face does ring a bell."
"And the chimes must be pretty loud. She'd been here since 2001, hadn't she?"
Tanoi put down the photo. "Yes."
"What was her job?"
"She worked downstairs, I suppose?"
The manager raised his eyebrows while putting away his glasses. The workers had now started sewing again. They seemed to realize that the policemen were not after them it was their boss who had problems.
"Downstairs?" he asked.
"In the cellar." Schiffer was getting annoyed. "Now wake up, Tanoi, or I'll lose my temper."
The Turk swayed slightly on his heels. Despite his age, he looked like a contrite schoolboy "Yes, she worked in the lower workshop."
"Where was she from, Gaziantep?"
"Not exactly-a nearby village. She spoke a southern dialect.”
“Who's got her passport?"
"She had no passport."
Schiffer sighed, as though saddened by this fresh lie. "Tell me about her disappearance."
"There's nothing to tell. She left the workshop on Thursday morning. She never made it home."
"Yes, at six. She was on the night shift."
The two officers glanced at each other. So she had indeed been on her way home when she was jumped, but this had been at dawn. They had been right, except for the time of day.
"You say she never made it home," the Cipher continued. "Who told you that?"
"They went home together?"
"No, he's on the day shift."
"Where can I find him?"
"Nowhere. He went back home." Tanoi's answers were as stiff as the stitches in his overalls.
"He didn't try to recover the body?"
"He had no papers. He couldn't speak French. So he fled in grief A Turkish destiny. An exile's destiny."
"Spare me the violins. Where are her colleagues?"
"The ones who go home at the same time. I want to question them.”
“That's impossible. Gone, all of them, vanished."
"Of the killer?"
"No, of you. Of the police. No one wants to get caught up in this affair."
The Cipher stood squarely in front of the Turk, hands behind his back. "I think you know far more than you're letting on, fat man. So let's take a stroll down into the cellars. It might refresh your memory"
The Turk did not budge. The sewing machines continued to rattle. Music was twisting beneath the steel girders. He hesitated another second, then headed toward an iron door under one of the galleries.
The officers followed him. At the bottom of the stairs, they dived down a dark corridor, went through a metal door, then took a second corridor with a clay floor. They had to bend their heads to walk. Bare light bulbs, hanging from the pipes on the ceiling, lit the way. Two rows of doors made of planks of wood, numbered with chalk figures, faced each other. A humming rose up from the depths.
When they reached a turning point, their guide stopped and picked up a metal bar concealed behind the springs of an old wire mattress. Advancing cautiously he started knocking on the pipes across the ceiling, setting off a series of deep echoes.
Suddenly, invisible enemies appeared. Rats gathered together on a cast-iron arch above their heads. Paul remembered the forensic scientist's words: With the second one, it was different. I think he used something… that was alive.
The manager swore in Turkish and banged as hard as he could in their direction. The rodents vanished. The entire corridor was now vibrating. Every door was trembling on its hinges. Finally, Tanoi stopped in front of number 34.
He forced the door open with his shoulder. A thundering noise exploded outward. Light spread into the tiny workshop. About thirty women were sitting behind sewing machines, which were going at full speed, as though propelled by their own momentum. Bent double beneath the strip lights, the seamstresses were pushing pieces of cloth beneath the needles, without paying the slightest attention to the visitors.
The room measured no more than twenty square yards and had no means of ventilation. The air was so heavy-with smells of dyes, particles of cloth, the stench of solvents-that it was barely breathable. Some of the women wore scarves over their mouths. Others had babies on their laps, wrapped in shawls. Children were also working, grouped together on the piles of fabric, folding them and packing them in boxes. Paul was suffocating. He felt like a character in a film who wakes up in the middle of the night only to find out that his nightmare is real.
Schiffer adopted his most sincere delivery: "This is the real face of Sürelik Limited! Twelve or fifteen hours' work, several thousand garments produced per day, per worker. The Turkish version of our three eight-hour shifts reduced to just two, or even one. And the same applies in all the other cellars, my boy"
He seemed almost delighted by the cruelty of the scene. "But don't forget, all this has the state's blessing. Everyone closes their eyes. The clothing industry is based on slavery."
The Turk was trying to look ashamed, but a flame of pride was burning in his pupils. Paul looked around at the women. A few eyes rose in response, but their hands continued their flurry, as though nothing and nobody could stop them.
He then pictured among them the matted faces, long wounds and bloody crevices of the victims. How did the killer get to these underground women? How had he noticed that they looked alike?
The Cipher launched into another round of questions, his voice raised above the din. "When there's a change of shift, that's when the delivery boys take away the finished products, isn't it?"
"If you include all the workers coming out of the shops, that means there's quite a crowd on the streets at six in the morning. And no one saw anything?"
"I swear to you."
The cop leaned against the wall of cinder blocks.
"Don't swear. Your God is less merciful than mine. Have you spoken to the bosses of the other victims?"
"You're lying, but never mind. What do you know about this series of murders?"
"They say that the women are tortured, their faces destroyed. That's all I know."
"And the police have never come to see you?"
"So what's your private police force doing?"
Paul trembled… It was the first time he had heard of such a thing. So the neighborhood had its own force of order.
Tanoi yelled over the machines: "I don't know. They found nothing." Schiffer pointed at the women. "And what do they think?"
"They don't dare go out. They're scared. Allah cannot allow this. The neighborhood is accursed! Azrael, the angel of death, is upon us!"
The Cipher smiled, gave the man a friendly tap on the back and pointed at the door. "Steady, now… you're finally starting to sound human…"
They went out into the corridor. Paul followed them, closing the planks over the machine hell. He had only just done so when he heard a stifled groan. Schiffer had just rammed Tanoi up against the piping.
"Who's killing the girls?"
"I… I dunno."
"Who are you covering for, you fucker?"
Paul did not intervene. He sensed that Schiffer would not go any further. Just a final burst of rage, to save his honor.
Tanoi did not answer; his eyes were popping out of their orbits.
The Cipher released his grip, letting him get his breath back beneath the bare bulb, which was swinging like a hypnotist's pendulum. Then he murmured: "You keep all this under your hat, Tanoi. Not a word about our little visit to anyone."
The sweatshop manager looked up at Schiffer. He had already recovered his servile expression. "My hat has always been in place. Inspector."
The second victim, Ruya Berkes, had worked not in a sweatshop but from her home at 58 Rue d'Enghien. She used to hand-stitch the linings of coats, which she then delivered to the Gozar Halman fur warehouse, at 77 Rue Sainte-Cécile, a road perpendicular to Rue du Faubourg-Poissonnière. They could have started with the woman's apartment, but Schiffer decided to go straight to see her employer, whom he had apparently known for some time.
As he drove in silence, Paul savored his return to fresh air. But he was also dreading fresh revelations. He saw the shop windows begin to darken, weighed down with brown materials and languid folds, as the car moved away from Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis and Rue du Faubourg Saint-Martin. In each store, the fabrics and cloths were being replaced by skins and furs.
He turned right, onto Rue Sainte-Cécile.
Schiffer pulled at his arm. They had arrived at number 77.
This time, Paul was expecting a sewer full of flayed skin, cages clotted with blood, the stench of dead meat. What he found was a little courtyard, full of light and flowers, whose paving stones looked as if they had been polished by the morning mist. The two officers crossed to the far side, to a building dotted with barred windows, which was the only edifice resembling an industrial warehouse.
"I'm warning you," Schiffer said as he went through the door. "Gozar Halman is a Tansu fanatic."
"Who's that A soccer player?"
The policeman sniggered. They went up a staircase of gray wood.
"Tansu tiller is the former prime minister of Turkey. A degree at Harvard, international diplomacy, minister of foreign affairs, and then head of the government. A model career."
Paul's response was blasé. "A typical career for a politician.”
“Except that Tansu tiller is a woman."
They reached the second floor. Each landing was as vast and dark as a chapel. Paul remarked, "There can't be that many Turkish men who take a woman as their role model."
The Cipher burst out laughing. "Really, if you didn't exist, then someone would have to invent you. Gozar is a woman! She's a teyze, a fairy godmother in every sense of the term. She watches over her brothers, her nephews, her cousins and her workers. She takes care of getting them work permits. She sends people to renovate their hovels. She sends their parcels and money orders for them. And then she gives out bribes to the cops so that they will leave them alone. She's a slave driver, but a benevolent one."
Third floor. Halman's warehouse was a large room with a parquet floor that had been painted gray, scattered with pieces of Styrofoam and crumpled papers. In the middle, planks laid on trestles acted as counters. On them lay piles of cardboard boxes; acrylic shopping bags; pink plastic bags from the local discount store: protective bags for suits, from which some men were removing coats, jackets and collars, examining and then smoothing them out, checking their linings, and finally putting them on hangers suspended from gantries. In front of them, women dressed in head scarves and long skirts, with dark rugged faces, seemed to be wearily awaiting their verdict.
A glazed mezzanine, veiled by a white curtain, overlooked the area an ideal position to supervise the workplace. Without hesitating, or saying a word to anyone, Schiffer seized the banister and started climbing the steep stairs that led to the platform.
At the top, they had to confront a barrier of plants before entering an attic room, which was almost as large as the space beneath it. Windows edged with curtains looked out over a landscape of slate and zinc-the rooftops of Paris.
Despite its dimensions, the workshop's décor made it look more like a boudoir from the 1900s. Paul went inside, drinking in every detail. Doilies protected the modern equipment-computer, stereo, television and sat under the framed photos, glass knickknacks and huge dolls. Everything was drowning in acres of lace. The walls were decorated with tourist posters, singing the praises of Istanbul. Small, brightly colored rugs were hung up like tapestries. Paper flags of Turkey, dotted around all over the place, echoed the postcards that were pinned up in groups on the wooden pillars that supported the roof.
A solid oak desk, covered with a leather blotter, took up the right of the room, leaving the center to a green velvet divan standing on a huge rug. Nobody was there.
Schiffer headed toward an opening hidden behind a bead curtain and cooed, "My princess, it's me, Schiffer. There's no need to doll yourself up."
The only reply was silence. Paul advanced and took a closer look at the photos. In each of them, a short-haired, quite attractive redhead was smiling in the company of a famous president: Bill Clinton, Boris Yeltsin, François Mitterrand. This was presumably Tansu cater.
A rustling sound made him turn his head. The bead curtain opened to reveal the double of the woman in the photos, in person, but even larger than life.
Gozar Halman had accentuated her resemblance to the politician, no doubt to give herself additional authority. Her black tunic and trousers, enlightened by just a few pieces of jewelry, were rather sober. The way she moved and walked was in the same register, expressing the haughty distance of a businesswoman. Her look seemed to draw an invisible line around her. The message was clear: any attempt at seduction was doomed from the start.
But at the same time, her face told a different story. It was as broad and white as a Pierrot Lunaire, framed by red hair, with violently sparkling eyes. Gozar's eyelids were painted orange and dotted with spangles.
"Schiffer," she said in a hoarse voice. "I know why you're here.-"At last, someone with their wits about them!"
Looking distracted, she tidied away some papers on her desk. "I knew that they'd resurrect you sooner or later." She did not really have an accent -more of a light lilt that ran through each sentence, which she seemed to cultivate for its charm.
Schiffer introduced them, temporarily abandoning his sneering tone. Paul sensed that he was going to play it straight with this woman. "What do you know about it all?" he asked at once.
"Nothing. Less than nothing." She leaned over her desk for a few more seconds, then went to sit on the settee, slowly crossing her legs. "The neighborhood's scared," she whispered. "All sorts of rumors are flying round."
"Stories that contradict one another. I even heard that the killer was one of your men."
"Yes, a policeman."
Schiffer waved the idea away with the back of his hand. "Tell me about Ruya Berkes."
Gozar was caressing the lace cloth covering the armrest of the settee. "She brought her articles every two days. She came here on January 6, 2002, but not on the eighth. That's all I can tell you."
Schiffer took out his notepad and pretended to read it. Paul sensed that he was just trying to keep his countenance. This woman was clearly a match for him.
"Ruya was the killer's second victim," he went on, eyes still on his notes. "The body was found on January 10."
"God save her soul." Her fingers were fidgeting with the lace. "But it's none of my business."
"It's everyone's business now. And I need information."
The tension was mounting, but Paul detected a strange familiarity in their exchange. A complicity between fire and ice that had nothing to do with this investigation.
"I have nothing to say" she repeated. "The neighborhood will close in around this affair. As it always does."
Her words, voice and tone made Paul observe her more closely. She was fixing her dark eyes, topped with red gilt, on the Cipher. They made him think of strips of chocolate filled with orange rind. But, more importantly, he suddenly understood the truth of the situation: Gozar Halman was the Turkish woman whom Schiffer had almost married. What had happened? Why had it fallen through?
The fur seller lit a cigarette. A long languid drag of blue smoke. "What do you want to know?"
"When did she deliver her coats?"
At the end of the day"
"Yes, always alone."
"Do you know which way she came?"
"Via Rue du Faubourg-Poissonnière. At that time, the streets are crowded, if that's your next question."
Schiffer turned to generalities. "When did Ruya Berkes arrive in Paris?"
“May 2001. Haven't you seen Marius?"
He ignored the question. "What sort of woman was she?"
"A peasant. But she had also lived in the city"
"First Gaziantep, then Adana."
Schiffer leaned over. He seemed interested by this detail. "She came from Gaziantep?"
"Yes, I think so."
He was pacing round the room, his fingers idling over the knickknacks. "Was she literate?"
"No, but she was modern. Not a slave of tradition."
"Did she go out in Paris? Go for walks? Go out to nightclubs?"
"I said modern, not loose. She was a Muslim. You know as well as I do what that means. Anyway she didn't speak a word of French.”
“How did she dress?"
“As a Westerner," she said, her voice rising. "Schiffer, what are you after?"
"I'm trying to work out how the killer jumped her. It isn't easy to approach a girl who never goes out, never speaks to anyone and has no leisure activities."
His questions were leading nowhere. They were the same as an hour before, and were eliciting the same inevitable answers. Paul stood in front of the bay window, looking over the courtyard, and drew aside the curtain. The Turks were still working away; money was changing hands, above furs that were curled up like sleeping animals.
Behind him, Schiffer's voice pressed on: "What was Ruya's state of mind?"
"Like all the others: 'My body is here; my heart is back there.' All she wanted to do was to go home, get married and have children. She was here in transit. The daily round of a worker ant, stuck in front of her sewing machine, sharing a two-room apartment with two other women."
"I want to question her roommates…"
Paul stopped listening and observed the comings and goings downstairs. These exchanges were like bartering, an ancestral ritual. The Cipher's voice broke into his mind once more.
"And what do you think about the murderer?"
There was a long enough silence to make Paul turn back toward the room.
Gozar had stood up and was now staring out of the window at the rooftops. Without moving, she murmured, "I think it is more… political." Schiffer went over to her. "What do you mean?"
She spun around. "This affair could go above and beyond the interests of a single killer."
"Gozar, explain yourself!"
"I have nothing to explain. The whole neighborhood's scared, and I'm no exception. No one will help you."
Paul shivered. The Moloch in his nightmare, with the quarter in his clutches, seemed more real than ever. A god of stone looking for its prey in the cellars and hovels of Little Turkey.
The teyze concluded, "This conversation's over, Schiffer."
The cop pocketed his notepad and, without trying to insist, walked away. Paul took a last look at the negotiations downstairs.
It was then that he spotted him.
A deliveryman-black mustache and blue Adidas jacket-had just arrived in the warehouse, his arms laden with a box. He automatically looked up at the mezzanine. When he saw Paul. his face froze.
He put down his load, said something to one of the laborers by the coat hangers, then withdrew toward the door. His final glance up at the platform confirmed what Paul had sensed. He was frightened.
The two officers went down to the lower floor. Schiffer spat: "That stubborn bitch really pisses me off with her subtle hints. Fucking Turks. Warped, every one of them…"
Paul sped up and leapt out of the door. He peered down the stairwell. A brown hand was skidding along the banister. The man was running away. He muttered to Schiffer as he arrived on the landing, "Come on. Quick."
Paul ran as far as the car. He got in and turned the ignition key in one movement.
Schiffer just had time to get in beside him. "'What's going on?" he grumbled.
Without answering, Paul pulled off. The figure had just swerved right at the end of Rue Sainte-Cécile. Paul accelerated and turned into Rue du Faubourg-Poissonière, once again coming up against the crowds and chaos.
The man was walking quickly, slipping between the deliverymen, the passersby, the smoke of the pancake and pita sellers, glancing around nervously over his shoulder. He was heading toward Boulevard Bonne-Nouvelle.
Schiffer said moodily, "Are you going to explain yourself, or what?" Paul shifted into third gear and murmured, "There was a man at Gozar's place. When he spotted us, he ran away"
"He smelled us out. He's afraid of being questioned. Maybe he knows something about our business."
Their customer now turned left, into Rue d'Enghien. Luckily for them, he was walking in the direction of the traffic.
"Or he doesn't have a work permit," Schiffer muttered.
At Gozar's? Who does? No, this guy's got a special reason to be afraid. I can just sense it."
The Cipher stuck his knees up against the dashboard. He asked gloomily, "Where is he?"
"Left pavement. The Adidas jacket."
The Turk was still heading up the street. Paul tried to follow him as discreetly as possible. A red light. The silvery blue form grew more distant. Paul felt that Schiffer's stare was following him, too. The silence in the car was marked by a particular depth: they had understood each other; they now shared the same calm, the same attention, concentrating on their target.
Paul pulled off, gently pressing on the pedals, feeling an intense heat rising up his legs. He accelerated, just in time to see the Turk swerve right, into Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, still in the direction of the traffic.
Paul followed, but the street was jammed, blocked, suffocating in a mass that was casting up into the gray air its din of cries and hooting horns.
He bent his neck and squinted. Above the cars and the heads were rows of shop signs-wholesale, retail, retail-wholesale… The Adidas jacket had disappeared. Paul looked farther. The façades of the buildings were fading away in the mist of pollution. At the far end, the arch of Porte Saint-Denis was glimmering in the smoky light.
