The Mayan Codex
Eat, eat, while you still have bread
Drink, drink, while you still have water
A day will come when dust will possess the earth
And the face of the world will be blighted
On that day a cloud will rise
On that day a mountain will be lifted up
On that day a strong man will seize the land
On that day things will fall to ruin
On that day the tender leaf will be destroyed
On that day dying eyes will close
On that day there will be three signs seen on a tree
On that day three generations of men will hang there
On that day the battle flag will be raised
Le Chateau De Monfaucon,
25th October 1228
The young King knelt and prayed a little before the hunt – God, after all, was on his side. Then he and his fifty-strong entourage clattered out of the Chateau de Monfaucon towards the domanial forest.
It was a blustery autumn day, with fine leaves churning in the wind, and a sufficient edge of rain to dampen the cheeks. The twelve mounted Cistercian monks who always accompanied the King were finding it increasingly difficult to adjust their chanting of the hours to the wind’s hullabaloo. The King glared back at them from time to time, irritated at their swooping and swelling.
‘You can all go home. I’ve had enough of your caterwauling. I can’t make out a word of it.’
The monks, used to their master’s whims, peeled off from the hunt procession, secretly relishing the prospect of an early return to cloisters, and to the roaring fire and plentiful breakfast that awaited them there.
Louis turned to his squire, Amauri de Bale. ‘What you said about the wild boar. Yesterday. When we were talking. That it, too, is a symbol of Christ. Was this true?’
De Bale felt a sudden rush of exultation. The seed he had so carefully sown had germinated after all. ‘Yes, Sire. In Teutonic Germany the boar, sus scrofa, is known as der Eber. I understand that the word Eber may be traced directly back to Ibri, the ancestor of the Hebrews.’ Via a peculiarly convenient false etymology, de Bale added silently.
Louis hammered the pommel of his hunting saddle. ‘Who were known as the Ibrim. Of course!’
De Bale grinned. He offered up a private prayer of thanks to the phalanx of tutors who had ensured that Louis was even better educated than his effete sodomite of a grandfather, Philip II Augustus.
‘As you know, Sire, in ancient Greece the boar was the familiar of the goddesses Demeter and Atalanta. In Rome, of the war god Mars. Here in France, the boar might be said to stand in for you, Sire, in the sense of encapsulating both valiant courage and the refusal to take flight.’
Louis’s eyes burned with enthusiasm. His voice rose high above the wind’s buffet. ‘Today I am going to kill a wild boar with my axe. Just like Heracles on Mount Erymanthus. God spoke to me this morning and told me that if I should do so, the attributes of the boar would transfer themselves to me, and my reign would see the permanent annexation of Jerusalem, Nazareth, and Bethlehem by the Holy Mother Church.’
De Bale raised his eyebrows. ‘By the Holy Roman Emperor, you mean?’
‘I mean by me.’
De Bale found himself temporarily at a loss for words. This was getting better by the minute. The King had even made the suggestion himself. He checked out the horsemen surrounding them – yes, they’d heard the King all right. He could almost hear the surreptitious tightening of sphincters as the King’s entourage realized they were to hunt for wild boar – and not deer – that day.
De Bale glanced across at the King. At sixteen, de Bale was a full year older than Louis. Physically, he was already fully formed, whilst the King, at fifteen, was only incipiently pubescent. In terms of height, however, Louis towered over de Bale by more than a head, and he sat his horse with the confidence of unchecked youth.
‘ Dente timetur,’ said de Bale.
‘ Rex non potest peccare,’ riposted the King.
The King’s entourage burst into spontaneous applause. Even de Bale found himself moved by his monarch’s elegant jeu d’esprit. He bowed low in his saddle. De Bale had simply intended to protect his back – dente timetur was a well-known Latin expression for ‘you’d better watch out for the teeth’. But the King had countered with rex non potest peccare – ‘the king cannot sin’. By the most delicate of hesitations, however, between potest and peccare, Louis had transformed the phrase into ‘you cannot sway the king, wild pig’.
The pun had been so magnificent that de Bale was briefly tempted to ignore his orders and spare the King’s life – where else but in France could you find a fifteen-year-old king with the wit of a Peter Abelard? But a wise man thought twice before antagonizing a kinsman as powerful as Pierre Mauclerc, Duke of Brittany. De Bale was nicely caught between the Plantagenet rock and the Capetian hard place.
He eased his horse closer to the King’s, then darted a look back over his shoulder to see how the other squires were taking his arrogation of the King’s attention. ‘I know where you can find one, Sire. He’s a monster. The biggest tusker this side of Orleans. He’s four hundred pounds if he’s an ounce.’
‘How’s that? What did you say?’
The fool’s been praying again, thought de Bale – he should have been born a priest and not a king. If he carries on like this they’ll have to sanctify him. Either that, or he’ll finish up the bloodthirstiest, most vainglorious, most self-acclaiming tyrant since Nero.
As if in echo of his secret fears, de Bale’s very own version of a solemn prayer flashed, uncalled for, through his head. ‘May it please you God that after what I am about to do, this whoreson doesn’t end up as a martyr, and I a disembowelled, disjointed, discombobulated regicide.’
De Bale bowed in belated response to the King’s query, a sickly smile plastered across his face. ‘I’d actually been reserving him for myself, Sire. My servants…’
‘How can you reserve him for yourself? All wild boar belong to the King. Who do you think you are?’
De Bale flushed. God protect me from men who are my masters, he mouthed to himself. He was already beholden to Mauclerc, and here he was crossing swords with his other liege lord, Louis IX, whom Mauclerc wanted dead. De Bale could feel his brain spinning on its axis. He groped around for the right approach – the right way to jump.
‘The animal is well outside the royal forest, Sire, and therefore legally mine. And I have not killed him yet. I merely instructed my people to build a wicker barricade around his lair, and to keep him in place with a charivari. I know he’s in there. I just haven’t seen him. I was going to dedicate him to Our Lady and then slaughter him. They say he has twelve-inch tusks.’
‘Twelve-inch tusks? Impossible.’
De Bale knew his man. He shrugged, and looked away into the distance.
‘Then he’s the Devil, not a boar. Four hundred pounds, you say? And twelve-inch tusks? He’s an impostor. It’s inconceivable that our Lord Jesus Christ should be reflected in such a monster.’
De Bale edged in for the kill. ‘That could be so, Sire. You are doubtless right.’ He crossed himself with an extravagant gesture, almost as if he were sprinkling holy water over an invisible assembly. ‘What more suitable opponent, then, for a Christian king?’
It took the King’s party five hours to reach the de Bale manorial forest. Spare horses had been called for, and de Bale had ordered food, and a pavilion to be set up, just outside the monster’s bower. He had also sent ahead to excuse his tenantry from their work for the day, ensuring himself the widest possible audience for what he trusted would be an earth-shattering, realm-transforming event.
When the King eventually rode in from the St Benedict marshes, five hundred of his eager subjects fell to their knees in welcome.
‘Would you care to rest first, Sire?’ De Bale caught his steward’s eye. The man bowed, indicating that everything was in place for the King’s comfort. ‘Or shall we get straight to it?’
The King was staring out over the wicker enclosure. His face was ashen.
He’s losing his nerve, thought de Bale. The poor fool’s had five hours to think about the thing and he’s losing his nerve. ‘May I be your champion, Sire, and axe the porker on your behalf?’
Louis threw his leg up and over the pommel of his saddle. A servant skittered around the horse’s croup, making a table of his back so that the King would not need to dirty his boots. ‘Did God speak to you this morning, too, Amauri?’
‘No, Sire. Of course not. God only speaks to kings and to popes and to the Holy Roman Emperor.’
The King grunted. He beckoned to his equerry. ‘Bring me an axe. I shall kill this boar, and then we shall eat.’
De Bale offered up a fervent prayer of thanks that none of the King’s mature advisors had bothered to attend the hunt. True to form, the whole lot of them were off scheming and plotting with the Queen Mother. He had the field entirely to himself.
He raised his gauntlet, signalling to his venerers that they might begin the drive. They, in turn, motioned to their flaggers, who transmitted the order through to the waiting beaters at the far end of the covert.
‘The boar might emerge at any moment, Sire. May I suggest that you take up your position?’
The King stepped through the gap created for him in the wicker barrier. Ahead of him was a deep clump of thorn and withies. A channel had been cut through the mass of vegetation, via which the boar would, in theory, be funnelled.
De Bale raised his chin to one of his men-at-arms. The man threw him a pike. De Bale took his place to the right of the King, and a little behind. ‘I will only intervene, Sire, should your first blow be deficient.’
‘You will not intervene. My first blow will not be deficient. God has spoken to me. I am his anointed vessel.’
De Bale bowed his head in ostensibly reluctant surrender to the King’s wishes. The King would not see the movement, but everybody else would. ‘So be it, Sire.’ He leaned on his pike and waited.
Soon a clamour could be heard over the peak of the hill. The battue had begun. De Bale had ordered the approaching line of beaters to march at no more than one-yard intervals – the last thing he wanted was for the boar to double back and eviscerate one of his own men instead of the King.
‘Sire, remember to keep your legs together when you strike.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘A boar scythes upwards with his tusks in order to disembowel his victim. If you keep your legs together, Sire, you will be protecting not only yourself but also the future of France.’
Louis burst out laughing.
Good, thought de Bale. Yet more evidence to the surrounding witnesses that all is well between me and the King. And if he keeps his legs together, the fool is that much more likely to botch his stroke.
A crash came from the underbrush, followed by a howl of excitement from the crowd. A boar burst out of the funnel of thicket and made straight for the King.
‘Not that one, Sire.’
De Bale sprinted forward and speared the boar with his pike. The animal shrieked and fell on its back, kicking with all four legs. De Bale waved to his venerers, who ran forward, slit the pig’s throat, and dragged it away. A pungent scent lingered after the carcase.
‘Less than two hundred pounds, Sire. Your boar is more than twice that size.’
Louis’s eyes were wide. He seemed transfixed by the still steaming blood-pile left by the slaughtered animal.
Come on, de Bale muttered silently to the King’s back. Don’t lose your nerve now, man. You’d never live it down. People would make up songs about you. You’d go down in history as Louis the Weak. And fate would no doubt dictate that you’d live to be a hundred years old.
There was a communal moan. A white hart had emerged from the plantation. The hart fell back a little on its haunches, and then sprang through the line of venerers, cleared the wicker fence in one bound, and galloped off into the surrounding woodland.
De Bale allowed a string of expletives to trickle silently out under his breath. ‘It is a white hart, Sire. Its presence signifies that your goal is unattainable. We may as well go home.’ The words stuck in de Bale’s craw. But the symbol was so specific, and the significance of the white hart so well known to everybody, that it would have been folly for de Bale, given his status as the King’s host, not to have acknowledged it.
‘ As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.’ Louis readied his axe. It was clear that he intended to prove both de Bale – and the hart – wrong.
There was a shriek from the back of the approaching line of beaters. Then a hullabaloo of voices. It was clear that someone had been gored.
The King was looking everywhere at once, his face livid in the sudden flare of the sun.
The boar emerged from the extreme flank of the thicket, red streamers hanging from its tusks.
At first the King did not see it. But the enraged boar – the first of the pair to taste blood – now saw the King. It glanced towards the line of venerers. No gaps there. Then back towards the King, who was surrounded by nothing but air.