"I can't see him anymore."
Schiffer opened his window. The din burst into the car. He pushed his head outside. "Farther up," he said. "To the right."
The traffic started moving. The blue patch stood out against a group of pedestrians. Another stop. Paul said to himself that the jam was playing into their hands, by letting them drive at walking pace and so keep tabs on him…
The Turk vanished again, then reappeared between two delivery trucks, just in front of Le Sully café. He kept glancing around. Had he spotted them?
"He's shitting himself" Paul commented. "He knows something.”
“That doesn't mean a thing. There's not an icicle's chance in hell-”
“Trust me. Just this once." Paul shifted to first gear again. His neck was burning and the collar of his parka was damp with sweat. He accelerated and caught up with the Turk at the end of Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis.
Suddenly, at the foot of the arch, the man crossed the road, practically in front of them, but without noticing them. He started heading down Boulevard Saint-Denis.
"Shit," Paul said. "It's one-way."
Schiffer sat up. "Park. We'll continue on-fuck it, he's taking the metro!"
The figure had trotted across the boulevard, then disappeared down the steps of Strasbourg-Saint-Denis station. Paul swerved the car violently and pulled it to a halt just in front of a bar called L'Arcade, on the off-road alongside the arch.
Schiffer was already out.
Paul lowered the sun visor marked POLICE and leapt out of the Golf. The Cipher's raincoat was flapping between the cars like a banner. Paul felt a surge of fever. In a second, he drank it all in, the excitement in the air, Schiffer's rapidity the determination that united them for once.
He, too, zigzagged between the traffic on the boulevard and caught up with his partner just as he was heading downstairs.
The two officers rushed into the station entrance. A crowd was hurrying along beneath the orange vault. Paul stared around: to the left, the glass fronts of the ticket offices; to the right, the blue metro map; in front, the automatic doors.
Schiffer dived into the mass, performing an extraordinary slalom in the direction of the doors. Paul stood up on tiptoe and caught sight of the man, who was turning right.
"Line four!" he yelled to his partner, who was now invisible among the passengers.
Already, at the end of the ceramic corridor, the swishing sound of opening metro doors could be heard. A wave of panic ran through the crowd. What was happening? Who was shouting? Who was shoving? Suddenly, a roar broke through the din.
"Open the fucking gates!" It was Schiffer's voice.
Paul dashed toward the ticket office, just to his left. He leaned over to the window and yelled, "Open the gates!"
The metro employee froze. "What?"
Far off, the siren marked the departure of the train.
Paul shoved his card up against the glass. "Fucking hurry up and open the fucking gates!"
The doors opened.
Paul elbowed his way though, stumbled, then managed to force himself past. Schiffer was running beneath the red vault, which now seemed to be palpitating like a living organ.
He caught up with him by the stairs. He took them four at a time. They had not even covered half the distance when the train doors clicked shut.
Schiffer bellowed as he ran. He was about to reach the platform when Paul grabbed his collar, forcing him to stay back. The Cipher was speechless. The lights of the train passed before his staring eyes. He looked like a madman.
"He mustn't see us!" Paul shouted into his face.
Schiffer kept staring at him, stunned, unable to get his breath back. Paul then added, more softly as the whistling of the metro faded away, "We've got forty seconds to get to the next station. We'll bag him at Chateau d'Eau."
They glanced at each other in mutual understanding, then ran back up the stairs, dodged through the traffic and leapt into the car.
Twenty seconds had already gone by.
Paul drove around the arch and swerved right, while lowering his window. He stuck the magnetic light on the roof and shot off down Boulevard de Strasbourg with the siren blaring.
They covered the five hundred yards in seven seconds. When they reached the junction with Rue du Chateau d'Eau, Schiffer motioned to get out. Once again. Paul held him back.
"We'll wait for him on the surface. There are only two exits, on either side of the boulevard."
"What makes you think he'll get out here?"
"Well let twenty seconds go by. If he stays in the train, then we'll have another twenty seconds to grab him at Gare de l'Est."
"And what if he doesn't get out there?"
"He won't leave the Turkish quarter. Either he'll hide somewhere or else he'll go and warn someone. Either way, it will be here on our turf. We'll have to follow him all the way. To see where he goes."
The Cipher looked at his watch. "Let's go."
Paul peered around one last time, right, left, then shot the car off again. In his veins, he could feel the vibrations of the metro as it passed beneath the car's wheels. Seventeen seconds later, he stopped in front of the grating of the courtyard of Gare de l'Est, stopped the siren and the flashing light.
Once more, Schiffer went to leap out, but Paul said, "We're staying here. We can see just about all the exits. The main one's on the courtyard. There's another to the right on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Martin. Then to the left on Rue du 8 Mai 1945. That gives us three chances out of five."
"Where are the other two?"
"On either side of the train station. On Rue du Faubourg Saint-Martin and Rue & Alsace."
"What if he takes one of them?"
"They're farther away from the platform. It'll take him over a minute to get there. We'll wait for thirty seconds. If he doesn't materialize. I'll drop you off on Rue d'Alsace, and I'll take Saint-Martin. We can stay in contact using our cell phones. He can't escape us."
Schiffer remained silent. Wrinkles of thought were furrowing his brow "How do you know where all the exits are?"
Despite his fever. Paul grinned. "I learned them by heart, in case of pursuit."
The face of gray scales smiled back at him. "If our boy doesn't reappear, I'll have your balls for breakfast."
Ten, twelve, fifteen seconds. The longest ones in his existence. Paul observed the figures emerging from the each metro exit, shaken by the wind. No Adidas jacket.
Twenty, twenty-two seconds.
The flow of passengers became more staccato, beating to the rhythm of his heart.
He shifted into first and said, "I drop you on Rue &Alsace." The car screeched away, turned left down Rue du 8 Mai 1945 and let the Cipher out at the beginning of Rue d'Alsace, without giving him a moment to say anything. Then Paul spun it around and, with his foot flat down, reached Rue du Faubourg Saint-Martin.
Ten more seconds had ticked by.
This part of Rue du Faubourg Saint-Martin was very different from its lower reaches, in the Turkish quarter. All that could be seen here were empty sidewalks, warehouses and administrative buildings. An ideal exit route.
Paul watched the second hand on his watch. Each click dug into his flesh. The anonymous crowd broke up, scattering into the excessively large street. He stared toward the interior of the train station. He saw its huge glass roof, which made him think of a greenhouse. full of noxious shoots and carnivorous plants.
The chances of seeing the Adidas jacket reappear were now practically nil. He thought of the metro trains passing beneath the earth, of the departures of main-line and suburban trains, dispersing beneath the open sky, of the thousands of faces and minds dashing below the gray girders.
He could not have been mistaken. It just was not possible. Thirty seconds. Still nothing.
His cell phone rang. He heard Schiffer's guttural voice: "Useless fucker."
Paul joined him at the foot of the staircase that cut Rue d'Alsace in the middle, thus raising it above the immense gulf of rail lines. The policeman climbed into the car and repeated, "Dickhead.”
“We can always try Gare du Nord. You never know. We-”
“Shut your trap. We've lost him. It's over."
Paul nevertheless accelerated the car toward Gare du Nord.
"I should never have listened to you," Schiffer went on. "You've got no experience. You know nothing. You-'
"There he is."
To the right. at the end of Rue des Deux-Gams, Paul had just spotted the Adidas jacket. The man was now trotting along the upper part of Rue d'Alsace, just over the railway.
"The ass," the Cipher said. "He used the outside staircase in the main-line station. He went out via the platforms." He pointed up. "Drive straight on. No siren. No speeding. We'll grab him in the next street. Nice and easy."
Paul shifted down to second and kept to the twenty kilometer-perhour speed limit, with his hands trembling. They were crossing Rue La Fayette when the Turk suddenly surged out a hundred yards farther on. He stared, then froze.
"Shit!" Paul yelled, remembering that he had left the magnetic light on the roof of the car.
The man started to run as though the sidewalk were on fire. Paul stepped on the accelerator. The massive bridge that appeared in front of them seemed to him like a symbol. A stone giant opening its black arms beneath a stormy sky.
He accelerated again and passed the Turk halfway along the bridge. Schiffer leapt out before the car had stopped. Paul braked and in his rearview mirror saw Schiffer tackling the Turk like a rugby halfback.
He swore, turned off the ignition and got out of the Golf. The cop had already grabbed the runaway by his hair and was ramming him against the railings of the bridge. In a flash, Paul pictured Marius's hand in the guillotine. Never again.
He took out his Glock as he ran toward the two men. "Stop!"
Schiffer was now pushing his victim over the edge. His strength and speed were astonishing. The man in the jacket was stuck between two metal spikes, feebly kicking his legs.
Paul felt certain that he was going to throw him into midair. But the Cipher clambered up beside him, grabbed the first stone crossbeam, then immediately yanked the Turk up there with him.
This maneuver had taken just a few seconds, and the physical feat added even more to Schiffer's diabolical standing. When Paul arrived, the two men were already out of reach, perched in the crook of those concrete arms. The runaway was screaming while his torturer, back to the void, was raining blows on him and yelling at him in Turkish.
Paul clambered up the metal spikes, then froze halfway up.
“Bozkurt! Bozkurt! Bozkurt!"
The Turk's cries echoed in the damp air. Paul first thought that it was a cry for help, but he saw Schiffer release his victim, then push him toward the sidewalk, as though he had now obtained what he wanted.
By the time Paul had grabbed his handcuffs, the man was limping away hastily.
"Let him go!"
Schiffer dropped down in turn onto the sidewalk. He fell on his left side, grimaced, then pulled himself up onto his knee. "He told me what he knew," he spat out, between coughs.
"What? What did he say?"
Schiffer stood up. Out of breath, he was clutching the top of his left thigh. His skin was purplish, marked with white spots. "He lives in the same building as Ruya. He saw them take the girl away, on the stairs. On January 8, at eight PM."
Paul did not understand. He stared back into Schiffer's chrome blue eyes and thought of his second nickname: Mr. Steel.
"The Grey Wolves."
"The Grey Wolves. An extreme right-wing group. The killers of the Turkish mafia. We got it all wrong. They're the ones who are killing the girls."
The tracks spread out, unbroken, into the distance. It was a hard, frozen network, imprisoning the mind and senses. Lines of steel that engraved the eyes like barbed wire, points designating new directions without ever becoming free from their rivets or iron. Turnings that disappeared over the horizon, but still evoked the same feeling of ineluctable rigidity. And the bridges of filthy stone or dark metal, with their ladders, gantries and turrets, topped off the whole.
Schiffer had taken an unauthorized route down to the tracks. Paul had then caught up with him, twisting his ankle on the sleepers.
"Who are the Grey Wolves?"
Schiffer walked on without replying, breathing in short gasps. The black stones rolled beneath his feet. "It would take too long to explain," he said at last. "It's all part of Turkish history."
"Tell me, for Christ's sake! You owe me an explanation!"
The Cipher kept walking, still holding his left side. Then, in a hollow voice, he began. "It was during the 1970s. There was the same overheated atmosphere in Turkey as in Europe. Leftist ideas were universally accepted. There was about to be a sort of May '68… But over there, tradition always wins. A resistance group was set up. Men of the extreme right, led by a real Nazi called Alpaslan Türkes. They started out by forming little units in the universities, then they recruited young peasants in the countryside. These recruits called themselves the Grey Wolves or Bozkurt. Or else Ülkü Ocaklari, the Young Idealists. Right from the start, their main argument was violence."
Despite the heat of his body, Paul's teeth were chattering so hard that the noise echoed around his skull.
"At the end of the 1970s," Schiffer went on, "the extreme right-wingers and the extreme left-wingers took up arms. There were bombings, pillage and murder. At the time, about thirty people were killed a day. It was a real civil war. The Grey Wolves were trained in special camps. The recruits became younger and younger. They were indoctrinated and transformed into killing machines."
Schiffer was still swaying along the rails. His breathing became more regular. He kept his eyes on the gleaming lines as though they were dictating the direction of his thoughts.
"Finally, in 1980, the Turkish army seized power. Everything returned to order. The fighters on both sides were arrested. But the Grey Wolves were soon released. Their ideas were the same as the soldiers'. But now they had become idle. As for those kids who had been trained in camps, all they knew how to do was to kill. So, logically enough, they were employed by people who needed hit men-first the government, always pleased to find boys ready to discreetly assassinate Armenian leaders or Kurdish terrorists, then the mafia, which was beginning to control the opium market of the Golden Crescent. For the Mafiosi, the Grey Wolves were a godsend. A force that was strong, armed, experienced and above all had links with the powers that be. Ever since, the Grey Wolves have been carrying out their contracts. Mehmet Ali Aga, the man who shot the pope in 1981, was a Bozkurt. Today, most of them have become mercenaries and have left their political ideals behind them. But the most dangerous ones still remain fanatics, terrorists who are capable of anything. Lunatics who believe in the supremacy of the Turkish race and the return of the Ottoman Empire."
Dazed, Paul listened. He could see no connection between this ancient history and his investigation. He finally asked, "And you're telling me that it's these men who are killing the women?"
"The Adidas jacket saw them taking Ruya Berkes away"
"He saw their faces?"
"They were wearing hoods, in commando getup."
The Cipher sneered. "They're warriors, son. Soldiers. They drove off in a black station wagon. The Turk couldn't remember its registration number, or even its make. Or doesn't want to remember."
"Why is he sure that it was the Grey Wolves?"
"They shouted slogans. They have their own distinctive signs. There's no doubt about it. What's more, it fits in with the rest of the situation. The silence of the community. The fact that Gozar mentioned 'something political.' The Grey Wolves are in Paris. The Turkish quarter is shitting bricks."
Paul could not accept such a different, unexpected direction, which broke entirely with his own intuitions. He had worked too long on the idea of an isolated killer. He insisted: "But why such violence?"
Schiffer continued up the tracks, which were gleaming in the mist.
"They come from distant lands. The plains, deserts and mountains, where such torture is standard. You were working on the hypothesis of a serial killer. With Scarbon, you thought you could recognize a quest for suffering in the wounds of the victims, or the traces of some trauma or something… But you overlooked an extremely simple solution. These women were tortured by professionals. Experts trained in the camps of Anatolia."
"What about the mutilations after death? The cuts on their faces?"
The Cipher's weary gesture seemed to accept all forms of cruelty. "One of them is maybe even nuttier than the rest. Or else perhaps they don't want their victims to be recognized, for the face they're looking for to be identified."
"That they're looking for?"
The cop stopped and turned around toward Paul.
"You still don't understand what's going on, son? The Grey Wolves have a contract. They're looking for a woman." He rummaged through his bloodstained raincoat and then showed him the snapshots. "A woman with this face, answering to this description: a redhead, a seamstress, illegal alien, originally from Gaziantep."
Paul silently looked at the photos in that wrinkled hand.
Everything was taking shape. Burning up.
"A woman who knows something that they need to drag out of her. On three occasions, they thought they'd got her. And they were wrong each time."
"Why are you so sure? How can we be certain that they haven't found her?"
"Because if one of them had been their target, then she would have talked, you can be sure of that, and they would have gone."
"So… so you think the hunt's still on?"
Schiffer's irises were glistening below his lowered eyelids. Paul thought of silver bullets, which alone can kill werewolves.
"You got the wrong lead, son. You were looking for a killer. You were grieving the dead. But it's a living woman you need to find. Someone very much alive, who is being hunted by the Grey Wolves."
He gestured around at the buildings alongside the rail tracks.
"She's there, somewhere, in this neighborhood. In the cellars. In the attics. In the depths of a squatters' building or home. She's being pursued by the worst killers imaginable, and you alone can save her. But you're going to have to act quickly. Very very quickly. Because those bastards are highly trained, and every door in the quarter is open to them."
The Cipher grabbed Paul by his shoulders and stared intensely at him. "As they say, it never rains but it pours. I've got another piece of good news for you: if you want to pull it off, I'm the only chance you've got."
The telephone bell exploded into his ears.
No answer. Eric Ackermann slowly hung up, then looked at his watch: 3:00 PM. The twelfth anonymous call since yesterday. The last time he had heard a human voice was the previous morning when Laurent Heymes had called to tell him that Anna had escaped. When he had tried to phone Laurent back later that afternoon, he'd answered at none of his numbers. Was it already too late for Laurent?
He had tried other contacts. In vain.
That evening, he had received the first anonymous call. At once, he checked through his window. Two police officers were posted in front of his building, on Avenue Trudaine. So the situation was clear. He was no longer someone to be contacted, or a partner to be kept informed. He was now someone to be watched, an enemy to be controlled. In the space of a few hours, a boundary had shifted beneath his feet. He was now on the wrong side of it, on the side of those responsible for the disaster.
He stood up and went to his bedroom window. The two policemen were still stationed outside Lycée Jacques-Decourt. He stared at the grass borders that ran along the middle of the entire avenue, the plane trees swaying, still bare, in the sunlight, the gray structures of the kiosk on Square d'Anvers. Not a single car passed, and the street looked, as usual, like a forgotten byway.
A quotation came to his mind: "Distress is physical if the danger is concrete, psychological if it is instinctual." Who had written that? Freud? Jung? How was danger going to manifest itself in his case? Were they going to shoot him down in the street? Jump him as he slept? Or just lock him up in a military prison? Torture him in order to obtain all the documents concerning the program?
Wait. He had to wait till nightfall before he could put his plan into action.
Still standing by the window, he, mentally went over the career that had brought him here, to death's antechamber.
Fear had been at the beginning. And fear would be at the end.
His odyssey had started in. June 1985, when he had joined Professor Wayne C. Drevets's team at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. The scientists had given themselves an ambitious objective: to localize the zone in the brain that caused fear, using positron emission tomography. To do so, they had drawn up a very strict protocol of experiments, which aimed to create terror in their voluntary guinea pigs. The appearance of snakes, the promise of an electric shock, which would seem all the worse the longer the wait…
After several series of tests, they had located this mysterious area. It was in the temporal lobe, at the edge of the limbic circuit, in a little region called the amygdala, a kind of niche that is the "basic brain." It is the oldest part of the organism-the one humankind shares with the reptiles-that also houses sexual instinct and aggression.