The boar charged, twitching and flapping its snout to rid itself of the tangle of intestines obscuring its vision.
The King saw the boar and drew himself up. He stretched the axe back and waited.
‘Run at him, Sire! You must run at him!’ De Bale had not the remotest idea why he was trying to help the King. He wanted the man dead, for pity’s sake, not transformed into a legend.
The King began a lumbering trot towards the boar, his axe raised for the kill.
The boar jinked, and swept his tusks sideways at the King.
The King screamed and fell.
The boar twisted, and started on his second pass.
Without stopping to think, de Bale rushed towards the King, slashing downwards in the direction of the boar’s path with his pike. The pike sliced through the boar’s shoulder. Arterial blood jetted in a crimson fountain over the King’s recumbent body.
The blow had shattered the pike’s shaft, leaving de Bale with only a slivered piece of wood in his hands.
The great boar was crawling towards the King, intent on finishing what it had started.
The venerers were approaching, daggers drawn, their mouths agape in shock.
De Bale saw all of this as if in slow motion. It was clear that he had only one choice left.
He threw himself onto the boar, grabbing its razor-sharp tusks with his hands. His last conscious memory was of the knife blows of his venerers raining down beside his head.
Amauri de Bale, Count of Hyeres, spent the next sixteen years of his life in involuntary exile from the Court.
The Queen Mother, Blanche de Castile, had never forgiven him for what she saw as the encouragement of her son, the King, to commit an act whose folly was only outweighed by its pointlessness. The fact that de Bale had saved the young King’s life at considerable risk to his own counted for little in the Queen’s estimation – although it had undoubtedly protected de Bale from a regicide’s agonizing death by quartering.
The King had been forbidden by his mother ever to communicate with de Bale again, and he had acceded to this request out of duty and affection for his mother, whilst stopping just short of agreeing to the actual administration of a formal oath.
But the King was a profoundly pious man, and renowned throughout Europe for his sense of fair play. Over the years of their enforced separation he had become increasingly convinced that Amauri de Bale had been marked out by God to save him from the machinations of the Devil. And furthermore that the great St Benedict boar, far from assuming the guise of one of the very symbols of Christ, had in fact been Lucifer himself.
In the late summer of 1244, and following a near mortal illness, King Louis, to his mother’s horror, had unilaterally declared his intention to take the crusader’s vow. After considerable soul-searching, and with the guidance of his confessor, Geoffrey of Beaulieu, and of his chaplain, William of Chartres, it was decided that it would be impossible for the King to take the cross without first acknowledging God’s part in his decision. And this, in turn, could not be done without recognition of some sort for the man who had clearly been chosen by God Himself to protect the King from the Devil.
The problem was further aggravated by the fact that a number of the King’s squires – many of whom, sixteen years on, were now holders of important Offices of State – had clearly heard the King, that morning back in 1228, explaining to Count Amauri de Bale that he, Louis, Rex Francorum and Rex Christianissimus, Lieutenant of God on Earth, Lord High Protector of France (the Eldest daughter of the Church), had been personally instructed by God that if he ever wished to secure the permanent annexation of Jerusalem, Nazareth, and Bethlehem to the Holy Mother Church, he must first go out and kill a wild boar with his axe.
Thanks to his ever more profound understanding of the scriptures, the King – and via the King, his counsellors – now understood that God had had a further and less obvious motive in mind that day. And that this motive involved the selection of Count Amauri de Bale to be the King’s sole champion. To act for him and on behalf of him, in other words, in the gratification of God’s wishes.
As a direct consequence of this fact, and in the teeth of the Queen Mother’s vigorous disapproval, the King issued a formal summons to de Bale to present himself at the Basilica of St Denis, next to the tombs of the King’s father, Louis VIII, and of his grandfather, Philip II Augustus, on the exact day, and at the exact moment, of the sixteen-year anniversary of his God-driven intervention.
At first Amauri de Bale had been tempted to avoid what he suspected was a trick invitation by impulsively volunteering to serve in the army of Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor. But he knew that if the Queen Mother truly wanted her revenge on him, she could reach him in Germany just as easily as she could have reached him at any time during the past sixteen years within the tenuous security of his chateau and estates.
That he owed his life – and the non-severance of his extremities – to the King’s grace was in little doubt. De Bale shuddered to think what the Queen Mother would have ordered done to him had he not changed his mind at the very last moment and leapt in to save the King’s life. His – on the face of it – perverse decision that day had not been prompted by any unlikely eruption of random human charity, however, but rather by a trained warrior’s reactive instinct, twinned with the sudden realization – triggered by the King’s sublime jeu d’esprit – that Louis might yet prove to be a credit to France, rather than merely another Capetian burden on its soul.
The upshot, of course, had been that de Bale had fallen foul of the Duke of Brittany, with all that that entailed in terms of loss of influence, a less advantageous marriage, and a dramatic narrowing of his political ambitions. But he had decided, in the general scheme of things, that this was the lesser of two evils – Mauclerc was bad, but the Queen Mother was awful.
De Bale knelt, therefore, before the King’s father’s sarcophagus, his head bowed, his forearms resting across his single upraised knee, and waited for the King’s pleasure. His entire life had consisted of a series of often impulsive gambles, and he now felt a fatalistic sense of his own insignificance in the magnificent new Rayonnant Gothic setting of the St Denis Basilica.
The King, flanked by his confessor, Geoffrey of Beaulieu, and his chaplain, William of Chartres, watched de Bale from the lee of one of the twenty statue columns adorning the portal of the Basilica’s west facade.
‘Look,’ said the King. ‘It is Our Lady.’
The two counsellors fell back, staring at their King. ‘We see nothing, Sire.’