Ackermann remembered those thrilling days. For the first time, he was observing on a computer screen cerebral zones just as they were being activated. He knew that he had now found his career and his path forward. The positron camera would be the ship allowing him to voyage through the human cortex.
He became a pioneer, a cartographer of the brain.
When he returned to France, he had applied for funding from such public bodies as Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale (INSERM); the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), as well as various universities and hospitals in Paris, thus increasing his chances of receiving a budget.
A year went by without any answers. He went into exile in Great Britain, where he joined Professor Anthony Jones's department at the University of Manchester. With this fresh team, they set out for a different neuronal region-the one governing pain.
Once again, he helped conduct a series of tests on subjects willing to undergo painful stimuli. And once again, he saw a new region lighting up on the screens: the land of suffering. It was not a concentrated region but a set of points that were activated simultaneously. A sort of spider-web running all through the cortex.
A year later, Professor Jones wrote in the journal Science: "Once registered by the thalamus, the sensation of pain is orientated by the cingulum and the frontal cortex towards the more or less negative. Only then does it became a sensation of suffering."
This fact was of primordial importance. It confirmed the major role of thought in the perception of pain. Insofar as the cingulum acts as a selector of associations, feelings of suffering could be reduced thanks to a series of purely psychological exercises, thus diminishing and channeling its "resonance" in the brain. For example, in the case of burns, it was enough to think about the sun, instead of the burned flesh, for the pain to recede. Suffering could be fought by the mind. The very topography of the brain proved it.
Ackermann had returned to France in a state of exultation. He could already picture himself at the head of a multidisciplinary research team, a superstructure bringing together cartographers, neurologists, psychiatrists, psychologists… Now that the brain was revealing its physiological keys, collaboration between all these disciplines became possible. The days of rivalry were over. They now just had to look at the map and unite their forces!
But his requests for funding remained unanswered. Disgusted and in despair. he ended up in a tiny laboratory in Maisons-Alfort. where he started using amphetamines to get over his depression. Soon, full to the gills with Benzedrine, he convinced himself that his requests had been overlooked through simple ignorance. The powers of the PET scan were not sufficiently well known.
He decided to bring together all of the international studies of the brain's cartography into one definitive reference work. He started traveling again, to Tokyo, Copenhagen, Boston… He met with neurologists, biologists, radiologists; he read their articles and wrote summaries of them. In 1992, he published a work of six hundred pages: Functional Imagery and Cerebral Geography. an atlas revealing a new world, a strange new geography containing continents, seas, archipelagos…
Despite the success of his book within the scientific community, French institutions still remained silent. Even worse, two positron cameras had been bought in Orsay and Lyon; and never once had his name been mentioned. Never once was he consulted. As a ship less explorer, Ackermann had plunged even deeper into his universe of designer drugs. If he could remember certain soaring voyages on Ecstasy at this time, which had taken him beyond himself, he could also recall the abysses that opened in his mind after bad trips.
He was at the bottom of one of these pits when he received a letter from the Atomic Energy Commission.
At first he thought that he was still hallucinating. Then the news sank in. A positive answer. Given that use of a positron camera involves injecting a radioactive marker, the commission was interested in his work. A special board even wanted to meet with him to discuss how the commission might participate in funding his program.
The following week, Eric Ackermann went to the board's headquarters in Fontenay-aux-Roses. He was in for a surprise. The committee was made up essentially of soldiers. This had brought a smile to his lips. These uniforms reminded him of the good old days, when he was a Maoist and had attacked the riot police on the barricades of Rue Gay-Lussac in 1968. It was a vision that inspired him. He had also swallowed a handful of Benzedrine to calm his nerves. So if he had to convince these johnnies, then he would talk the hind leg off a donkey…
His presentation lasted several hours. He started by explaining how use of the PET scan had allowed the zone of fear to be identified as early as 1985, and how this discovery meant that specific drugs could now be developed to lessen its grip on the human mind.
That is what he told the army.
Then he described Professor Jones's work and how he had localized the neuronal circuit of pain. He pointed out that by associating these locations with psychological training, it was possible to limit suffering.
That was what he told a committee of generals and army psychiatrists.
He then spoke of other research-into schizophrenia, the memory, the imagination…
Gesticulating wildly, rattling off statistics and references, he made them glimpse extraordinary possibilities: thanks to cerebral cartography, they were now going to be able to observe, control and fashion the human brain!
A month later, he received a second invitation. They agreed to finance his project, on the condition that it was carried out in the Henri-Becquerel Institute, a military hospital in Orsay. He would thus have to work with military colleagues, in perfect transparency.
Ackermann burst out laughing. He was going to work for the Ministry of Defense! Him! A pure product of the counterculture of the 1970s, a crazed psychiatrist high on speed… He convinced himself that he would be smarter than his paymasters, and would' manipulate them, without being manipulated himself.
He was completely wrong.
The phone echoed once more in his room.
He did not even bother to answer. He drew his curtains and stood openly in the window. The sentinels were still there.
Avenue Trudaine was a delicate mingling of brown tones-shades of dried mud, old gold, ancient metals. When looking at it, he always thought, without knowing why, of a Chinese or Tibetan temple, with peeling red or yellow paint revealing the bark of another reality.
It was 4:00 PM and the sun was still high in the sky. Suddenly, he decided not to wait for nightfall. He was too impatient to get away. He crossed the living room, grabbed his bag and opened the door.
Fear had been at the beginning. And fear would be at the end.
He went down to the building's garage via the emergency staircase. From the doorway, he peered around the dark space. No one. He crossed the floor, then unlocked a black iron door, hidden behind a pillar. At the end of the corridor, he emerged in Anvers metro station. He glanced back. Nobody was following him.
The crowd of passengers bustling around made him panic for an instant. Then he reasoned with himself: they would actually help him escape. Without slowing down, he made his way through them, his eyes fixed on another door, at the far side of the ceramic area.
When he reached the photo booth, he pretended to be waiting for his pictures while facing the narrow entrance and rummaging through the set of keys he had procured. After a while he found the right one and discreetly opened the door marked PERSONNEL ONLY.
Sighing with relief, he was alone again. A pungent odor hung in the corridor: a bitter, heavy smell that he could not identify but that seemed to be inching all over him. He advanced, tripping over moldy cardboard boxes, forgotten cables and metallic containers. At no time did he look for the light. He fumbled with his keys, opening padlocks, gratings and reinforced doors. He did not bother to lock them again but found their presence behind his back reassuring, like so many layers of protection.
Finally, he reached a second garage, below Square d'Anvers. It was exactly like the first one, except that the floor and walls were painted light green. Everything was deserted. He headed onward. He was dripping with sweat, trembling all over, feeling either boiling hot or chilled by turns. Apart from his anxiety, he realized that he was starting to exhibit withdrawal symptoms.
Finally, at number 2033, he spotted the five-door Volvo. It’s imposing appearance, metal gray bodywork and registration plate bearing a number from the Haut-Rhin department, in the east of France, reassured him. His entire body seemed to stabilize and relocate its center of balance.
As soon as the problems had started with Anna, he realized that they were going to get worse. More than anyone else, he knew that her breakdowns were going to multiply and that sooner or later the project would turn into a catastrophe. So he had thought of an escape plan. First move: go back to Alsace, where he was born. Because he could not change his name, he would conceal himself among all the other Ackermanns on the planet-over three hundred of them just in the departments of the Bas-Rhin and Haut-Rhin. He could then organize the real departure: Brazil, New Zealand, Malaysia…
He removed a remote control from his pocket. He was about to use it when a voice hit him in the back: "Sure you haven't forgotten anything?" He turned around and saw a black-and-white creature, wrapped up in a velvet coat, just a few yards away.
His first reaction was a burst of anger. He thought of a bird of ill omen, a curse following his every step. Then he changed his mind. Hand her over, he thought. Hand her over it's the only way.
He dropped his bag and adopted a reassuring tone. "Anna, where on earth were you? Everyone's been looking for you." He walked toward her, opening his arms. You did the right thing coming to see me. You-"
He stopped dead still, then slowly, very slowly turned toward the second voice. Another figure was standing in front of a pillar, to his right. He was so amazed that a mist passed over his eyes. Confused memories were drifting up to the surface of his mind. He knew this woman.
Without answering, she approached.
He said again, in a dazed tone, "Mathilde Wilcrau?"
She stood in front of him, pointing the automatic pistol that was in her gloved hand at him.
Looking from one of them to the other, he stammered, "You… you know each other?"
"When you no longer trust your neurologist, where do you go? To a psychiatrist."
As before, she lengthened her syllables into deep undulations. Nobody could forget such a voice. A flood of saliva filled his mouth, a sludge that tasted just like the stench in the corridor. He knew what it was now: the bitter, profound, malevolent taste of fear. He was its sole source. It was exuding from every pore of his body. “Have you been following me? What do you want?"
Anna went over to him. Her indigo eyes glittered in the greenish light of the garage. Eyes like a dark ocean, slightly slanted, almost Asian. She smiled and said, "What do you think I want?"
In the field of the neurosciences, in neuropsychology and cognitive psychology I'm the best, or at least one of the best, in the entire world. This isn't vanity. It's quite simply a recognized fact in the scientific community. At the age of fifty-two, I have become what is called a reference.
But I really became important in these fields only when I deserted the scientific world, when I left the beaten track and took a forbidden path. A path that no one had taken before me. It was only then that I became a major researcher, a pioneer who will mark his epoch.
The trouble is, it's already too late for me…
After sixteen months of tomographic experiments on the memory-the third season of the Personal Memory and Cultural Memory program the repetition of certain anomalies led me to contact those laboratories that were using the same radio-labeled water in the experiments as my team: Oxygen-15.
The answer was unanimous. They hadn't noticed a thing.
This didn't mean I was wrong. It just meant that I was using higher doses on the subjects of my experiments and that my unusual results could be explained by this fact. I sensed something important had happened. I had crossed a threshold, and this threshold revealed the true power of this substance.
It was too early to publish. I just wrote a report for the Atomic Energy Commission, which was funding my work, summarizing that season's results. On the last page, 1 appended a note mentioning the repetition of certain unusual events during the tests. These events concerned the indirect influence of oxygen-IS on the human brain, and they undoubtedly ought to be studied during a specific research program.
Their reaction was instantaneous. I was called in to AEC headquarters in May. In a huge conference hall, a dozen specialists were waiting for me. With their short-cropped hair and rigid turn of phrase, I recognized them at once. They were the same soldiers who had interviewed me two years before, when I'd made my initial presentation of my research.
I started at the beginning: "The principle of PET (positron emission tomography) involves injecting radio-labeled water into the subject's blood. Once made radioactive itself, it emits positrons, which a camera then captures in real time, thus allowing cerebral activity to be localized. Personally, I selected a classic radioactive isotope, Oxygen-15, and-"
A voice interrupted me: "In your note, you mention some anomalies. What do you mean exactly? What happened?"
"I noticed that after the tests, some subjects confused their own memories with the stories they had been told during the sessions."
"Can you be more precise?"
"Several exercises in my protocol consisted of communicating imaginary stories, short fictions that the subject then had to summarize orally. After the tests, the subjects repeated these stories as if they were true. They were absolutely convinced that they had really experienced these inventions."
"And you think it was the use of Oxygen-15 that sparked this phenomenon?"
"I suppose so. A positron camera cannot have any effect on the consciousness. It's a noninvasive technique. Oxygen-15 was the only product administered to the subjects."
"How do you explain its influence?"
"I can't. Maybe it's the impact of radioactivity on the neurons. Or an effect of the molecule itself on the neurotransmitters. It's as if the experiment excites the cognitive system, thus making it permeable to information given during the test. The brain can no longer tell the difference between imaginary data and personal experiences."
"Do you think that using this substance, it might be possible to implant in a subject's consciousness memories that are… shall we say, artificial?"
"It's far more complex than that. I -"
"Do you think it's possible? Yes or no?"
"We could certainly explore this possibility"
Silence. Then another voice said, "During your career, you've worked on brainwashing techniques, haven't you?"
I burst out laughing in a vain attempt to defuse this inquisitorial atmosphere. "Over twenty years ago. In my Ph.D. thesis!"
"Have you followed the progress that has been made in the field?”
“More or less. But there's a lot of unpublished research on the subject. Work that has been classified top secret. I don't know if-"
"Can substances be used to act as an effective chemical screen to block out a subject's memory?"
"Yes, there are several such products."
"We're talking here about manipulations that are-"
I answered grudgingly, "There's much talk these days about substances like GHB or gamma-hydroxybutyrate. But to achieve this kind of objective, it's better to use a more common product. Like Valium, for instance."
"Because at certain doses, Valium not only provokes partial amnesia, it also introduces automatisms. Patients become open to suggestion. What is more, we also have an antidote, so subjects can recover their memory afterward."
The first voice: "Supposing that a subject had been given such a treatment. Would it be possible to inject new memories, using Oxygen-15?”
“If you're expecting me to-"
"Yes or no?"
Another silence. All eyes were fixed on me.
"The subject would remember nothing?"
"Neither the Valium treatment nor the use of Oxygen-15?"
"No, but it's too early to-"
"Apart from you, who else knows about this?"
"Nobody. I contacted some other laboratories that use the isotope, but no one had noticed anything and-"
"We know who you've contacted."
"You're spying on me?"
"Did you speak about it to the heads of the laboratories?"
"No, it was via e-mail. I-"
"Thank you, Professor."
At the end of 1994, a new budget was voted through for a program entirely devoted to the effects of Oxygen-15. Such are the ironies of fate. After encountering so many difficulties getting funding for a program that I had planned, presented and defended, I was now being given financing for a project I hadn't even envisaged.
The nightmare began. I was visited by a policeman, escorted by two goons dressed in black. He was a giant with a gray mustache, dressed in woolen gabardine. He introduced himself as Commissioner Philippe Charlier. He seemed jovial, smiling and relaxed, but my old hippie instincts whispered to me that he was dangerous. I saw in him a violent breaker of rebellion, a bastard sure that what he was doing was right.
"I've come to tell you a story," he announced. "A personal memory. About a wave of terrorist attacks that spread panic throughout France from December 1985 to September 1986. The Rue de Rennes, and so on. Remember? In all, thirteen dead and two hundred and fifty wounded.
At the time, I was working for the DST, or Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire. We had been given unlimited means. Thousands of men, surveillance systems, unrestricted powers of detention. We dug around in the Islamist groups, the Palestinian supporters, the Lebanese networks and Iranian Communists. Paris was completely under our control. We even offered a reward of a million francs to anyone providing information. All that for nothing. We couldn't find a single lead or clue. Zero. And the attacks were continuing, killing and wounding and demolishing property. We were powerless to stop them.
"One day, in March 1986, we had a breakthrough and netted all the members of the group: Fouad Ali Salah and his accomplices. They were storing their guns and explosives in a flat on Rue de la Voûte, in the twelfth arrondissement. Their meeting point was a Tunisian restaurant on Rue de Chartres, in the Goutte d'Or quarter. I was the one who led the operation. Within a few hours, we arrested the lot of them. Nice, clean work, and no foul-ups. In just one day, the bombings stopped. The city was calm once more.
And do you know what brought this miracle about? What the `breakthrough' was that changed everything? One of the members of the group, Lotfi ben Kallak, had quite simply decided to change sides. He contacted us and handed in his accomplices in exchange for the reward. He even agreed to organize the ambush from within.
"Lotfi was crazy. No one gives up his life for a few hundred thousand francs. No one accepts living like a hunted beast, running away to the ends of the earth knowing that sooner or later, they will catch up with him. But I could measure the impact of his betrayal. For the first time, we were inside the group. At the heart of the system, you see? From that moment, everything became easy, clear and effective. And that's the moral of my story. Terrorists have just one strength-secrecy. They strike wherever and whenever they want. There's only one way to stop them. You have to infiltrate their network. Infiltrate their brains. And then, you can do what you want. Like with Lotfi. And thanks to you, we're going to do just that with all the others."
Charlier's idea was simple: turn people close to terrorist networks using Oxygen-15, then inject them with artificial memories-for example, a motive for revenge-so as to convince them to cooperate and hand over their brothers in arms.
"The program will be called Morpho," he explained, "because we're going to change the psychic morphology of these Arabs. We're going to modify their personalities and their cerebral makeup. Then we'll release them into the world they came from. Like rabid dogs in the pack."
In a voice that chilled my blood, he concluded, "You've got a straightforward choice. Either you enjoy unlimited funding, as many subjects as you want, the chance to direct a scientific revolution in complete confidentiality. Or else you return to the shiny life of a petty researcher, running around after money, labs going broke, publishing obscure articles. And don't forget that we're going to run the program anyway, with you, or with others who will be given all your results and notes. You can count on other scientists to exploit the influence of Oxygen-15 and then claim it as their discovery"
During the next few days, I asked around. Philippe Charlier was one of the five commissioners of the Sixth Division of the Direction Centrale de la Police Judiciaire (the DCPJ). He was one of the leaders of the war against international terrorism, under the orders of Jean-Paul Magnard, the head of the division.
His colleagues had nicknamed him the "Jolly Green Giant," and he was well known for his obsession with infiltration and the violence of his methods. He had even been sidelined on several occasions by Magnard, who was just as intransigent, but who had remained faithful to the traditional methods and distrusted any experimentation.
However, this was in the spring of 1995, and Charlier's ideas were of topical importance. France was under threat from a terrorist network. On July 25, a bomb exploded in the Saint-Michel RER station, killing ten people. The GIA- Groupe Islamique Armé-was suspected, but there was not the slightest lead to help stop this wave of attacks.
The Minister of Defense, in association with the Minister of the Interior, decided to fund the Morpho project. Even if this operation could not be effective for any particular case-the time line being too short-the moment had now come to use new weapons against terrorism.
At the end of the summer of 1995. Philippe Charlier came to see me again, already speaking of a guinea pig chosen from among the hundreds of Islamists who had been arrested during their investigations.
It was then that Magnard won a decisive battle. A bottle of gas had been found on a high-speed train line, and the police from Lyon were about to destroy it. But Magnard demanded that they examine it first. On it, they discovered the fingerprints of a suspect, Khaled Kelkal, who turned out to be one of those behind the attacks. The rest is history. Kelkal was tracked like a beast through the forests around Lyon. then shot down on September 29. His network was dismantled.
It was a triumph for Magnard and his good old-fashioned methods. No more Morpho. Exit Philippe Charlier.
And yet, the budget was still there. The ministries in charge of the country's security gave me plentiful funds to continue my research. During the very first year, my results proved that I was right. It really was Oxygen-15, when injected in large doses, that made neurons permeable to artificial memories. Under its influence, the memory became porous, letting in elements of fiction and incorporating them as real experiences.
My protocol grew more precise. I was working on dozens of different subjects, all provided by the army, or else volunteers from the ranks. At this stage, the conditioning was extremely light. Only one artificial memory at a time. I then waited several days to check if the "graft" was holding.
But we still had to carry out the ultimate experiment: conceal a subject's memory and implant a new one. I was in no hurry to attempt such brainwashing. What was more, the police and the army had apparently forgotten about me. At the time, Charlier had been relegated to fieldwork and was excluded from the circles of power. Magnard, with his traditional ideas, was the undisputed boss. I was hoping that they'd leave me alone for good. I dreamed of going back to civilian life, of officially publishing my results, of a beneficial use for my discoveries…
All of which might have been possible without September II, 2001. The attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.
The wave of those explosions blew away all of the police's certitudes, all their investigative and surveillance techniques, on a global scale. The secret services, information agencies, police forces and armies of all the countries threatened by Al Qaeda were on tenterhooks. The politicians were panicking. Once more, terrorism had shown that its greatest strength was secrecy.
There was talk of holy war, of chemical attacks, atomic bombs…
Philippe Charlier was back in the front line. He was the man to deal with such persistence and obsession. A figure of power, with methods that were obscure, violent and… effective. The Morpho project was dug up again. Terrible words were on everyone's lips-conditioning, brainwashing, infiltration.
In mid-November, Charlier turned up at the Henri-Becquerel Institute. With a broad smile: he announced, "The Arabs are back."
He invited me to lunch in a restaurant specializing in Lyonnaise cuisine and Burgundy wine. The nightmare started up again in the stench of fat and cooked blood.
"Do you know the annual budget of the CIA and FBI?" he asked. I shook my head.
"Thirty billion dollars. The two agencies have spy satellites and submarines, automatic reconnaissance equipment and mobile phone tapping systems. The cutting-edge technology in the field of surveillance. Not to mention the National Security Agency and its know-how The Americans can listen in and spy anywhere. There are no more secrets on earth. Or so everyone thought. The entire world felt concerned. People were even talking about Big Brother… but then there was September.
A few men, armed with plastic knives, destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Center and took a good lump out of the Pentagon, while notching up a score of a good three thousand dead. The Americans listen to everything, receive everything, except when it's coming from people who are really dangerous."
The Jolly Green Giant was not smiling anymore. He slowly turned his palms to face the ceiling, above his plate. "Can you imagine the two sides of the scales? On the one hand, thirty billion dollars. On the other, some plastic knives. What do you think makes the difference? What made the fucking scale tip?"
He violently hit the table.
"Willpower. Faith. Madness. Confronted with an armada of technology, and thousands of American agents, a handful of determined men managed to slip through all their surveillance. Because no machine will ever be as powerful as the human mind. Because servants of the state, leading ordinary lives with normal ambitions, will never be able to catch fanatics who don't give a damn about their own lives, who are completely given over to a higher cause."
He paused, got his breath back, then went on: "The kamikaze pilots of September 11 had removed all their body hair. Do you know why? So as to be perfectly pure at the moment they entered paradise. What can you do against loonies like that? You can't spy on them, bribe them or understand them."
His eyes glittered with a strange light, as if he had warned everyone of the imminent catastrophe.
"I'll repeat: there's just one way to round up fanatics. Turn one of them against the others. Get a convert so as to be able to read the depths of their madness. Then, and only then, will we beat them."
The Jolly Green Giant laid his elbows on the tablecloth, put his rounded lips to his wineglass, then raised his mustache with a smile. "I've got some good news for you. As of today. the Morpho project is back on. I've even found you a guinea pig."
The wicked grin widened.
"A young lady."
Anna's voice hit the concrete like a table-tennis ball. Eric Ackermann smiled weakly, almost apologetically, at her. He had now been talking nonstop for almost an hour. sitting in his five-door Volvo, the door open, legs stretched outside. His throat was dry. and he would have given anything for a glass of water.
Leaning against the pillar, Anna Heymes remained still, as slender as a graffito in India ink. Mathilde Wilcrau continuously paced up and down, putting on the headlights when the timer turned them off.
While speaking, he observed them both: the slight, pale and dark one who, despite her youth, seemed struck with a very ancient, even mineral, rigidity; and the large one who, on the contrary, was vegetal and vibrant with lingering freshness. Still that over-red Mouth, that overblack hair, that clash of brute colors, like a market stall.
How could he be having such ideas at a time like this? Charlier's men must be searching the neighborhood, escorted by the local police officers, all out to get him. Battalions of armed men set on gunning him down. And that need for drugs that was mounting, along with his thirst, irritating every inch of his body…
Anna repeated, a few notes lower: "Me.." She took a pack of cigarettes from her pocket.
Ackermann risked asking, "I couldn't have one, could I?"
She lit her Marlboro first, hesitated for a moment, then offered him one. At the moment she lit her lighter, darkness fell again. The flame pierced the night, making a negative print of the scene.
Mathilde turned the headlights back on. "What then, Ackermann? We're still missing the main point. Who is Anna?"
Her tone was still threatening but void of any anger or hatred. He now knew that these women would not kill him. No one turns into a murderer just like that. His confession was voluntary and also a relief. He waited for the taste of burning tobacco to fill his throat before answering.
"I don't know everything. Far from it. But according to what I was told, your name is Sema Gokalp. You're an illegal Turkish immigrant. You come from the Gaziantep region, in the south of Anatolia. You used to work in the tenth arrondissement. They took you to the Henri-Becquerel Institute on November 16, 2001, after a short stay in Sainte-Anne Hospital."
Anna remained impassive, leaning against the pillar. His words seemed to pass through her with no apparent impact, like a bombardment of invisible-but lethal-particles.
"I was kidnapped?"
"Found, more like. I don't know what happened exactly. A clash between Turks. The pillaging of a sweatshop around Strasbourg-Saint Denis. Some kind of racket. I'm not sure. All I know is that when the cops arrived, you were the only person left in the workshop. You were hiding in a stockroom…"
He took a drag. Despite the nicotine, the smell of fear lingered. "Charlier heard about the case. He immediately realized that he had a perfect guinea pig for his Morpho project."
"What do you mean, 'perfect'?"
"No I.D. papers, no family, no friends. And, even better, in a state of shock."
Ackermann glanced at Mathilde knowingly. Then his gaze returned to Anna.
"I don't know what you saw that night, but it must have been something terrible. You were completely traumatized. Three days later, your limbs were still paralyzed by a cataleptic fit. You jumped at the slightest noise. But the most interesting thing is that the trauma had disturbed your memory. You seemed incapable of remembering your name, your identity, the few scraps of information in your passport. You kept muttering incoherently. This amnesia had prepared the ground for me. I was going to be able to implant new memories even more quickly. You were ideal."
Anna yelled, "You fucking bastard!"
He closed his eyes and nodded; then he seemed to pull himself back together, and added cynically: "What's more, you spoke perfect French. It was that fact which gave Charlier the idea."
"To start with, all we wanted to do was to inject artificial fragments into the head of a foreigner, with a different culture. We wanted to see what would happen if we tried, for example, to alter the religious convictions of a Muslim. Or give her a reason for resentment. But you offered other possibilities. You spoke our language perfectly. Physically, you could easily pass for a European. So Charlier placed the bar even higher. Total conditioning. We would totally wipe out your personality and culture and replace them with Western ones."
He paused. The two women remained silent, a tacit invitation to continue.
"First, I increased your amnesia by injecting an overdose of Valium.
Then I started working on conditioning you. Constructing a new personality. Using Oxygen-15."
Intrigued, Mathilde asked, "How did you proceed?"
Another drag, then he answered, incapable of taking his eyes off Anna. "Mainly by exposure to information. In every form. Words. Films. Sounds. Before each session, I injected a radioactive substance into you. The results were incredible. Each piece of information turned into a real memory in your brain. Every day, you were becoming more and more like the real Anna Heymes."
The slender woman stood up from the pillar. "You mean she really exists?"
The smell in the garage was stronger and stronger, as though of rotten flesh. He was starting to decay as he sat there, while the craving for amphetamine raised a slope of panic in his mind.
"We had to fill your mind with a coherent set of memories. The best way was to choose a real person and use her life story, photos and video films. That's why we chose Anna Heymes. We had all the necessary material."
"Who is she? Where is the real Anna Heymes?"
He pushed his glasses up his nose, before saying, "Several feet underground. She's dead. Heymes's wife committed suicide six months ago. So the place was vacant, so to speak. All your memories are part of her story. The dead parents. The family in the southwest. The wedding in Saint-Paul-de-Vence. The law degree."
At that moment, the light went out. Mathilde lit it again. The return of her voice coincided with the return of clarity. "And you would have let such a woman loose again in the Turkish community?"
"No, that would have been senseless. This was a trial run. An attempt at… total conditioning. To see how far we could go."
"In the end," Anna asked, "what would you have done to me?”
“No idea. That was out of my hands."
Another lie. Of course he knew what was awaiting her. What was to be done with such an embarrassing guinea pig? Lobotomy or elimination, that's what. When Anna next spoke, she seemed to have understood that dark reality. Her voice was as cold as a blade.
"Who is Laurent Heymes?"
"Exactly who he claims to be. The research director of the Minister of the Interior."
"Why did he participate in this farce?"
"It's all because of his wife. She was depressive, uncontrollable. Toward the end, Laurent got a job for her. A special mission for the Ministry of Defense concerning Syria. Anna stole some documents. She wanted to sell them to the authorities in Damascus before running away somewhere or other. She was nuts. The affair leaked out. Anna panicked and committed suicide."
Mathilde did not understand. "And this was a way of putting pressure on Laurent Heymes, even after her death?"
"He was always afraid of a scandal. His career would have been in ruins-a top civil servant married to a spy… Charlier has a complete dossier on the subject. He has a hold over Laurent, like he does over everyone else."
"Alain Lacroux. Pierre Caracilli. Jean-François Gaudemer." He turned toward Anna. "All those supposedly high-ranking officials you had dinner with."
"Who are they?"
"Puppets, crooks, crooked cops who Charlier has information on and who were forced to attend the carnival."
"Why those dinners?"
"That was my idea. I wanted to confront your mind with the outside world and observe your reactions. Everything was filmed. The conversations were recorded. You must understand that your entire existence was fake: the building on Avenue Hoche, the janitor, the neighbors… Everything was under our control."
"A laboratory rat."
Ackermann stood up and tried to take a few steps, but he immediately found himself stuck between the car door and the wall. He slumped back down onto his seat. "This program was a scientific revolution," he replied hoarsely. "Moral considerations were irrelevant."
Anna offered him another cigarette over the car door. She seemed ready to forgive him, so long as he told her all.
"What about the Maison du Chocolat?"
When he lit the Marlboro, he noticed that he was shaking. A shock wave was on its way. The craving was soon going to start screaming beneath his skin.
"That was one of our problems," he said through a cloud of smoke. "Your job took us by surprise. We had to tighten our surveillance. Cops were constantly watching you. The doorman of a restaurant, I think-"
"Yes, that's it."
"When I was working in the Maison du Chocolat, there was a regular customer. A man I had the impression I recognized. Was he a policeman?"
"Maybe. I don't know all the details. All I do know is that you were escaping from us."
Again, night fell and Mathilde woke up in the strip lights.
"The real problem was your fits," he went on. "I immediately sensed that there was a fault line, and that things were going to go from bad to worse. Your trouble with faces was just a precursor. Your real memory was beginning to resurface."
"No idea. This was pure experimentation."
His hands were trembling more and more. He concentrated on what he had to say. "When Laurent caught you observing him at night, we realized that the problem was worsening. We had to section you."
"Why did you want to conduct a biopsy?"
"To be sure what was going on. Maybe the huge jab of Oxygen-15 had caused a lesion. I just had to understand!"
He broke off, sorry that he had shouted. It felt as if short circuits were sizzling in his skin. He threw away his cigarette and stuck his hands between his thighs. How long could he hold out?
Mathilde Wilcrau then asked the crucial question: "Where are Charlier's men looking? How many of them are there?"
"I don't know. I've been sidelined. Laurent, too. I'm not even in touch with him anymore… As for Charlier, the program's over. The vital thing for them now is to catch you and put you out of circulation. You read the papers. You know what they're saying in the media and how outraged public opinion is about a little bit of phone tapping. Imagine what would happen if this story got out."
"So there's a price on my head, is there?" Anna asked.
"More like a desperate need for treatment. You don't know what you've got in your mind. You must give yourself up to Charlier. To us. It's your only chance to recover, and save all of our skins!"
He looked up over the curve of his glasses. The two of them now looked out of focus, and it was better that way. He added, "Jesus, you don't know Charlier! I'm sure all of this was perfectly illegal. So now he'll be sweeping up. Right now, I don't even know if Laurent is still alive. It's a total fiasco. Unless we can treat you again.." His voice was dying in his throat. What was the point of going on? Even he no longer believed in the possibility.
Mathilde then said, in her deep voice, 'All of which does not explain why you altered her face."
Ackermann felt a smile rise to his lips. He had been expecting this question right from the start. He stared straight into Anna's eyes. "You were like that when we found you. When I did the first scan, I discovered the scars, implants and screws. It was incredible. A complete surgical overhaul. It must have cost a fortune. Not the sort of operation an illegal immigrant worker could pay for."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean you're not a simple worker. Charlier and the others got it wrong. They thought they were kidnapping some faceless Turk. But you're much more than that. Crazy as it might seem, I reckon you were hiding out in the Turkish quarter when they discovered you."
Anna burst into tears.
"In a way," he went on bitterly to the end, "this fact explains the success of the treatment. I'm no magician. I could never have transformed a simple working girl from Anatolia to this extent. And definitely not in a few weeks. Only Charlier could swallow such nonsense."
Mathilde returned to the point. "What did he say when you told him that her face had been altered?"
"Nothing, because I didn't tell him. I kept this crazy secret to myself."
He looked at Anna. "Even last Saturday, when you came to Becquerel, I switched the X-rays. The marks appear on all of the images."
Anna dried her tears. "Why did you do that?"
"I wanted to finish the experiment. It was such a golden opportunity… Your psychic state was ideal. All that mattered was the research…"
Anna and Mathilde remained speechless.
When the little Cleopatra spoke again, her voice was as dry as a leaf of incense. "If I'm not Anna Heymes and I'm not Sema Gokalp, then who am I?"
"I don't have the slightest idea. An intellectual, maybe, a political refugee. Or a terrorist… I…"
The neon lights went out once more. Mathilde stuck out her hand. The darkness seemed to be deepening, like a flood of tar.
For a moment, he thought to himself, I was wrong. They are going to kill me. But then Anna's voice echoed through the shadows: "There's only one way to find out."
No one turned the lights back on. Eric Ackermann guessed what she was going to say.
Just beside him, Anna murmured, "You're going to give me back what you stole. My memory"
He had gotten rid of the kid, which alone was something.
After the chase at the station and the revelations, Jean-Louis Schiffer had taken Paul Nerteaux to a bar called La Strasbourgeoise, just in front of Gare de l'Est. He had then analyzed once more what was really at stake in this investigation, how it was now a "woman hunt." For the moment, that was all that mattered. Forget the other victims and the killers. They just had to unmask the Grey Wolves' target, the girl they had been looking for in the Turkish quarter for the past five months and had so far failed to find.
Finally, after an hour's heated conversation, Paul Nerteaux had admitted defeat and decided to do a U-turn. His intelligence and ability to adapt never ceased to amaze Schiffer. The kid had then defined their new strategy himself.
First point: have an Identikit portrait of the target done, based on photographs of the three corpses, then distribute it in the Turkish quarter.
Second point: reinforce their patrols, increase the identity controls and searches throughout Little Turkey. Such a tactic might seem derisory, but Nerteaux reckoned that they stood a chance of finding her by sheer good fortune. Things like that happened: after twenty-five years on the run, Toto Riina, the godfather of Cosa Nostra, had been arrested in central Palermo during a routine inspection of ID cards.
Third point: go back to see Marius, the head of the Iskele, and study his files to see if other working girls matched the description. Schiffer liked this idea, but he could hardly return there in person after what he had done to that slave driver.
So he kept the fourth point for himself: go and see Talat Gurdilek, for whom the first victim had worked. They had to finish questioning the murdered women's employers, and he was up for the job.
The fifth and final point was the only one aimed at the killers themselves: launch an investigation in Immigration and Visas to see if any Turkish residents known for their links with the extreme right wing or the mafia had arrived in France since November 2001. This meant sifting through all of the arrivals from Anatolia over the past five months, comparing them with Interpol records and also applying to the Turkish police.
Schiffer did not see the point of such an approach. He knew too well the close relationship that existed between his Turkish colleagues and the Grey Wolves, but he had let the enthusiastic youngster rattle on.
In reality, he did not see the point in a single one of these methods. But he had been patient, because another idea had occurred to him…
While they were on their way to Ile de la Cité, where Nerteaux intended to explain his new plan to Bomarzo, the investigating magistrate, he decided to risk it all. He explained that the best way to advance now would be for them to split up. While Paul was distributing copies of the Identikit portrait and briefing the men in the commissariats of the tenth arrondissement, he would drop round to see Gurdilek..