The King turned to them. ‘You see nothing?’
‘No, Sire. We see nothing. What do you see?’
The King turned back in the direction of his father’s crypt. ‘I see Our Lady, the Mother of God, raising my champion’s cloak and laying it tenderly across his back so that he should not take cold.’
The two men covered their faces with their hands. Then they fell to their knees and prostrated themselves on the flagstone flooring of the nave.
The King, after only a brief hesitation, strode towards the kneeling figure of the Count.
De Bale heard the King’s approach, but chose not to look up. The King’s words had carried to him through the echoing Basilica, and de Bale understood that, at this exact moment, his own and his family’s future was being decided forever.
He felt the tip of the King’s sword touch him on the back of his right shoulder. ‘You saw the Devil, de Bale?’
‘I did, Sire.’
‘And you protected the King?’
‘With my life, Sire.’
‘And you will always protect the King?’
‘And this realm of France?’
‘I and my family, Sire. Throughout eternity.’
‘Then you shall be my Corpus Maleficus.’
Louis turned away. He raised his voice, so that it echoed throughout the Basilica. ‘I have the Bishop of Reims to crown me. The Bishop of Laon to anoint me. Langres to bear my sceptre. Beauvais my mantle. Chalons my ring. And Noyons to bear my belt. I have the Duke of Normandy to hold the first square banner, and Guyenne to hold the second. I have Burgundy to bear my crown and fasten my belt. I have the Count of Toulouse to carry my spurs. Flanders my sword. And Champagne my Royal Standard. But who do I have to protect me from the Devil? Who to be my champion?’
De Beaulieu and de Chartres had risen up from their prone positions. Both men recognized a fait accompli when they saw one. ‘You have the Count of Hyeres, Sire.’
Louis nodded. ‘The Count of Hyeres is now the thirteenth Pair de France. My father’s and my grandfather’s bones are witnesses to this fact. Bring me the Seal and my crusader’s cross.’
Le Domaine De Seyeme,
Cap Camarat, France
Ex-Captain Joris Calque, grateful recipient of the Police Nationale Francaise’s early-retirement plan for officers injured in the line of duty, had long ago accepted that he was built for comfort and not for speed.
It was for this reason that he had bribed a notorious local poacher to build him a camouflaged hideout on a hill overlooking the present-day Dowager Countess of Hyeres’s private estate on the St Tropez peninsula, almost exactly 765 years after the events at the St Denis Basilica.
The hideout came complete with battery-operated fan, blow-up armchair, and high-density, polyurethane insulated, safari-style picnic box. From his eyrie on the opposing hillside, the newly retired Calque intended to monitor the comings and goings of the group of individuals he now knew as the Corpus Maleficus, and, in his own time, to secure proof of their involvement in the death of his lieutenant earlier that same year.
Calque had done his homework well. He had spent the first fortnight of his retirement trawling through the records of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France and the French National Archives at Fontainebleau, researching everything he could about the history of the de Bale family. And he had come to a number of inescapable conclusions.
Firstly, that the de Bales had managed to thrust their fingers into just about every slice of religious, political, civic, administrative, governmental, socio-religious and socio-political pie that France had contrived for itself – or had contrived on itself – since the early Middle Ages. And secondly that, almost without exception, the de Bales had abused whatever power they had thus managed to grasp.
Across a span of nearly eight hundred years, the de Bales could count three marshals, one seneschal, and two constables of France amongst their number. They had bought archbishoprics, infiltrated the college and orders of the Cardinalate, and even manipulated popes, without ever having quite achieved the papal tiara themselves. They had started wars and engendered riots. They had conducted massacres, espoused revolutions, and incited assassination attempts. They had weakened kings and queens, suborned dauphins and minor princelings, seduced foreign princesses and even, on one occasion, a Mademoiselle de France. They had fomented bastards, and undermined the principles of fair play at every opportunity. Far from protecting France from the Devil, the de Bales appeared, at every opportunity, to have eagerly encouraged her towards his fold.
The history of the de Bale family, via even the partial records available to Calque through the exclusively public sector access open to him, showed a family so intent on the pursuit and enjoyment of power, that it had ultimately ended up so diluting itself and dispersing its seed that, by the time of the Great War, it had lost virtually all influence. Lord Acton, thought Calque, had hit the nail squarely on the head with his ‘power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.’
This had led to a situation where the last remaining direct holder of the de Bale name had found himself – via the misfortunes of war – incapable of procreating and of continuing his direct line, whilst at the same time being titular head of a fast diminishing cabal that was unravelling itself at the speed dirty water flushes down a drain.
Nearly thirty years later, in the age-old way of such things, and in one final, desperate grasp at life, this elderly man had then procured himself a much younger woman, of lesser lineage, perhaps, than his own, but who was possessed of that inestimable compensation – a greater fortune. The family of Genevieve Odilonne de Moristot had been more than happy to trade her youth, her beauty, and the astonishing fortune she had inherited thanks to being the only daughter of a minor nobleman with a phalanx of elderly female relatives widowed in the Great War (and now gradually dying off in their coddled eighties and nineties), for a countship, a marquisate, and one of the oldest names in France.
The fact that the de Bale line could not be continued in the direct fashion that might have been expected had proved no hindrance to the new Countess. Using the example of Italy, in which the per se continuation of great names often takes precedence over strict genetic purity, and of France’s very own ‘ Maman toujours, Papa peutetre ’ – ‘Mummy always, Daddy only perhaps’ – dictum, she had persuaded her elderly husband to allow her to adopt thirteen children from her family-funded nunnery orphanage.
When Calque had first confirmed that this number was true, he had reared back from the microfiche newspaper he had been reading just as if a poisonous spider had landed in front of him and flashed him her claws.