The young captain had kept his answer to himself until he had seen the magistrate. He had kept him waiting in a bar over the road from the Palais de Justice for two hours, and had even set an orderly to watch over him. Then he reappeared from his appointment as pleased as pie. Bomarzo was giving him free hand to carry out his plan. Apparently, this thrilled him so much that he now agreed to all of Schiffer's requests.
Paul had dropped him off at 6:00 PM on Boulevard de Magenta, near Gare de l'Est, and had arranged to meet up at 8:00 PM at Café Sancak, on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, in order to report.
Schiffer was now walking along Rue de Paradis. Alone at last! Free at last… to breathe the acidic air of the neighborhood, to feel the magnetic force of "his" turf. The end of the day was like a pale, drowsy fever. On each windowpane, the sun placed its particles of light, a sort of gilded talc, which had the macabre grace of embalmer's makeup.
He strode along, psyching himself up for his confrontation with Talat Gurdilek, one of the major mafia bosses of the quarter. He had arrived in Paris during the 1960s, seventeen, penniless and unqualified, and now he owned twenty sweatshops and factories in France and Germany, as well as a good dozen dry cleaners and launderettes. He was a godfather who ruled over every level of the Turkish quarter, official or unofficial, legal or illegal. When Gurdilek sneezed, the entire ghetto caught a cold.
At number 58, Schiffer pushed open a gateway. He entered a dark cul-de-sac, crossed by a central gutter, with noisy workshops and printers' studios on either side. At the end of the alley, there was a rectangular courtyard, with rhomboid paving stones. On the right, a tiny staircase led down into a long ditch, overhung with small, half-deserted gardens.
He loved this hidden place, which was unknown even to most of the inhabitants of the building. A heart within the heart, a trench that disturbed all of the usual vertical or horizontal reference points. An iron door barred the way. He touched the handle. It was warm.
He smiled and knocked vigorously.
After some time, a man opened it, liberating a cloud of steam. Schiffer muttered a few words of explanation in Turkish. The doorman stood to one side to let him in. The cop noticed that he was barefoot. Another smile. Nothing had changed. He dived into the suffocating heat.
The white light revealed a familiar scene: the tiled corridor, the large heating pipes hanging from the ceiling, wrapped in pale green surgical cloth: the dropping of "tears" onto the floor tiles; the warped metal doors that punctuated each section and that looked like the sides of boilers, whitened with quicklime.
They walked on like this for some minutes. Schiffer felt his shoes slapping in the puddles. His body was already damp with sweat. They turned down another row of white tiles wreathed in mist. To the right, an opening revealed a workshop that sounded like a giant breathing.
Schiffer paused to contemplate the scene.
Beneath the ceiling of pipes and ducts, splashed with light, about thirty women with bare feet and white masks were slaving away over tubs and ironing boards. Jets of steam were shooting up at a regular rhythm. The smell of detergent and alcohol saturated the atmosphere. Schiffer knew that the pumping station of the Turkish Baths was nearby, under their feet, drawing water from a depth of two hundred and fifty feet, circulating through the ducts, its iron removed, chlorine added, heated, then directed either toward the Turkish Baths themselves, or toward this underground laundry. Gurdilek had had the idea of placing them together to exploit a single system of canalization for two distinct activities. It was an economical strategy: not a drop of water was wasted.
As he passed, the cop took a good look, observing the masked women, their foreheads beaded with sweat. Their soaking coats stretched around their breasts and buttocks, which were large and sagging, just as he liked. He noticed that he had an erection. He took this as a good sign.
They walked on.
The heat and humidity continued to grow. A particular fragrance sometimes broke through, then vanished, so that Schiffer thought he had dreamed it. But a few paces farther on, it reappeared and grew clearer.
This time, Schiffer was sure of it.
He started breathing more shallowly. Acrid itching started up in his nose and throat. Contradictory sensations filled his respiratory system. He had the impression of sucking on ice, yet his mouth was aflame. That odor was refreshing and scalding at the same time, aggressive and purifying in the same breath. Mint.
They continued onward. The smell became a stream, a sea in which Schiffer was drowning. It was even worse than he remembered. At each step, he was turning more and more into a tea bag at the bottom of a cup. The chill of an iceberg froze his lungs, while his face felt like a mask of burning wax.
When he reached the end of the corridor, he was almost suffocating, breathing in short gasps. He seemed to be advancing through a giant inhaler. Knowing that this was not far from the truth, he entered the throne room.
It was an empty, rather shallow swimming pool, surrounded by thin white columns, which stood out against the hazy background of steam. Prussian blue tiles marked the sides, like in old Parisian metro stations. Wooden screens covered the far wall, decked with Ottoman ornamentation: moons, crosses and stars.
In the center of the pool, a man was sitting on a ceramic slab.
Heavy and burly, he had knotted a white towel around his waist. His face was drowned in shadows.
In the stifling fumigation, his laughter pealed out.
The laughter of Talat Gurdilek, the mint-man, the man with the scorched voice.
Everyone in the Turkish quarter knew his story.
He arrived in Europe in 1961, taking the classic route, beneath the false bottom of a tanker truck. In Anatolia, he and his companions had been closed in behind a sheet of iron, which had then been bolted into place. The illegal immigrants thus had to lie there, without light or fresh air, during the forty-eight-hour journey. The heat and lack of air were oppressive. Then, when crossing the mountain passes of Bulgaria, the cold had seeped in through the metal and pierced them to the core. But the real torture started when they were approaching Yugoslavia, when the tanker, which contained cadmium acid, began to leak.
Slowly, the coffin of metal filled with toxic gases. The Turks yelled, shook and banged at the plate that was weighing down on them. but the tanker continued on its way. Talat realized that no one was going to free them before their arrival point, and screaming or moving would only worsen the effects of the acid.
He remained still, breathing as little as possible.
At the Italian frontier, the travelers joined hands and prayed. At the German border, most of them were dead. At Nancy. where the first drop-off had been planned. the driver discovered a row of thirty corpses, covered with urine and excrement, mouths open in their last gasps.
Only one teenager had survived. But his respiratory system had been destroyed. His trachea, larynx and nasal fossae had been permanently burned-his sense of smell was lost. His vocal cords had been eroded-his voice would now be nothing but the rubbing of sandpaper. As for his breathing. chronic inflammations would mean that he regularly had to inhale steamy fumigations.
At the hospital, the doctor had called in an interpreter to give the young immigrant this devastating diagnosis and inform him that he would be sent back to Istanbul by plane in ten days' time. Three days later, Talat Gurdilek escaped, his face bandaged like a mummy, and walked to Paris.
Schiffer had always known him with his inhaler. When he was still just a young sweatshop manager, he always had it with him and spoke between two blasts. Later, he adopted a translucent mask that imprisoned his hoarse voice. Then his problems worsened, but his financial means had increased. At the end of the 1980s, Gurdilek purchased La Porte Bleue Turkish Baths on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis and took over a room for his own personal use. It was a sort of huge lung, a tiled refuge full of steam laden with mentholated Balsofumine.
"Salaam aleikum, Talat. I'm sorry to disturb you at bath time."
Wrapped in a cloud of steam, the man laughed again. "Aleikum salaam, Schiffer. So you're back from the dead."
The Turk's voice was like the crackling of flaming branches. "It's more the dead that have brought me back."
"I've been expecting you."
Schiffer took off his coat-he was soaked to the bone-then went down the steps into the pool. "Apparently everyone's been expecting me. So what can you tell me about the murders?"
The Turk sighed deeply with a scraping of metal. “When I left my country, my mother poured water after my steps. She traced out a path of chance, which was supposed to make me return. I never went back, my brother. I stayed in Paris and watched the situation deteriorate. Things have never been worse."
The cop was now just two yards from the boss, but he still could not make out the man's face.
"Exile is a hard labor, as the poet said. And I would say that it's getting even harder. In the past, they used to treat us like dogs. They exploited us, robbed us, arrested us. Now they're killing our women. Where will it all end?"
Schiffer was in no mood for such cracker-barrel philosophy "You're the one who sets the limits," he replied. Now three working girls have been killed on your territory, one of them from your own workshop. That's rather a lot."
Gurdelik agreed with an idle gesture. His shadowy shoulders were like a scorched mountain. "We're on French territory here. It's up to your police to protect us."
"Don't make me laugh. The Wolves are here, and you know it. What do they want?"
"I don't know."
"You don't want to know."
There was a silence. The Turk breathed deeply. “I’m the master of this quarter," he said at last. "But not of my country. This business started in Turkey "
"Who sent them?" Schiffer asked more loudly. "The clans of Istanbul? The families of Antep? The Lazes? Who?"
"I swear to you I don't know, Schiffer."
The cop stepped forward. At once, a rustling broke through the fog beside the pool. His bodyguards. He stopped immediately, trying to make out Gurdelik's appearance. But all he could see were fragments of shoulders, hands and torso. A dark, matte skin. wrinkled by water like crepe paper.
"So you're just going to let the massacre go on?"
"It will stop when they have sorted their business out, when they have found the girl."
"Or when I've found her."
The dark shoulders quaked. "Now it's my turn to laugh. You're no match for them."
"Who can help me find her?"
"Nobody. If anyone knew anything, they would have talked already.
And not to you to them. All that our people want is peace."
Schiffer thought for a moment. It was true what Gurdelik said. It was one of the aspects of the mystery that baffled him. How could this woman have survived so long with an entire community ready to betray her? And why were the Wolves still looking for her in the same neighborhood? Why were they so sure that she was still there?
He changed tack: "What happened exactly in your workshop?”
“I was in Munich at the time and I-"
"Cut the crap, Talat. I want all the details."
The Turk sighed in resignation. "They burst into the workshop on the night of November 13."
"At two AM."
"How many of them were there?"
"Did anyone see their faces?"
"They were wearing hoods. According to the girls, they were armed to the teeth. Rifles, handguns. The works."
The Adidas jacket had described the same scene. Warriors in commando getup, at work in the middle of Paris. In his forty years on the force, he had never heard of such a thing. What had this woman done to deserve such treatment?
"And then?" he murmured.
"They grabbed the girl and left. That's all. It was over in three minutes.”
“How did they identify her in the workshop?"
"They had a photo."
Schiffer took a step back and recited: "She was called Zeynep Tütengil. She was twenty-seven. Married to Burba Meng. No children. She lived at 34 Rue de la Fidelité. Originally from the Gaziantep area. Here since September 2001."
"You've done your homework, my brother. But this time, it won't get you anywhere."
"Where's her husband?"
"The other workers?"
"Forget this business. You're too square-headed for this kind of dung heap."
"Stop talking in riddles."
"In the good old days, everything was clear-cut. There were frontiers between the various camps. But now they no longer exist."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
Talat Gurdilek paused. Wisps of steam were still concealing his face. He finally said, "If you want to know more, ask the police."
Schiffer started. "The police? What police?"
"I've already told all this to the boys at the Louis-Blanc station." The burning of the mint suddenly seemed more intense.
Gurdilek leaned over his tiled block.
"Listen good, Schiffer, because I won't repeat myself. The night the Wolves left here, they ran into a patrol car. They were pursued but managed to lose your men. So they came around here asking questions."
Schiffer listened to this revelation in total amazement. For a fleeting moment, he thought that Nerteaux must have hidden this report from him. But there was no reason for him to have done so. The kid quite simply did not know about it.
The gravelly voice went on: "In the meantime, my girls had made themselves scarce. The cops just noted the break-in and the damage. The workshop manager didn't say a thing about the kidnapping or the commandos. In fact, he wouldn't have said anything at all if there hadn't been the girl."
Schiffer leapt to his feet. "What girl?"
"The cops discovered a worker, hidden away in the machine room in the baths."
Schiffer could not believe his ears. Since the beginning of the affair, someone had seen the Grey Wolves. And she had been questioned by the boys of the tenth arrondissement! How come Nerteaux had never heard about that? One thing was sure, the cops at the station had covered up their discovery. Jesus fucking Christ.
"And what was this girl called?"
"How old is she?"
"No, single. A strange girl. A loner."
"Where's she from?"
"Like Zeynep Tütengil?"
"Like all the girls in this workshop. She'd been working here for a few weeks. Since October."
"Did she see the kidnapping?"
"She had a front-row seat. The two of them were checking the temperature in the conduits. The Wolves took Zeynep while Sema hid in the back room. When the cops found her, she was in a state of shock. Half dead with fear."
"Never saw her again."
"They sent her back to Turkey?"
"Answer me, Talat. You must have asked around."
"Soma Gokalp has disappeared. The next day, she wasn't at the police station anymore. She vanished into thin air. Yemim ederim. I swear it!"
Schiffer was still sweating profusely. He forced himself to control his voice. "Who was leading the patrol that night?"
Christophe Beauvanier was one of the captains at Louis-Blanc. A budding Mr. Universe who spent all his spare time in the sports club. Not the sort who would keep a story like this under his hat. Word must have come from higher up… Frissons of excitement were shaking his drenched rags.
The boss seemed to be following his thoughts. "They're covering for the Wolves, Schiffer."
"Don't talk rubbish."
"I'm telling the truth, and you know it. They removed the witness. A woman who must have seen everything. Maybe even the face of one of the killers. Maybe a detail that would allow them to identify them. They're covering for the Wolves, that's all there is to it. The other murders were committed with their blessing. So you can drop your airs and graces of upholding law and order. You're no better than us."
Schiffer avoided swallowing his spit so as not to worsen the burning in his throat. Gurdelik was wrong. The Turks' influence could not possibly rise that high in the ranks of the French police. He was well placed to know that. For twenty years, he had liaised between the two worlds.
So there must be another explanation.
And yet, he could not get one detail out of his mind. A version that could corroborate the hypothesis of a plot in high places. The fact that an inquiry into three murders had been entrusted to Paul Nerteaux, an inexperienced captain just off the last banana boat. Only the kid himself believed that they trusted him that much. It was starting to smell of a setup…
Thoughts surged through his burning temples. If this shit heap was true, if this business really was part of a French-Turkish alliance, if the politicians of both countries really were working for their own interests, at the expense of those poor girls and the hopes of a young cop, then Schiffer would help him all the way.
Two men against the rest. That was the sort of situation he liked.
He turned around in the steam, waved to the old pasha, then without a word went back up the steps.
Gurdilek gargled a last laugh. "It's time to put your own house in order, my brother."
Schiffer shoved the door of the commissariat open with his shoulder.
Everyone's eyes focused on him. Soaked to the skin, he stared back, savoring their panicked expressions. Two patrols wearing oilskins were on their way out. Some lieutenants in leather jackets were slipping on their red armbands. The great maneuvers had begun.
Schiffer noticed a pile of Identikit portraits on the counter. He thought of Paul Nerteaux, who was handing out these posters in every police station in the tenth arrondissement, as if they were political handbills, without suspecting in the slightest that he had been set up. Another wave of fury gripped him.
Without a word, he climbed up to the first floor. He dived down a corridor dotted with plywood doors and went straight to the third one.
Beauvanier had not changed. Puffed-up build, black leather jacket and Nike trainers with massive soles. This cop was suffering from an affliction that was becoming rife among his fellows: youth culture. He was nearing fifty but was still trying to look like a trendy rapper.
He was putting on his belt, before heading out on his nocturnal expedition. "Schiffer?" he choked. "What the hell are you doing here?"
"How are things, sweetheart?"
Before he had time to answer, Schiffer grabbed him by the lapels of his jacket and rammed him against the wall. Some colleagues were already arriving in rescue. Beauvanier waved to them over his aggressor in a sign of peace.
"It's okay, lads. We're mates."
Schiffer murmured into his ear: "Soma Gokalp. Last November 13. Gurdelik's Turkish baths."
Beauvanier's eyes widened. His mouth trembled. Schiffer banged his head against the wall. The cops rushed at him. Schiffer could already feel them seizing his shoulders. But Beavanier waved his hand again, forcing himself to laugh. "I've told you, he's a friend. Everything's fine!"
The grip loosened. Footfalls receded. Finally, the door closed, slowly almost regretfully.
In turn, Schiffer relaxed his hold and asked, more calmly, "What did you do with the witness? How did you make her disappear?"
"It just happened like that, man. I didn't make anyone disappear…"
Schiffer stepped back to get a better look at him. His face was strangely sweet. The features of a young girl, ringed with extremely black hair and set with very blue eyes. Beauvanier reminded him of an Irish girlfriend he had had in his youth. An "Irish Black," full of contrasts, instead of the classic redhead.
The cop rapper was wearing a baseball cap, visor pointing at the nape of his neck, presumably to look even more like a bad boy.
Schiffer pulled over a chair and sat him down on it forcibly "I'm all ears. I want it down to the last detail."
Beauvanier tried to smile, in vain. "That night. a patrol car ran into a BMW There were these guys coming out of La Porte Bleue baths and-”
“I know all that. When did you come in?"
"Half an hour later. The boys called me up. I joined them at Gurdelik's place. With a unit of technical officers."
"Was it you who found the girl?"
"No, they'd already found her. She was soaking. You know how those girls work there, it's-"
"Describe her to me."
"Small. Brunette. As thin as a rake. Her teeth were chattering. She was mumbling incoherently. In Turkish."
"Did she tell you what she'd seen?"
"Not a thing. She couldn't even see we were there. The girl was completely traumatized." Beauvanier was not lying. His voice rang true.
Schiffer was pacing up and down the room, constantly peering at him. "What do you reckon happened there?"
"I dunno. Some racketeering, maybe. Some guys putting the scares on.
"Racketeering at Gurdelik's place? No one would try that one on him."
The officer adjusted his leather jacket, as though his neck was itching. "You never know with these Turks. There's maybe a new clan in the neighborhood. Or else it might be the Kurds. That's their business, man. Gurdelik didn't even want to press charges. So we just went through the motions…"
Another thought struck Schiffer. Nobody at La Porte Bleue had mentioned the kidnapping of Zeynep or the Grey Wolves. So Beauvanier really believed in this business about racketeering. No one had ever established the link between this little "visit" and the discovery of the first body, two days later.