But upon further consideration, he had begun to see the logic behind the Countess’s actions. What better way to rebuild the Corpus’s influence? She had had both the money and the leisure – thanks to her extreme youth in relation to that of her husband – to use it. If one accepted that the nature/nurture debate was something of a moveable feast, what better way to gain power over your adopted children than by the use of titles, influence, and, last but by no means least, virtually unlimited funds? The old Count had chosen his partner well.
So was Achor Bale simply the exception that proved the rule? As far as Calque could tell, he had been the only one of the thirteen children adopted by the Countess old enough for his character to have been significantly formed before the fact. Was he the simple one-off freak that he seemed, and that Calque’s Commandant insisted he was? Or had all the Countess’s children been similarly groomed? Freed from the pressures of bureaucratic interference by his premature retirement, Calque now intended to find out.
The jobbing farmer on whose land Calque had planted his semi-permanent encampment had been easy enough to persuade. Before vacating his desk at the 2 eme Arrondissement, Calque had contrived to mislay his Captain’s badge and shield amongst the maelstrom of his boxed-up belongings. He had been a police officer for thirty years. Calque reckoned that the desk sergeant, embarrassed at having to say farewell to a man he had taken orders from since he was a wet-behind-the-ears rookie, wasn’t going to quiz him any too closely about the loss.
In the event all Calque had needed to do was to promise to drop the badge and shield off the next time he visited his old friends at the precinct. It was with exquisite satisfaction that Calque had noted the desk sergeant solemnly ticking off the box marked ‘Identification Returned’ on his retirement checklist. He had plans for that badge, the first of which was to use it to silence the farmer.
Calque hadn’t been that badly injured, of course, in the car accident the Countess de Bale’s adopted son, Achor Bale, aka the ‘eye-man’, had contrived on him and his assistant, Paul Macron, earlier that summer. But Macron’s brutal death at the hands of Bale a few days later had damaged more than merely its victim – it had undermined Joris Calque’s rock-solid sense of his own vocation.
It wasn’t that he mourned Macron unduly, or even felt guilty about his death – the man had been a bigot, for God’s sake, and as thick as a navvy’s bicep. It was more that he had lost the urge to explain himself anymore to superior officers who were both younger than himself, stupider than himself, and seemingly incapable of seeing or imagining anything beyond the confines of their own little time capsules.
This new breed of men and women infesting the upper echelons of the police department had no earthly sense of history – no earthly sense of what was seemly or appropriate in terms of their behaviour. When Calque had told the Commandant of his initial suspicions about the Countess and her baker’s dozen of adopted children – Calque had briefly been tempted to call them by the more accurate medieval term of a ‘Devil’s dozen’ but had thought better of it – the man had as good as laughed in his face.
‘Achor Bale was a freak. A one-off. What do you think? That someone as respectable as the Countess of Hyeres – who must be seventy if she’s a day – has been grooming a family full of killer orphans to fulfil her late husband’s 800-year-old sworn duty of protecting the French Crown from the Devil? Captain Calque, this may come as a surprise to you, but there is no Devil. And there is no French Crown any more, either. The last King of France was Louis-Philippe. And he was got rid of in…’ The Commandant had hesitated, a vague sense of betrayal suffusing his face.
‘They got rid of Louis-Philippe in 1848. But he wasn’t the last King of France. He was the last King of the French. The last reigning King of France was Charles X. You’ve heard of him, surely?’
‘You’re skating on very thin ice here, Captain.’
‘I know that the Countess was running Bale while he was cutting his murderous swathe across France. That she had ordered him to harry the American, Adam Sabir, and his two Gypsy friends, Alexi Dufontaine and Yola Samana, to death. That she was convinced Sabir knew the identity of Nostradamus’s Third Antichrist. A secret the Corpus Maleficus needed to secure if it was to continue with its sworn duty of protecting France from the Devil.’
Calque was fleetingly tempted to throw in the information Sabir had vouchsafed him, in the strictest confidence, about the possible existence of the Second Coming, but decided that discretion was the better part of valour. The situation already sounded terminally far-fetched. Why aggravate the issue even further? The Commandant was probably an atheist anyway – he was certainly incapable of any significant degree of lateral thought. ‘Achor Bale took his orders directly from the Countess, his mother. That makes her an accessory before the fact. In fact I would even go so far as to say that she was a joint principal.’ Calque realized that he might be stretching the point a little. ‘A great deal more than a simple conspirator, anyway.’
‘Have you any proof of that?’
‘He called her from the Maset. When he was in trouble. He asked her if he could come home. She told him to finish the job. To kill Sabir.’
‘No he didn’t. He spoke to that butler of hers…’ The Commandant ransacked his memory, unconsciously pandering to Calque’s notorious pedantry. ‘… Millefeuille.’
‘Milouins then. And Milouins replied to him partly in German. He used the word Fertigmachen. Which could have any number of meanings. From “go away and off yourself, you murderous bastard”, to “let’s make an end of it here and now”. But Bale never spoke to the Countess personally – the evidence that the order came from her is purely circumstantial. But we’ve already been over this, Captain.’
‘I’ve seen that hidden room at the Countess’s house, Commandant. I’ve seen the document she keeps in there. The one that mentions a secret society called the Corpus Maleficus.’
‘But the document was indecipherable. Written in an unknown code. You’ve acknowledged that much yourself. Damn it, man, the thing was dated 1250. What earthly connection can it have with a crime committed today?’
‘It wasn’t dated 1250. It was post-dated 1228. We know this because it contained the non-coded signatures and seals of three men crucial to King Louis the IX’s realm. One man, Jean de Joinville, would have been four years old at the time of the signing. An impossibility, of course. So the document was clearly enacted retrospectively – possibly in appreciation of an act whose real significance was only recognized later.’