"So what did you do with Sema Gokalp?"
"At the station, we gave her a tracksuit and some blankets. She was trembling all over. We found her passport sewn into her skirt. She didn't have a visa or anything. So straight to Immigration. I faxed them a report. Then I sent another fax to headquarters, Place Beauvau, just to cover myself. So all I had to do then was wait."
Beauvanier sighed, sliding his finger under his collar. "She just kept on trembling. It was getting worrisome. Her teeth were chattering. She couldn't eat or drink. At five AM, I decided to take her to Sainte-Anne's."
"Why you and not a patrolman?"
"Because they wanted to put her in a straitjacket. And then… dunno, there was something about her… So I filled out a 32-13 and took her along…"
His voice was fading. He was now constantly scratching his neck. Schiffer noticed deep acne scars. A druggie, he thought to himself.
"The next morning, I called up the boys at Immigration and told them to go to the hospital. At lunchtime, they phoned back. They hadn't found the girl."
"She'd run away?"
"No. Some policemen came and took her away at ten in the morning.”
"You're not going to believe this."
"According to the doctor on duty, they were from the DNAT.”
“The antiterrorist division?"
"I checked myself. They had a transfer order. Everything was aboveboard."
For a return to his precinct, Schiffer could not have hoped for a better fireworks display. He sat on a corner of the desk. Every time he moved, he gave off a whiff of mint.
"Did you contact them?"
"I tried to. But they weren't very forthcoming. From what I understood, they'd picked up my report at Place Beauvau. Then Charlier issued his orders."
The captain nodded. The entire story seemed to be right under his nose. Charlier was one of the five commissioners of the antiterrorist division. An ambitious officer, whom Schiffer had known since joining the anti-gang squad in 1977. A real bastard. Maybe smarter than he was, but just as brutal.
"And then nothing. Not another word."
"Don't bullshit me."
Beauvanier hesitated. There were beads of sweat on his forehead. He lowered his eyes. "The next day Charlier called in person. lie asked me loads of questions about the case. Where we'd found her, in what circumstances, and so on."
"What did you tell him?"
"What I knew."
In other words, nothing, dickhead, thought Schiffer.
The baseball-capped cop concluded: "Charlier told me that he'd now be dealing with the case. Seeing the magistrate, going to Immigration Control, the usual procedure. He hinted that I'd do well to keep quiet about it."
"Do you still have your report?"
A smile slipped over that panicked face. "What do you think? They came and picked it up that very day"
"What about the daybook?"
The smile turned to laughter.
"What daybook? Listen, man, they wiped out every trace. Even the recording of the radio message. They made the witness vanish. Just like that."
"How the hell should I know? That girl couldn't tell them anything. She was completely out to lunch."
"And you, why didn't you say anything?"
The cop lowered his voice. "Charlier's got a hold on me. An old story…"
Schiffer punched him on the arm, in a friendly manner, then stood up. Pacing around the room once more, he digested this information. Amazing as it might seem, the removal of Sema Gokalp by the DNAT belonged to another affair, which had nothing to do with the series of murders committed by the Grey Wolves. But that did not reduce the importance of this witness in his case. He had to find her because she had seen it all happen.
"Are you back on service?" Beauvanier hazarded.
Schiffer adjusted his drenched clothes and ignored the question. He noticed one of Nerteaux's Identikit pictures on the desk. He picked it up, like a bounty hunter, and asked, "Do you remember the name of the doctor who took charge of Sema at Sainte-Anne?"
"Of course. Jean-François Hirsch. We have a little arrangement about prescriptions and…"
Schiffer was no longer listening. His stare came to rest on the portrait. It was a skillful synthesis of the three victims. Smooth, broad features, shyly beaming out from under red hair. A fragment of Turkish poetry suddenly crossed his mind: The padishah had a daughter / Like the moon of the fourteenth day…
Beauvanier asked again, "Does that business at La Porte Bleue have anything to do with this girl?"
Schiffer pocketed the picture. He grabbed the officer's cap and turned it around the right way.
"If anyone asks, you can always give them some rap, man."
Sainte-Anne's Hospital. 21.00 hours.
He knew the place well. The long wall of the enclosure, with its serried stones; the small doorway at 17 Rue Broussais, as discreet as an artists' entrance; then the vast, undulating, intricate mass of buildings mingling different centuries and styles of architecture. A fortress, enclosing a universe of madness.
But that evening, the citadel did not seem as well guarded as all that. Banners hung up on the first façades announced the situation:
SECURITY ON STRIKE!
JOB CREATION OR DEATH!
Farther on, others added:
NO TO OVERTIME! MAKE-UP DAYS
FIDDLE! BANK HOLIDAYS STOLEN!
The idea of Paris 's largest psychiatric hospital being left to its own devices, with its patients running around in complete freedom, amused Schiffer. He could just picture such a bedlam, in which the lunatics had taken over the asylum and replaced the doctors on night duty. But as he entered, all he found was a completely deserted ghost town.
He followed the red signposts directing him to neurosurgical and neurological emergency admissions, looking at the names of the various alleyways as he went. He had just taken Allée Guy de Maupassant and was now in Sentier Edgar Allan Poe. He wondered if this was a symptom of the hospital planners' sense of humor. Maupassant had lost his reason before dying, and the alcoholic author of "The Black Cat" could not have had all his wits about him by the end either. In Communist neighborhoods, the streets were named after Karl Marx or Pablo Neruda. Here they commemorated the great lunatics.
Schiffer sniggered to himself, trying to keep up his usual appearance of a hard cop. But he already felt panic biting into him. There were too many memories, too much agony behind these walls…
It was in one of these buildings that he had ended up on returning from Algeria, when he was only just twenty. Traumatized by what he had seen and done. He had remained as an inpatient for several months, dogged by hallucinations and suicidal tendencies. Others, who had fought by his side in the Détachements Operationnels de Protection, did not hesitate. He remembered one youngster from Lille who had hanged himself as soon as he got home. And another from Brittany who had cut off his right hand with an axe on his father's farm-the hand he had used to plug in the electrodes and then to press heads down in bathtubs…
Emergency admissions was deserted.
It was a large, empty space, covered with scarlet tiles-the pulp of a blood orange. Schiffer pressed the bell, then saw a traditionally dressed nurse arrive, with her white coat done up at the waist with a belt, her hair in a bun, and bifocals on her nose.
The woman looked ill at ease when she saw his gaunt appearance, but he quickly flashed his card at her and explained the reason for his visit. Without a word, she set off in search of Dr. Jean-François Hirsch.
He sat down on one of the seats that were attached to the wall. The ceramic tiles seemed to be growing darker. Despite all his efforts, he just could not chase away the memories that were surging up from the depths of his skull.
When he had arrived in Algeria, as an intelligence officer, he had not attempted to evade the brutality of his work or escape from it by using alcohol or pills from the infirmary. On the contrary, he had gone at it hammer and tongs, day and night, convinced that he was still master of his own destiny. War had forced him to make the big decision, the only choice that mattered: which side he was on. He could no longer change his mind or turn his coat. And he had to be in the right. It was that or blow your brains out.
He tortured people twenty-four hours a day. He dragged confessions out of the local populace. First by using the traditional methods of beatings, electrocution and drowning. Then he had come up with his own techniques. He had organized fake executions, dragging hooded prisoners out of the town, watching them shit themselves as he pressed his gun against their heads. He had devised cocktails of acid, which he had forced them to drink, by pushing funnels down their throats. He had stolen medical instruments from hospitals in order to vary the treatment, for example, the stomach pump that he used to inject water into their nostrils.
He shaped and sculpted fear, always giving it new forms. When he decided to bleed his prisoners, both to weaken them and give their blood to victims of terrorist attacks, he felt strangely light-headed. It was as if he were becoming a god. holding the right to give life or death to humankind. Sometimes, in the interrogation room, he would laugh out of context, blinded by his power, staring with wonder at the blood covering his fingers.
A month later, he had become completely mute and had been repatriated. His jaw was paralyzed. He was incapable of pronouncing the slightest word. He had been admitted to Sainte-Anne, in a unit entirely devoted to traumatized combatants. The sort of place where the walls echoed with groans, where it was impossible to finish your breakfast before one of your neighbors had vomited over it.
Enclosed in silence, Schiffer lived a life of pure terror. In the gardens, he lost his sense of direction, no longer knowing where he was, asking other patients if they were the detainees he had tortured. When he walked in the galleries of the main building, he inched along the walls so that his "victims wouldn't see him."
When he slept, nightmares took over from his hallucinations. Naked men writhing on chairs, testicles sparking below the electrodes, jaws cracking against enamel sinks, bleeding nostrils blocked with syringes.. In fact, they were not visions but memories. Above all, he pictured the man hung upside down, whose skull he had smashed with a kick. Then he woke up, covered in sweat, feeling those brains splash out over him once more. He looked around the interior of his room and saw the smooth walls of a cellar, the bathtub that had been taken down there, and, on the table in the middle, the generator and ANGRC-9 radio..
Doctors explained to him that it was impossible to repress such memories. Instead, they advised him to confront them, to allot a moment of close attention to them every day. Such a strategy fitted with his personality. He had not drawn back when out in the field, and he was not going to fall to pieces now, in these gardens full of ghosts.
He had signed himself out and returned to civil existence.
He applied to become a policeman, concealing his psychiatric problems, and emphasizing his rank of sergeant and his military decorations. The political context played in his favor. There were more and more terrorist attacks by the OAS (Organisation de l'Armée Secrète) in Paris. They needed more men to track down those responsible. They needed experienced field operatives… And there, he was in his element. His street savvy had astonished his superiors. His methods, too. He worked alone, without anyone's help. All that mattered to him were the results, no matter how they were obtained.
His existence would henceforth be in this image. He would rely on himself and only on himself. He would be above the law, above human considerations. He would be a law unto himself, drawing from his own willpower the right to deliver justice. It was a sort of cosmic pact: his word against the shit heap of the world.
"What can I do for you?"
The voice made him jump. He stood up and took in the new arrival.
Jean-François Hirsch was tall-over six feet-and slim. His long arms ended in massive hands. To Schiffer, they looked like two counter weights to balance his slender frame. His head also was large, rimmed with brown curly hair… another counterweight. He was wearing not a white coat but a heavy green one. Apparently, he was on his way home. Schiffer introduced himself without producing his card. "Chief Lieutenant Jean-Louis Schiffer. I have a few questions to ask you. It will only take a few minutes."
"I was on my way out. And I'm late. Can't it wait till tomorrow?" The voice was yet another counterweight. Deep. Stable. Solid.
"Sorry," Schiffer said. "It's important."
The doctor looked him up and down. The smell of mint drifted between them like a barrier of freshness. Hirsch sighed and sat down on one of the bolted seats. "Okay, so what's the problem?"
Schiffer remained standing. "It's about a young Turkish woman you examined on the morning of November 14, 2001. She had been brought in by Lieutenant Christophe Beauvanier."
"What about her?"
"It would seem that there were some procedural irregularities."
"What department are you from?"
The cop played double or nothing. "It's an internal inquiry. I'm from the Générale Inspection des Services."
"I warn you right from the start that I'll tell you nothing about Beauvanier. Ever heard of professional ethics?" The quack had misunderstood the point of the inquiry. Obviously he must have helped Mr. Universe get over one of his drug problems.
Schiffer got on his high horse. "My inquiry does not concern Christophe Beauvanier, even though you put him on a course of methadone."
The doctor raised an eyebrow-Schiffer had guessed right-then adopted a lighter tone: "So what do you want to know exactly?"
"What interests me about the Turkish girl are the policemen who took her in the next day"
The psychiatrist crossed his legs and smoothed down his trousers.
"They arrived about four hours after she had been admitted. They had a transfer order and an expulsion certificate. Everything was in order. Almost too much so, I'd say."
"The forms were stamped and signed. They had come directly from the Minister of the Interior. And this was only ten in the morning. It was the first time I'd seen so much red tape pulled over an anonymous asylum-seeker."
"Tell me about her."
Hirsch stared at the tips of his shoes. He was getting his thoughts together. "When she arrived, I thought she was suffering from hypothermia. She was trembling and breathless. But when I examined her, I found that her temperature was normal. Nor had her respiratory system been damaged. Her symptoms were caused by hysteria."
"What do you mean?"
He smiled in superiority "I mean that she had the physical symptoms, but none of the physiological causes. It all came from here." He pointed a finger at his temple. "The head. That woman had received a psychological shock. And her body was reacting as a result."
"What sort of shock do you think it was?"
"Terrible fear. She had all the signs of exogenic anxiety. A blood test confirmed it. We detected traces of a high discharge of hormones. There was also a particularly sharp rise of cortisol. But all this is getting a little technical for you…" The smile widened.
The man's superiority was starting to piss Schiffer off.
The doctor seemed to sense this, adding in a more neutral tone, "That woman had suffered enormous stress. So much so, you could say she had been traumatized. She reminded me of soldiers you sometimes see after battles, on the front. Inexplicable paralysis, sudden asphyxia, stuttering, that kind of-"
"I know Describe her to me. I mean physically."
"Brown hair. Very pale. Very thin, almost anorexic. With a Cleopatra haircut. A very harsh look, but it didn't detract from her beauty. On the contrary. In that respect, she was rather… impressive."
Schiffer was beginning to picture her. Instinctively, he sensed that she could not have been just a plain working girl.
`And you treated her?"
"I started by injecting a tranquilizer. Her muscles then relaxed. She began to laugh and chatter incoherently. It was a fit of delirium. What she said was meaningless."
"But she was speaking in Turkish, wasn't she?"
"No, in French, like you and me."
A completely crazy idea crossed Schiffer's mind. But he decided to push it into the distance so as to keep a cool head. "Did she tell you what she'd seen? What had happened at the Turkish baths?"
"No. She just came out with unfinished sentences, senseless words.”
"She said that the wolves had got it wrong. Yes, that's it… she talked about wolves. She kept saying that they'd taken away the wrong girl. It was incomprehensible."
The idea flashed back forcefully into his consciousness. How had that working girl known that the kidnappers were Grey Wolves? How did she know that they had hit the wrong target? There was only one answer. Their real prey was her.
Sema Gokalp was the woman to be hit.
Schiffer fitted the pieces of the puzzle together with ease. The killers had a lead: their target worked at night, in Talat Gurdilek's sweatshop. They had arrived in the laundry and taken away the first woman who looked like the photo in their possession: Zeynep Tütengil. But they had made a mistake. The real redhead had taken the precaution of dying her hair brown.
Another idea occurred to him. He took the Identikit portrait from his pocket.
"Did she look at all like this?"
The man leaned over. "No. Why the question?"
Schiffer pocketed the picture without answering.
A second flash. Another confirmation. Sema Gokalp-or the woman who was hiding behind that name-had taken her metamorphosis even further. She had altered her face. She had resorted to plastic surgery. A classic technique for those who burn their bridges thoroughly. Especially in the world of crime. Then she had adopted the identity of a simple working girl, in the steam of La Porte Bleue. But why had she stayed in Paris?
"It wasn't about racketeering."
"No, the Grey Wolves are back, Charlier. They were the ones who raided the baths. That night, they kidnapped a girl. The corpse that we discovered two days later."
Charlier's bushy eyebrows seemed to form two question marks. "Why would they bother slicing up a working girl like that?"
"They have a contract. They are looking for a woman in the Turkish quarter. You can trust me on that score. And they've got the wrong one three times now."
"What connection is there with Sema Gokalp?"
It was now time to lie a little.
"That night at the baths, she saw everything. She's a vital witness."
A twitch passed across Charlier's eyes. He had not been expecting that. Not at all. "So what do you think it's all about? What's at stake?"
Schiffer lied once more. "I don't know. But I'm looking for the killers, and Sema could put me on the right track."
Charlier leaned back into his chair. "Give me just one reason to help you."
The cop finally sat down. The negotiation had begun. "I'm feeling generous," he said, and smiled. "So I'll give you two. The first is that I could reveal to your superiors that you spirit away witnesses in a murder case. That's not bad for a start."
Charlier smiled back at him. "I've got all the paperwork. I can provide her expulsion order and her plane ticket. Everything's in order."
"Your arm is long, Charlier, but it doesn't stretch as far as Turkey. With just one phone call, I could prove that Sema Gokalp never arrived there."
The commissioner seemed to weigh less heavily on his chair. "Who'd believe a crooked cop? Ever since your days in the anti-gang, you've been collecting skeletons in your cupboard." He opened his hands, indicating the room. And I'm at the top of the pyramid."
"That's the advantage of my position. I have nothing to lose.”
“Give me the second reason."
Schiffer leaned his elbows on the desk. He now knew that he had won. "The stiffening of security measures in 1995. When you let yourself go on those North African suspects in the Louis-Blanc station."
"Are you blackmailing a commissioner?"
"Or else getting it off my conscience. I'm retired. I might feel like making a clean breast of it. Of my memories of Abdel Saraoui, whom you beat to death. If I open the way, the boys at Louis-Blanc will all follow. Believe me, they still haven't digested the howls that came from his ell that night."
Charlier was staring at the paper knife in his huge hands. When he next spoke, his voice had changed. "Sema Gokalp can't help you anymore."
"You mean you-"
"No, she underwent an experiment."
"What kind of experiment?"
Schiffer repeated, "What kind of experiment?"
"Psychic conditioning. A new technique."
So that was it. Psychic manipulation had always fascinated Charlier.
Infiltrating terrorists' minds, conditioning consciousnesses, that kind of crap… Sema Gokalp was a guinea pig, the subject of some crazy experimentation.
Schiffer thought over the absurdity of the situation. Charlier had not chosen Sema Gokalp; she had quite simply fallen into his hands. He did not know that she had altered her appearance. Nor did he know who she really was.
He stood back up, charged with electricity from head to foot.
"Because of her mental state. Sema was suffering from partial amnesia, which made her all the more suitable to undergo the experiment." Schiffer leaned forward, as though he had problems hearing. "Are you telling me that you brainwashed her?"
"Yes, the program did use such treatment."
Schiffer banged his fists on the table. "Fucking idiots. That was the last memory you should have wiped out! She had things to tell me!" Charlier raised an eyebrow "I don't understand what you're going on about. How could that girl have anything of importance to reveal? She just saw a few Turks making off with a woman, that's all."
Onward again. "She's got some information about the killers," Schiffer said at last while prowling around the room like a caged beast. "I also think she knows the identity of the target."
"The woman the Wolves are looking for. And have not yet found.”
“Does it really matter?"
"Three murders, Charlier. They're starting to mount up, aren't they? And they'll go on killing until they find her."
"And you want to hand her over?"
The movement of Charlier's shoulders almost split the stitches in his shirt. Finally he said. "Anyway. I can no longer help you."
"Does it look as if I am?"
Schiffer did not know whether to laugh or scream. He sat back down, grabbing the paper knife that Charlier had just dropped. "Bloody incompetent, as usual. What happened?"
"The aim of our experiment was to alter a personality completely. Something never attempted before. We managed to transform her into a middle-class Frenchwoman, married to a top civil servant. A simple Turkish girl, can you imagine that? There's now no limit to conditioning. We're going to-"
"I don't give a shit about your experiment." Schiffer said, butting in. "Just tell me how she got away"
The commissioner frowned. "Over the past few weeks, she'd been having attacks of forgetfulness, or hallucinations. The new personality we had given her was starting to break up. We were about to hospitalize her when she split."
"When was that?"
"Yesterday. Tuesday morning."
Unbelievable. The target of the Grey Wolves was back on the streets. Neither Turkish nor French. With a mind like a sieve. From the bottom of this darkness, a light shone.
"So her original memory is coming back?"
"We don't know But she certainly didn't trust us anymore."
"Where are your men at?"
"Nowhere. They're searching Paris. And still haven't found her."
It was the moment to play his ace. He stuck the paper knife into the wooden desk. "If her memory's returning, then she'll react like a Turk. And that's my area. I stand the best chance of copping her."
The commissioner's expression changed.
Schiffer pressed his point: "She's a Turk, Charlier. A special sort of game. You need someone who knows that universe and who will act discreetly"
He could follow the idea that was making its way through the giant's brain. He stepped back, as though taking aim. "Here's the deal: You give me twenty-four hours. If I find her, then I'll hand her over to you. But I get to question her first."
Another pregnant silence. Finally, Charlier opened a drawer and produced a pile of documents.
"Her file. She's now called Anna Heymes and-"
In a single bound, Schiffer grabbed the cardboard folder and opened it. He flicked through the typed pages, the medical reports, and found the target's new face. Exactly as Hirsch had described her. There was not a single feature in common with the redhead the killers were tracking. From that point of view, Sema Gokalp had nothing more to fear.
The antiterrorist warrior went on: "The neurologist treating her is named Eric Ackermann, and-"
"I couldn't care less about her new personality or who did what to her. She's going to return to her origins. That's what matters. What do you know about Sema Gokalp? About the Turk she used to be?"
Charlier wriggled in his chair. Veins were beating at the base of his neck, just above his shirt collar. "Nothing at all! She was just a working girl with amnesia-"
"Did you keep her clothes, her papers, her personal effects?"
Charlier swept the question away with his hand. "We destroyed everything. At least I think we did."
"They were just scruffy rags. Nothing of any interest for-”
“Just pick up your fucking phone and check."
Charlier grabbed the receiver. After two calls, he groaned. "I don't believe it. Those useless asses forgot to destroy her clothes."
"Where are they?"
"In a deposit box at headquarters. Beauvanier had given her new threads. And the boys at Louis-Blanc sent the old ones to the prefecture. No one thought of going to fetch them. So much for an elite brigade…”
“What name were they registered under?"
"Sema Gokalp, of course. When we fuck up, we don't do things halfway." He picked up another form, this one blank, which he started to fill in. An open sesame to the prefecture.
Like two predators sharing the same prey, Schiffer thought.
The commissioner signed the paper then slid it across the desk.
"You've got all night. If you fuck up. I'll call in the Special Branch." Schiffer pocketed the pass and stood up. "You won't saw off the branch. We're sitting on the same one."
It was time to come clean with the kid.
Jean-Louis Schiffer went back up Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré and turned onto Avenue Matignon, where he spotted a phone booth just by the traffic circle on the Champs-Elysées. His cell phone's battery was dead again.
After just one ring, Paul Nerteaux yelled, "Jesus Christ, Schiffer. Where the hell are you?" His voice was trembling with rage.
"In the eighth arrondissement, with the bigwigs."
"It's nearly midnight. What on earth have you been doing? I waited for hours at Sancak's and-"
"A crazy story but I've got plenty of news."
"Are you in a phone booth? I'll find another one and call you back. My battery's dead."
Schiffer hung up, wondering if the police might one day miss the arrest of the century because of a lack of lithium. He half opened the door of the booth-he was stifling himself with his own mint stench.
The night was mild, with no rain or breeze. He observed the passersby, the shopping malls, the gray stone buildings. An existence of luxury, of comfort that had eluded him but was perhaps now back in his reach…
The phone rang. He did not give Nerteaux time to speak.
"Where are you at with your patrols?"
"I've got two vans and three cars," he replied proudly. "Seventy patrolmen and officers from the BAC are combing the area. I've declared the entire neighborhood an emergency zone. I've given the Identikit portraits to all the commissariats and police units in the tenth. All the homes, bars and associations have been searched. There isn't a single person in Little Turkey who hasn't gotten the picture. I'm about to go to the police station in the second and-"
"Forget all that."
"This is no time to play soldier. We've got the wrong face.”
Schiffer took a deep breath. "The woman we're looking for has had plastic surgery. That's why the Grey Wolves can't find her."
"Do you… do you have proof?"
"I've even got her new face. Everything fits. She shelled out several hundred million francs in order to wipe out her previous identity. She completely changed her physical appearance. She's dyed her hair brown and lost twenty kilos. Then she hid out in the Turkish quarter six months ago."
Silence. When Nerteaux next spoke, his voice had lost several decibels. "Who… who is she? How did she get the money for the operation?"
"No idea," Schiffer lied. "But she's no simple working girl."
"What else have you found out?"
Schiffer thought for a few seconds. Then he told it all. The raid by the Grey Wolves, who had grabbed the wrong target. Sema Gokalp in a state of shock. Her detention at Louis-Blanc, then admission to Sainte-Anne's. The kidnapping organized by Charlier and the grotesque treatment. Finally, the woman's new identity: Anna Heymes.
When he stopped talking, Schiffer could almost hear the cogs turning at full speed in the young officer's brain. He imagined him completely stunned in a phone booth, lost somewhere in the tenth arrondissement. Like him. Two coral fishermen suspended in their lonely cages, in the middle of the ocean's depths…
Finally, Paul asked skeptically, "Who told you all this?"
"Charlier in person."
"We're old pals."
Schiffer burst out laughing. "I see that you're starting to understand what sort of world we're in. In 1995, after the explosion in the Saint-Michel RER station, the DNAT-which was still called the Sixth Division-was decidedly nervous. A new law allowed them to detain people longer, without charge. It was real hell. I know, because I was there. There were roundups all over town, in Islamist groups, and especially in the tenth. One night, Charlier turned up at Louis-Blanc. He was sure that he had the right suspect-a certain Abdel Saroui. He went at him with his bare fists. I was in the office next door. The next morning, the guy died of a ruptured liver in Saint-Louis Hospital. So this evening, I reminded him of the good old days."
"You're so corrupt that you're almost coherent."
"Who cares, so long as we get a result?"
"I had a different idea of my crusade, that's all."
Schiffer opened the booth door again and took a breath of fresh air. "So now," Paul asked, "where's Sema?"
"That's the icing on the cake, son. She's just escaped. She lost them yesterday morning. She must have found out what they were up to. Her original memory must be coming back."
"Exactly. There's a woman wondering around Paris right now with two identities, with two groups of bastards chasing her, and with us in the middle. In my opinion, she must be investigating her own past. She's trying to find out who she really is."
Another pause from the other end of the line. Then: "So what do we do now?"
"I've made a deal with Charlier. I convinced him that I was the best placed to find the girl. Turks are my specialty. So he's handed me the case, for one night. He's on a knife's edge. His project was illegal. And it could blow up in his face. I've got his file on the new Sema, and two leads. The first one's for you, if you're still in the race."
He could hear the sound of pages turning. Nerteaux was taking out his notepad.
"Plastic surgery Sema paid big money for one of the best surgeons in Paris. We have to find him, because he was in contact with the real target, before her operation, before she was brainwashed. He must be the only person in town who can tell us anything about the woman the Grey Wolves are looking for. Are you up for it?"
Nerteaux did not reply at once; he was presumably writing this down. "There must be hundreds of names to go through."
"Not at all. You have to go to see the best, the real virtuosos. And among them, the ones who lack scruples. Having your face completely redone is never innocent. You've got all night. At the speed things are going, we won't be alone on this lead for long."
"No. Charlier doesn't even know that she's altered her appearance. I'm talking about the Grey Wolves. They've been held in check for three months now So they're going to end up figuring out that they're not looking for the right face. Plastic surgery will occur to them, and they'll be looking for the quack. We're going to end up on the same track. I can just feel it. I'll leave you the girl's file at Rue de Nancy. with the photo of her new face. Go fetch it, then start working."
"Shall I give the portrait to the patrols?"
Schiffer broke into a sweat. "That's the last thing you should do. Just show it to the doctors at the same time as the Identikit. Got me?" Silence once again saturated the line.
They were, more than ever, like a pair of divers lost in the deep. "What about you?" Nerteaux asked.
"I'll take care of the second lead. Luckily enough, the boys from the DNAT forgot to destroy Sema's old clothes. They might contain a clue, an indication, something to lead us back to her former identity"
He looked at his watch. Midnight. They did not have much time left, but he still wanted to make a final check: "So, nothing new your end?"
"The Turkish quarter is being put to the sword, but now.."
"And Naubrel and Matkowska still haven't come up with anything?"
"No, nothing." Nerteaux sounded astonished by the question. The kid must have thought that the investigation into the high-pressure chambers did not interest him. On the contrary, this business of nitrogen bubbles intrigued him.
When Scarbon had mentioned it, he had added, "I'm no diver." But Schiffer was. In his youth, he had spent ages exploring the Red Sea and the coast of China. He had even considered the idea of dropping everything and opening a diving school in the Pacific. So he knew that high pressure does not just create a problem of gas in the blood-it also leads to hallucinations, a state of drunkenness that divers call rapture of the depths.
At the beginning of their inquiries, when they thought they were tracking a serial killer. this detail puzzled Schiffer. He did not see why a murderer capable of slicing up women's vaginas with razor blades would be bothered to create nitrogen bubbles in his victims' veins. It did not fit. However, in the context of a grilling, this rapture of the depths had a point.
One of the bases of torture was the "nice and nasty" technique. A good beating, then offer a cigarette. A few electroshocks, then a sandwich. It is in fact during these moments of respite that the person generally cracks.
By using a chamber, the Wolves had quite simply applied this alternation while bringing it to its ultimate state. After the most terrible torments, they had suddenly submitted their subjects to an abrupt feeling of relaxation and euphoria brought on by high pressure. They were presumably hoping that the violence of this contrast would make them speak, or that the drunkenness would act as a truth serum…
Schiffer sensed, behind this nightmarish technique, the implacable presence of a master of ceremonies. A genius of torture.
He chased away his own panic and murmured, "There can't be that many pressure chambers in Paris."
"My men haven't found anything. They've been to the sites where such equipment is found. They've questioned the industrial engineers who conduct tests on resistance. It's a blind alley"
Schiffer heard a strange note in Nerteaux's voice. Was he hiding something? But he did not have time to press the point.
"What about the ancient masks?" he went on.
"Does that interest you, too?" Paul was increasingly skeptical.
"In a situation like this," Schiffer replied, "everything interests me. One of the Wolves might have an obsession, a particular kink. Where are you at now?"
"Nowhere. And I haven't had the time to progress. I don't even know if my boys have found any more sites, and-"
He butted in: "Report back in two hours. And find a way to recharge your battery" He hung up. In a flash, Nerteaux's figure passed before his eyes. His Indian hair, his eyes like grilled almonds. A cop whose features were too fine, who did not shave and who dressed in black to make himself look tough. But also a born policeman, despite his naiveté.
He realized that he liked the kid. He even wondered if he was not starting to go soft, if he had been right to include Nerteaux in what had now become his investigation. Had he told him too much?
He left the phone booth and hailed a cab. No. He had kept back his trump card.
He had not told Nerteaux the most important point.
He climbed into the car and gave the address of police headquarters, Quai des Orfèvres.
He now knew who the target was, and why the Grey Wolves were looking for her. Because he had spent the last ten months looking for her, too.
A rectangular box of white wood, seventy centimeters long by thirty deep, struck with the red wax seal of the French Republic. Schiffer blew the dust off the lid and said to himself that the only remaining proof of Sema Golkalp's existence lay in this baby's coffin.
He took out his Swiss Army knife, slid its finest blade beneath the seal, snapped the red blotch and lifted the top. A musty smell rose to his nostrils. As soon as he saw the garments, he just knew that they would contain something for him. Instinctively, he glanced over his shoulder. He was in the basement of the Palais de Justice, in the booth with a filthy curtain where freed prisoners could discreetly check that all their personal effects had been returned to them.
The ideal place to dig up a corpse.
First he found a white coat and a mobcap of creased paper-the standard uniform of Gurdilek's workers. Then her day clothes: a long pale green skirt, a crocheted raspberry red cardigan, a slate blue blouse with a rounded collar. Cheap rags from the cheapest of stores.
The clothes were Western, but their cut, colors and above all context gave them the look of Turkish peasant girls, who still wore baggy mauve trousers and bright yellow or green blouses. He felt sinister desire rising inside him, excited by the idea of stripping, humiliation and servile poverty. The pale body he pictured beneath these clothes bit into his nerves.
He looked at the underwear. A small, flesh-colored bra and a pair of fluffy, black, threadbare panties, whose shiny appearance had been caused by wear. They suggested the figure of an adolescent. He thought of the three corpses: wide hips, heavy breasts. This woman had not just altered her face-she had sculpted her body down to the bone.
He continued his search. Worn-out shoes, laddered tights, a shabby fleece coat. The pockets had been emptied. He felt down to the bottom of the box in the hope that their contents had been placed there together. A plastic bag confirmed his hopes. It contained a set of keys, a book of metro tickets, beauty products imported from Istanbul…
He examined the keys. They always fascinated him. He knew each and every type: flat ones, crosscut ones, lever keys, or those with active branches. He was also an expert when it came to locks. Their mechanisms reminded him of the cogs inside the human body, which he loved to violate, torture, control.
He looked at the two keys on the ring. One opened a grooved lock-probably of some home, hotel room or derelict apartment, long occupied by members of the Turkish community. The second was flat and presumably was for the upper lock on the same door.
Schiffer stifled a curse. His search had turned up nothing. These objects and garments simply sketched the portrait of an anonymous working girl. Too anonymous, for that matter. It stank of fancy dress, of a caricature.
He was sure that Sema Gokalp had a hiding place somewhere. When you are capable of changing your face, losing twenty kilos, voluntarily adopting the underground existence of a slave, then you must have a place to fall back on.
Schiffer remembered what Beauvanier had said: We found her passport sewn into her skirt. With his fingers, he felt each garment. He lingered over the lining of the coat. Along the lower hem, his fingers came to rest on a lump. A hard, long, jagged protuberance.
He tore open the material and shook it. A key dropped into his hand. A piped key stamped with the number 4C 32.
He thought: It must be a luggage locker.
"No, not baggage check. They use codes now."
Cyril Brouillard was a brilliant locksmith. Jean-Louis Schiffer had found his wallet on the site of a break-in, where a supposedly impregnable safe had been opened with the skill of a virtuoso. He had then gone to the address of the owner of the ID papers and come across a young, shortsighted man with shaggy fair hair. When Schiffer gave him back his documents, he told him that he ought to learn to be less absentminded. He had then covered up the break-in in exchange for an original Bellmer lithograph.
"So what is it?"
"A furniture warehouse."
Since that night. Brouillard had done whatever Schiffer asked. Opening doors for unauthorized searches, turning locks to catch crooks red-handed, safe-breaking to obtain compromising documents. This thief was a perfect alternative to having a warrant.
He lived above his shop on Rue de Lancry -a locksmith's workshop that he had bought, thanks to his nocturnal activities.
"Can you tell me more?"
Brouillard examined the key beneath his desk lamp. He was unlike any other burglar. As soon as he approached a lock, a miracle happened. A vibration. A touch. A mystery that unfolded. Schiffer never wearied of watching him at work. It was like observing some hidden force of nature. The very essence of an inexplicable gift.
"At Surger's," the crook whispered. "You can see the letters engraved on the side."
"Do you know the place?"
"Of course. I've got several cubbyholes there myself. It's open day and night."
"Chateau-Landon. On Rue Girard."
Schiffer swallowed his spit. It seemed on fire. "Do you have the entry code?"
"AB 756. Your key is numbered 4C 32. On level four. The floor with the miniboxes." Cyril Brouillard looked up, pushing back his glasses. His voice waxed lyrical. "The floor with the little treasure troves.
The building looked out over the tracks of Gare de l'Est, as imposing and solitary as a cargo ship coming into port. With its four floors, it looked as though it had been renovated and freshly painted. An island of cleanliness harboring goods in transit.
Schiffer went through the first gate and crossed the garage.
It was 2:00 AM, and he was expecting to see a night watchman appear, wearing a black outfit marked SURGER, flanked by an aggressive dog and carrying an electric prod.
But no one came.
He entered the code and opened the glass door. At the far end of the hall, which was plunged in a strange red glow, he saw a concrete corridor, punctuated by a series of metal doors. Every twenty yards, perpendicular alleyways crossed the main axis, creating the impression of a labyrinth of compartments.