‘For pity’s sake, Captain. We all know about your absurd pretensions to a classical education – you made Paul Macron’s life a misery with them. You’ve no way of knowing this, but a week before his death Macron put in an informal complaint against you for psychological harassment.’
‘Psychological harassment?’ Calque wanted a cigarette badly, but, thanks to the new ruling, he knew that if he dared to light up, his superior would probably call in the Paris Fire Brigade to put him out with a hosepipe.
‘We persuaded him that it was in his own best interests to shelve the complaint. Your long service with the department still counts for something, you see. But the complaint can easily be resuscitated – even from beyond the grave – and all the more damaging for that. However, we are straying off the point. From here on in you will leave the Countess and her children alone. Do you understand me? The case is over. Bale is dead.’
‘You mean she’s too well-connected to tangle with?’
‘In a nutshell, Captain? Yes.’
It was at that exact moment that Joris Calque had decided that his injuries from the car accident were a good deal more severe than he had ever let on. A stumble or two in the office, followed by a full-on fall had been quite enough to start the ball rolling. He had then found difficulty remembering simple things. Been forced to acknowledge to the Chief Medical Officer that he had been suffering from blackouts ever since the accident, and that he had recently been entertaining thoughts of suicide because of his guilt at Paul Macron’s death.
The whole process had proved surprisingly simple. He had only had five more years to serve out anyway until forcible retirement – in the event they had been glad to be rid of him. Clear up the office. Out with the unregenerate males. Bring in new blood.
Calque had left the building without so much as a backwards glance. The icing on the cake had been that his ruinous-to-maintain ex-wife would now be deprived of her legally sanctioned monthly tranche of his pay cheque. Because he had been invalided out of the service with full honours and an unblemished record, and had, in consequence, been deemed incapable of functioning at 100 per cent of his usual competence thanks to the injuries – not to mention the post-traumatic stress – he had suffered whilst on active duty, the State would now be taking up a significant portion of the financial slack on his behalf. And the State, as Calque knew only too well, didn’t go in for guilty consciences.
Grinning to himself, Calque leaned back in his blow-up armchair and focused his binoculars onto the front entrance to the Countess’s house. He had been watching the place, day in, day out, for five weeks now. The routine had become a way of life for him. He had banked everything on his belief that the Countess would quite naturally have sought to maintain a low profile for a month or two after her adopted son’s death. No muddying of the waters. No gathering in of the clan. And so far he had been proved right.
But Calque had known that it wouldn’t last. The woman was reptilian – as cold-blooded as a coral snake. It was inconceivable that she shouldn’t contrive some sort of revenge on Adam Sabir for the killing of the demented Bale. And Sabir had proved on more than one occasion how blind he was to any potential danger.
So Calque had decided to spend the early part of his unanticipated retirement doing what he had always done best – protecting the public. Except in this case the public consisted of precisely one individual, the errant American writer Adam Sabir. And the forces of law and order were no longer officially sanctioned, with the full panoply of the State’s legal mechanisms backing them up, but merely consisted of one overweight, overeducated, and terminally underfunded former policeman.
Why was he doing it? Boredom? Sour grapes? Resentment at the truncation of his decreasingly high-flying career? None of that. The truth was that Sabir had touched a surprisingly sensitive nerve in the usually unsentimental Calque with his mysterious tales of the Second Coming and of the rapidly approaching Armageddon predicted in the 52 lost verses of Nostradamus – verses that Sabir had managed to memorize before his final reckoning with Achor Bale. Calque’s intellectual vanity had been aroused – and his latent republican ire had been triggered – by the Countess’s inbred assumption that she and her aristocratic ilk would always win out in the end.
This new, knight-errant version of the formerly cynical Joris Calque had attended Achor Bale’s funeral, therefore, and had noted with satisfaction the absence of Bale’s twelve remaining brothers and sisters. Only the Countess and her near-ubiquitous personal assistant, Madame Mastigou, had bothered to turn up.
But the Countess would have to convoke them at some point. Bring them up to scratch. And the telephone or the internet just wouldn’t do – far too many loopholes and opportunities for covert surveillance. That meant that her children would have to return to the domaine de Seyeme – and to the secret room one of his officers had unexpectedly discovered behind the library – in person. That was where the Corpus Maleficus held its meetings, wasn’t it? That was where they hatched their schemes?
And that was where Joris Calque had illegally hidden a voice-activated tape recorder whilst he was busy conducting his entirely legal search of the Countess’s house nearly eight weeks before.
The recently entitled Abiger de Bale, Chevalier, Comte d’Hyeres, Marquis de Seyeme, Pair de France, primus inter pares, bundled his twin brother ahead of him up the steps of the TGV. ‘Go on, Pollux. Move your arse.’
‘Stop calling me Pollux. My name is Vaulderie.’
‘All right then. I’ll call you Vaulderie from now on. Vicomte Vaulderie. How’s that? Now you sound like a sexually transmitted disease.’
The twins threw themselves down in opposing seats in the first-class carriage. Vaulderie kicked out at a cushion. ‘Why should I be a mere vicomte when you’re a fucking comte? Why should you be the one to snaffle Rocha’s title?’
‘Because I was the last one to emerge from our mother. That’s the Napoleonic Code for you. Last out, first conceived. Enlightened primogeniture, mon pote. Christ. Just think. If it wasn’t for King Clovis, our fallen angel of a sister would have inherited instead of me. She’s two years older. Maltho ti afrio lito.’
‘What the hell does that mean?’
‘Salic Law, dummy. Male primogeniture. It’s what saved our bacon.’
‘No. The other bit.’
‘It’s the only full sentence left in Old Frankish. “I tell you. I free you. Half free.” Complete gobbledegook, of course. Be thankful you’ve got a title at all. If Rocha hadn’t let that pig of a policeman loose off a shot at him, you’d have remained a commoner all your life. Now you’re a real vicomte you can flash your chevaliere ring at all the girls and their pants will automatically fall down. Just like I’ve been doing for years.’
Vaulderie launched another kick at the seat cushion, but harder this time. ‘It’s not fair. If we’d been born in England, I would have been the senior of us two. First out is considered the eldest there.’
‘Lucky for me we weren’t born in England, then. We’d have had an idiot as head of the family.’
The brothers, despite the fact that they were all of twenty-five years old, began to wrestle. Watching them, the off-duty railway security inspector – who was availing himself of his free first-class travel privileges – thought yet again how lucky France was to have a Republic. It was always these young blue bloods, off for the weekend, who caused the most trouble on his trains. He could see their signet rings flashing as they fought for control of each other’s throats.
‘That’s enough. I’ll have no rough-housing here.’ He eased his way up the central aisle and flashed his badge at the boys.
Both young men straightened up and smoothed back their hair. ‘Sorry, Colonel. It won’t happen again. We were only mud-larking.’
The inspector was rather taken aback. He had expected trouble. These two had all the earmarks of their class. Absurdly well-cut hair. Double-breasted grey flannel suits that fitted them like a second skin. Not an ounce of excess fat on the pair of them – fencing, probably, or some exclusive tennis club with a five-year waiting list. When he looked at them more closely, he was astonished to realize that they were identical twins.
He shrugged, not a little disarmed by their unanticipated courtesy. ‘I won’t take your names this time, as we’re nearly at my destination. You’re lucky – you’ve both got off more lightly than you deserve. But remember.’ He pointed above his head. ‘There are security cameras on this train.’
‘Yes. We noticed those.’ The boys grinned at each other, as if in echo of some telepathic joke.
The inspector hesitated, tempted to say more – to make his mark on these gilded hooligans. Then he shrugged a second time and moved back down the aisle. He was due off at the next station anyway. In twenty minutes’ time he would be home with his wife. Why complicate matters?
‘Shall we?’ Abiger gave his brother a playful nudge with the toe of his shoe.
‘Are you crazy? We’d be forced to change trains. We’d be late for Madame, our mother. She might even ask us what we were doing that was so important we missed the beginning of her gathering.’
‘Oh come on, Vau. Live dangerously for once. We’re too old to be thrashed with a wooden clothes hanger anymore. Anyhow, I’m head of the family now.’
‘Madame, our mother, is head of the family. You’re merely its technical figurehead. And a plug-ugly one at that. That much I’ll acknowledge.’
Abiger de Bale lurched forwards as if he intended to trigger a rematch of their wrestling competition – but then, with the movement only half-completed, he changed his mind. Grinning, he allowed his gaze to slide away from his brother and follow the line of the inspector’s retreating back. ‘That worm insulted the CM, Vau. I say we do it.’
For twenty-five years Vaulderie had followed his brother’s lead in everything. Gone everywhere he had gone. Even taken his punishments for him. It was far too late to turn back now. With the death of Rocha de Bale, their adopted brother – the man now known to the outside world as the murderer, Achor Bale – everything had changed. What had been hidden was now open. What had been obscured was now set to be revealed. The Corpus Maleficus would finally be taking its rightful place as the driving force behind a new order.
Vaulderie gave a defeated sigh. ‘I say we do it too.’
At first, after leaving the train, the boys worked in a zigzag formation behind the inspector’s back. That way, if the man had a car, one of them could break away from the stalk and procure a vehicle, whilst the other could mark the direction taken and keep in touch via his cell phone.
But the inspector didn’t have a car. It soon became obvious that he lived within walking distance of the station – a railwayman through and through. Instinctively, intuitively, the boys decided not to take him en route. Far more sensible to deal with him at home, well out of the eye of the storm. Far more fun to wait.
At one point the man stopped. He cocked his head downwards and to one side, as though he were listening to something passing underneath him. The boys froze in their respective positions, visible, but not visible, maybe fifty metres behind him. In their experience, marks never turned around. People simply didn’t expect to be followed – not on a suburban street, mid-afternoon, in la France profonde, with mothers collecting their children from school, and yellow postal vans busy on their last collection of the day.
The boys converged again when they saw the inspector hesitating at the communal door to his apartment block – feeling for his keys – tapping his pockets for cigarettes. Would he turn at the very last moment and head for the Bar / Tabac on the corner? Have himself a quick snifter before facing his wife? In that case both twins knew that they would be forced to abandon the hunt and head back towards the station.
For despite all their bravado, each, in his own way, feared Madame, their mother, as they feared nothing else on earth. She was like Agaberte, daughter of the Norse god Vagnoste, who could transform herself from a wrinkled old crone into a woman so tall she could reach up and touch the sky – a woman who could overturn mountains, rip up great trees, and dry up the swollen beds of rivers. Abi and Vau’s childhood had been spent entirely in her thrall, and no power on earth could entirely break her dominance of them.
The inspector reached forward and unlocked the door. Now the boys were hurrying, not wishing to be faced with an unknown, untested lock. Vau caught the door just before it clicked to, and Abi slid through the crack his brother made for him, one eye fastened on the stairs above him.
Shoes in their hands, they padded up the concrete stairwell behind the inspector. How could people bear to live like this? Money and power were there to be taken. All you needed was the nerve.
The inspector was stepping into his apartment – calling out to his wife.
Abi reached out and touched him on the arm. ‘Colonel. A word.’
Some years before, the brothers had had a series of telescopic, lead-weighted, fighting batons designed and made for them. Eight inches long, the batons fitted comfortably inside the forearm sleeve of a jacket, where they were secured in place by the simple expedient of a loop and a double button.