He walked straight on, beneath the safety lights, until he reached a staircase at the far end. Each of his steps made an almost imperceptible dull thud on the pearl gray cement. Schiffer savored the silence, the solitude, the mingled tension of power and illegal entry.
He reached the fourth floor and stopped. Another corridor opened up, containing apparently smaller compartments. The floor with the little treasure troves. Schiffer searched in his pocket and removed the key. He read the numbers on the doors, became lost, then finally found 4C 32.
Before opening it, he stood still. He could almost sense the presence of the Other, there behind the barrier-of this woman who still did not have a name.
He knelt down, turned the key in the lock, then swiftly raised the metal screen.
A box measuring three feet by three appeared in the gloom. Empty. He kept cool. He had not been expecting to find a compartment full of furniture and audio equipment.
From his pocket, he took out the flashlight he had pinched from Brouillard. Crouching at the threshold, he slowly played the beam around the concrete cube, lighting up the slightest cranny, each cinder block, until he discovered a cardboard box at the back.
The Other was closer and closer.
He dived into the darkness, stopping in front of the box. He stuck his flashlight between his teeth and started to search.
There were clothes, all of dark colors, and all by famous designers:
Issey Miyake, Helmut Lang, Fendi, Prada… His fingers ran up against some underwear. A clear darkness. That was what came to mind. The material was of an almost indecent softness and sensuality. The watered silk seemed to retain its own reflections. The lace fluttered from the contact of his hands… This time no desire, no erection. The pretentiousness of such lingerie, the haughty pride that could be seen in it, cut away any such thoughts.
He went on searching and found, wrapped in a silk scarf, a second key. A strange, rudimentary, flat key. More work for Monsieur Brouillard. All that was missing now was the final proof.
He looked further, rummaging, scattering.
Suddenly, a golden brooch, depicting poppy leaves, caught the beam of his flashlight, like a magic scarab. He dropped his light, which was dripping with sweat, spat, then murmured into the darkness: "Allaha sükür!' You're back."*
"God be praised!"
Mathilde Wilcrau had never been so near to a positron camera.
From the outside, it looked just like a traditional scanner: a wide, white wheel with a stainless-steel stretcher inside, equipped with various analytical and measuring instruments; nearby a stand supporting a drip; a small trolley covered with vacuum-packed syringes and plastic bottles. In the half-light of the room, it made for a strange construction. A sort of massive hieroglyph.
To get access to such a machine, the fugitives had had to go as far as the University Hospital in Reims, some sixty miles from Paris. Eric Ackermann knew the head of its radiology department and had telephoned him at his home. The doctor had immediately dashed out to welcome the neurologist effusively. He looked like a frontier officer, receiving the visit of a famous general.
For six hours, Ackermann had been slaving feverishly around the machine. In the control room, Mathilde Wilcrau watched him at work. Leaning over Anna, who was lying with her head inside the machine, he was giving her injections, checking the drip and projecting images onto a tilted mirror inside the upper reaches of the cylinder. And most of all, he was talking.
As she watched him through the window, running around like a mad thing, Mathilde could not resist succumbing to a certain fascination. This lanky, immature creature, to whom she would not lend her car, had pulled off a unique scientific experiment in a vicious political context. He had made a huge step forward in the understanding and control of the brain.
In other circumstances, this advance could have led to major therapeutic developments. It would have inscribed his name in the history books of neurology and psychiatry. Would the Ackermann method get a second chance?
The tall redhead was still busying himself and twitching nervously. Mathilde read between his gestures. Apart from the tension caused by this special session, Ackermann was drugged up to the eyeballs. He was hooked on speed or other uppers. In fact, as soon as they had arrived in the hospital, he had made a shopping trip to the pharmacy. Such synthetic drugs suited him perfectly. He was a thing possessed, living by and for chemical substances…
Lulled by the purring of the computers, Mathilde had nodded off on several occasions. Then she had woken up and tried to gather her thoughts. In vain. One idea blinded her, like a moth by the light.
The day before, she had picked up a vulnerable creature with amnesia, as fragile as a baby. Then the discovery of that henna had changed everything. The woman had crystallized around that revelation, like quartz. At that moment, she seemed to understand that the worst was no longer to be feared, it was to be sought-and confronted. It was she who had decided to take the enemy by surprise and trap Eric Ackermann, despite the risks involved.
It was she who was now in command.
Then, during the questioning in the garage, Sema Gokalp had appeared. The mysterious working girl, with all her contradictions. The asylum-seeker from Anatolia who spoke perfect French. The prisoner in a state of shock, whose silence and altered face concealed a different past… Who hid behind this new name? Who was this person who was capable of transforming herself utterly into someone else?
The answer would come back with her memory. Anna Heymes. Sema Gokalp… she was like a Russian doll, with layered identities, with each name, each appearance containing another secret.
Eric Ackermann got up from his chair. He removed the catheter from Anna's arm, pushed away the drip and tilted up the mirror in the machine. The experiment was over. Mathilde stretched, then tried one more time to put her thoughts in order. She just couldn't. Another image chased that hope away.
Those red lines on the hands of Muslim women seemed to trace out an unbridgeable frontier between her Parisian world and the distant life of Sema Gokalp. A culture of deserts, arranged marriages and ancestral rites. A savage, terrifying universe born of scorched winds, predators and rock.
Mathilde closed her eyes.
Tattooed hands-the brown whirls curling around the palms of callused hands, about dark wrists and knotty fingers. Not an inch of virgin flesh: this red line was unbroken, it stretched out, unraveling, turning back on itself, in loops and curls, giving birth to a hypnotic geography…
Mathilde jumped. Ackermann was standing in front of her. His white coat was loose around his shoulders, like a flag. Beads of sweat winked on his forehead. Twitches and shakes racked his body, but a strange solidity also emanated from his figure-the confidence of know-how beneath the nerves of the addict.
"How did it go?"
He took a cigarette from the computer desk and lit up. He inhaled deeply, then replied through a tunnel of blue smoke. "I started by giving her an injection of flumazenil, the antidote to Valium. Then I wiped out the conditioning I had given her, by activating each zone of her memory using Oxygen-15. I retraced my steps precisely"
He sketched a vertical axis with his cigarette. "With the same words, and same symbols. It's a shame I don't have Heymes's photos or videos anymore. But I think most of the work has been done. For the moment, her ideas are rather muddled. Her real memories are coming back, little by little. Anna Heymes is going to disappear and leave her place to the initial personality. But watch out!" he said waving his cigarette. "This is purely experimental!"
A real loony. Mathilde thought. A mix of coldness and exaltation. She was going to say something, but another flash stopped her. Henna, once again. The lines on the hand coming alive. The hooks, whirls and twists slithering along the veins, curling up around the phalanxes, until they reach the nails stained with pigments…
"Right now, this won't be much fun for her," Ackermann went on, taking another drag. "The various levels of her consciousness are going to telescope. Sometimes she won't be able to tell the difference between what is true and what is false. But her original memory will slowly begin to dominate. With flumazenil, there are also risks of convulsions, but I've given her a little something to reduce the side effects…"
Mathilde pushed back her hair. She must look like a ghost. "What about the faces?"
He chased away the smoke with a vague gesture. "That should sort itself out, too. Her reference points are going to become more fixed. When her memory returns, her reactions should become more stable. But I repeat: all of this is extremely new and-"
Mathilde noticed a movement behind the window. She rushed at once into the room. Anna was already sitting on the table of the PET scanner, her legs dangling down, leaning back on her hands. "How do you feel?"
A smile flickered over her face. Her pale lips barely stood out from her skin. Ackermann came back and turned off the last of the machines. "How do you feel?" Mathilde repeated.
Anna glanced at her in hesitation. Mathilde understood at once. This was no longer the same person. Those indigo eyes were smiling at her from inside a different consciousness. "Got a cigarette?" she asked, in a voice that was seeking normal range.
Mathilde handed her a Marlboro. She looked at the slender hand that took it. It was almost as if she could see that henna as a filigree. Flowers, spikes and snakes curling around a clenched fist. A tattooed fist, holding an automatic pistol.
Behind the mist of smoke, the woman with the dark bangs murmured, "I would rather have been Anna Heymes."
Falmières railway station, six miles west of Reims. was a solitary building, dropped alongside the tracks in the middle of the countryside. A millstone building stuck between the black horizon and the silence of the night. Yet with its small yellow lantern and laminated glass umbrella roof, it had a reassuring look about it. Its slates, its walls divided into two blue and white bands and its wooden fences gave it the appearance of a shiny toy from an electric train set.
Mathilde braked in the garage.
Eric Ackermann had asked them to drop him off at a station. Any one will do, I'll manage."
Since they had left the hospital. no one had said a word. But the quality of the silence had changed. The hatred, anger and defiance had melted away, and a strange sort of complicity had even started up among the three fugitives.
Mathilde turned off the motor. In the rearview mirror, she could see the neurologist's pale face, like a shard of nickel on the backseat. They got out together.
Outside, the wind had risen. Violent gusts were slapping against the asphalt. In the distance, jagged clouds were drifting away like a battalion armed with spears, revealing an extremely pure moon-a large fruit with blue pulp.
Mathilde buttoned up her coat. She would have given anything for a tube of moisturizing cream. It felt as if each squall were drying her skin, digging deeper into the wrinkles on her face.
They walked as far as the flowered fence, still without a word. It made her think of an exchange of hostages during the Cold War, on a bridge in old Berlin there was no way to say good-bye.
Anna suddenly asked, "What about Laurent?"
She had already asked that question in the garage under Place d'Anvers. It was another aspect of her story: the revelation of a love that persisted despite such betrayal, lies and cruelty.
Ackermann seemed too tired to lie. "To be honest, there's little chance he's still alive. Charlier won't leave any traces. And Heymes was unreliable. He would have cracked as soon as anyone questioned him. He might even have gone so far as to turn himself in. Since the death of his wife, he…" The neurologist paused.
For a moment, Anna seemed to be standing up to the wind; then her shoulders slumped. She turned around silently and returned to the car.
Mathilde took a final look at the lanky frame, topped with a flaming red mane, awash in its raincoat.
"And you?" she asked, almost in pity.
"I'm going to Alsace, to lose myself amid all the other Ackermann." A sardonic laugh shook his frame. Then he added, in a lyrical gush, "And then I shall find another destination. The roving life for me!"
Mathilde did not respond. He swayed, hugging his bag against his chest. Just as he used to be at the university. He half opened his mouth, hesitated, then murmured, "Anyway, thanks…"
He flicked his index finger in a cowboy salute and turned around toward the isolated station, holding his arms up against the wind.
Where on earth could he go? And then I shall find another destination. The roving life for me! Was he talking about a place ()dearth or a fresh region of the brain?
Mathilde was focusing on the white lines of the highway, which were shooting past rapidly. They flashed in front of her eyes, as some sorts of plankton shine at night in the wakes of ships. A few seconds later, she glanced over at her passenger. Her face was like chalk, smooth, inscrutable.
"I'm a drug runner," Anna went on in a neutral tone. "A smuggler. A supplier for the big dealers. A go-between."
Mathilde nodded, as though she had been expecting this revelation. In fact, she was ready for anything. There were no limits to the truth. That night, each new step revealed dizzying gulfs. She turned her attention back to the road. Several long seconds passed before she asked, "What kind of drugs? Heroin? Cocaine? Amphetamines? What?" By the time she had finished, she was almost yelling. She gripped the steering wheel. Calm down-at once.
"Heroin. Only heroin. Several kilos on each trip. Never more. From Turkey to Europe. On me. In my luggage. Or by other means. There are the tricks of the trade. My job was to know them. All of them."
Mathilde's throat was so dry that each breath was agony. "Who… who were you working for?"
"The rules have changed, Mathilde. The less you know, the better." Anna's tone was now strange, almost condescending.
"What's your real name?"
"I have no real name. That's part of the job."
"How did you work? Give me some details."
Anna remained silent for a long time, as impervious as marble. Then, after an extended pause, she went on. "It wasn't really an exciting life. Growing old in airports. Knowing the best stopovers. The least well guarded borders. The simplest-or else the most complicated-connecting flights. The towns where your bags are left on the runway. The customs posts where you're searched, and the ones where you aren't. The structure of holds. Places of transit."
Mathilde listened but paid attention mostly to the timbre of Anna's voice. Never had it rung so true.
"A schizophrenic lifestyle. Constantly speaking different languages, answering to different names, having several nationalities. And your only home the standard comfort of VIP lounges in airports. And always, everywhere, fear."
Mathilde blinked away the sleep. Her eyesight was getting hazy. The lines on the road were floating, drifting apart… She asked again, "Where are you from exactly?"
"I can't remember yet. But it will come back, I'm sure of it. For the moment, I'm concentrating on the present."
"So what happened? Why were you in Paris posing as a working girl? Why did you alter your appearance?"
"It's a classic story. I wanted to hold on to my last consignment. To rob my employers."
She paused. Each memory seemed to cost her an effort.
"It was in June, last year. I had a delivery to make in Paris. A special load. Extremely precious. I had a contact here, but I chose a different route. I hid the heroin and went to see a plastic surgeon. I think… yes, I think that at the time, I had a good chance. But during my convalescence, something unexpected happened. Something no one expected: the attacks on September ii. From one day to the next, borders turned into solid walls. So there was no way I was going to leave with the dope as planned. Nor could I leave Paris. I had to stay there and wait for the situation to calm down, while knowing that my bosses would do everything to find me… So I hid where, normally speaking, no one would look for a Turk who was hiding out: among the Turks. With the illegal immigrant workers in the tenth arrondissement. I had a new face, and a new identity. No one would spot me."
The voice faded away, as though exhausted.
Mathilde tried to revive the flame. "What happened then? How did the police find you? Did they know about the drugs?"
"That's not how things turned out. It's still vague, but I can just about picture the scene… In November, I was working in a laundry. A kind of underground dry cleaner's in some Turkish baths. A place you just couldn't imagine. At least not under a mile from where you live. One night, they came."
"No. Turks sent by my employers. They knew I was hiding there. Someone must have given me away. I don't know… What is sure is that they didn't know that I'd altered my appearance. Right in front of me, they jumped a girl who looked like I used to look-Zeynep something…
God save me, when I saw those killers arrive… all I can remember is a flash of fear…"
Mathilde tried to complete the story, to fill in the gaps. "How did you end up with Charlier?"
"I have no precise memories about that. I was in a state of shock. The cops must have found me at the baths. I can see a police station, then a hospital… Somehow or other, Charlier heard about me. An amnesic immigrant. With no work permit in France. The perfect guinea pig."
Anna seemed to be weighing up her own hypothesis. Then she murmured, "There's an incredible irony in all this. Because the cops never realized who I really was. Without meaning to, they protected me from the Turks."
Mathilde's guts were beginning to ache-with fear, worsened by fatigue. Her eyes were failing. The white lines on the road were turning into gulls, vague birds fluttering convulsively. At that moment, the signpost for the Paris bypass appeared. They were nearly back. She concentrated on the marks on the asphalt and continued. "Who are these men who are looking for you?"
"Forget about that. As I said, the less you know, the safer you'll be."
"I helped you," she replied, with gritted teeth. "I protected you. So come on! Tell me the truth."
Anna hesitated again. It was her world-a world she had surely never spoken about before.
"There's something special about the Turkish mafia," she said at last. "For their dirty work, they use political activists. They're called the Grey Wolves. They're nationalists. Extreme right-wing fanatics who believe in the return of Greater Turkey. Terrorists trained in camps when they're still children. Compared with them, Charlier's goons are just like scouts with Swiss Army knives."
The blue signs were growing larger: PORTE DE CLIGNANCOURT. PORTE DE LA CHAPELLE. All Mathilde wanted to do now was to drop this living bomb off at the first taxi stand, to go back home, to comfort and security. What she wanted was to sleep for twenty hours, to wake up and say, "It was only a nightmare."
She took the turning into Paris and said, "I'm staying with you.”
“No, that's impossible. I've got something important to do."
"Pick up my load."
"I'll come with you."
A knot tightened in her belly, more of pride than courage. "Where is it? Where are the drugs?"
"In Père-Lachaise cemetery"
Mathilde looked over at Anna. She seemed wizened but also harder, denser-a quartz crystal compressed amid layers of the truth…
"I had twenty kilos. I had to find some safe storage."
"I don't see any connection with a cemetery."
Anna smiled to herself dreamily "A little white powder amid all the gray powder…"
A red light brought them to a halt. After the intersection, Rue de la Chapelle turned into Rue Marx-Dormoy. Mathilde said, louder, "What's the link with a cemetery?"
"It's green now. Place de la Chapelle, then turn toward Place de Stalingrad."
The city of the dead.
Broad. straight alleyways, lined with imposing trees that certainly looked the part. Huge mausoleums, raised monuments, dark, smooth tombs. In the moonlight, this part of the cemetery was decked with generous flower beds-a luxurious, opulent distribution of space.
A hint of Christmas floated in the air. Everything seemed crystallized, enveloped by the dome of night, like in those small globes that have to be shaken to make the snow scatter across the landscape.
They had attacked the fortress via the gate on Rue du Père-Lachaise, near Place Gambetta. Anna had guided Mathilde along the gutter that bordered the entrance, then between the iron spikes on the wall. The descent on the other side had been even easier-electric cables followed the course of the stones at this point. They were now going up Avenue des Combattants-Etrangers. Beneath the moon, the tombs and epitaphs stood out clearly. A bunker had been dedicated to Czechs who had died in World War I. A white monolith stood in memory of the Belgian troops. A colossal spike with multiple edges. like a Vasarely painting, paid homage to the dead Armenians…
When Mathilde spotted the large building, topped by two chimneys, at the end of the slope, she understood. A little white powder amid all the gray powder. The columbarium. With a strange cynicism. Anna the smuggler had hidden her stock of heroin among the funeral urns.
Against the night sky, the building looked like a cream-and-gold mosque, topped with a broad cupola, dominated by its chimneys like mina