Although principally made of rubber, the batons were not able to pass through a metal detector by dint of their lead content, and therefore had to be transported separately on an aeroplane as part of hold baggage – or secreted, for instance, inside a travelling fishing-rod case, where they could be passed off as fisherman’s priests. By train and by car, however, they were perfection itself. Once liberated from their housings, the batons extended with a simple flick of the wrist to a total of two feet in length, retaining more than enough rigidity to guarantee a quite remarkable hand-to-target action.
They would kill, of course, if used aggressively, but their principal function was defensive – they were designed as pacifiers. In ten seconds a man could be crippled, his legs worse than useless, by the simple expedient of a scything stroke behind the knee. The twins, being two, found this the best resort in all but the most extreme of circumstances. One would monopolize the target’s attention whilst the other struck him from behind. It had never failed them. A frightened man on the floor, one leg unmarked but useless, was a very different animal indeed from an angry man in possession of all his physical faculties.
The inspector curled up in the foetal position at the entrance to his apartment and began to dry retch, like a cat attempting to bring up a fur ball. His wife came hurrying out of the kitchen, where she had been preparing their supper. Vau gave her two for good measure, one behind each knee. She dropped to the floor and then stretched out, like a postulant at some Easter confraternity ceremony.
Abi closed the door. He and Vau dragged the couple through into the lounge.
Vau switched on the television. ‘Gas explosion or double suicide?’
The inspector tried to raise himself from the floor. Vau flailed him behind the other knee. ‘Silence. You will both remain silent, faces to the ground. Do you understand me?’
The woman was unconscious – shock, probably. The boys were used to people responding in disparate ways. Women were particularly vulnerable to sudden explosions of violence, whereas men would often struggle, requiring further pacification.
Abi snapped his fingers triumphantly. ‘No. No. Listen. I’ve got another idea. Kill two birds with one stone.’
‘Wait for me here. I won’t be more than ten minutes. A surprise.’ Abi was staring out of the window now, his expression speculative. He snapped the baton shut and secreted it back inside his sleeve. He had scarcely even broken into a sweat.
Abi had passed the Jaguar Sports on their way in from the station. The car had captured his attention even then, as It had seemed so out of place in a street full of Peugeots, and Renaults, and six-seater Fiat run-arounds. A pimp’s car, probably, or the vehicle of some chancer who had made it good and couldn’t tear himself away from the old neighbourhood. Perhaps the owner was visiting his elderly mother?
It took Abi less than a minute to bypass the alarm system. He had been breaking into cars ever since his early adolescence, and considered it one of his primary skills. During their teen years, Madame, his mother, had arranged for him and Vau to serve as apprentices to one of the best auto thieves in the business. It was something he was infinitely grateful to her for. It had given him power.
He drove the car to the front of the inspector’s apartment building and triggered the trunk mechanism. Vau was watching from the inspector’s window. Abi mouthed a few words and pointed to the trunk. Vau nodded his head.
He emerged, less than a minute later, supporting the inspector like a man will support his drunken friend after a night out on the town.
Abi had closed the trunk by this time, and was holding the passenger door open, with the seat pulled forward. He checked around, then nodded. Speed was of the essence in such cases – any hesitation could prove fatal. Neither he nor Vau appeared on any police records, and he intended to keep it that way. ‘Get in there. Keep your head down.’
The inspector stretched himself flat down across the well. ‘What about my wife? What are you doing with my wife?’ His voice shook. One hand snaked down as if to feel for any damage to his knees.
‘Don’t worry, Colonel. She’s coming along for the ride too.’
Once they were safely out of town, Vau stopped the car, and they transferred the inspector and his wife to the trunk. It was a tight fit, but it seemed unlikely the pair would actually suffocate. Both parties had wet themselves, which saved the brothers the trouble of having to stop somewhere en route for a leak break.
Vau caught his brother’s eye. He gave a speculative chuck of the head. ‘I know exactly what you’re thinking. But we’ll never make it. You can’t beat a TGV. Those things average more than three hundred kilometres an hour.’
‘Three stops. They have to make three stops. Then they have to cut their speed radically along the coast. I’ll give you a thousand Euros if we make it to Madame, our mother’s, twenty minutes before our allotted time.’
‘Done. You want to take the wheel?’
‘No. You’re a better driver than I am.’
Vau fishtailed the car out onto the highway, in the direction of the nearest autoroute toll booth.
They made it to the Cap Camarat lighthouse with fourteen minutes to spare. Below them the rocks loomed white in the glow of the waxing moon.
‘Jesus, Abi. You don’t mean to bung them off here? We’re only a few kilometres from the house.’
‘Look.’ Abi held out an unfamiliar cell phone. ‘It probably belongs to the pimp who owns this car.’
‘So what? So everything. We get them out of the trunk, give them the keys, and let them take off.’
‘Are you crazy?’
‘But not before we’ve phoned a place in South Africa I know of and arranged a movie download – the damned thing will take hours and cost thousands. Then we bury the cell phone down the side of the seat. After that we phone the flics back in Saint Evry, and check up on what we claim is our stolen car – the one that we called in a few hours ago. Don’t they remember taking the call? Maybe it was someone else on duty? There’ll be a record of it, anyway. Then we tell the flics that we just remembered that there’s a cell phone in the car, and give them the number and the server. Then we leave the rest to them.’
‘I still don’t understand.’
‘Come on, Vau. The flics check on the cell phone. They find that the line is conveniently open. They can then pinpoint the car to within about three metres, give or take. So they swoop down and reel these two losers in.’
‘But then they’ll tell the flics about us.’
‘Oh really? That they were kidnapped and forced to drive three hundred kilometres by two guys the inspector talked rough to on the train? That they were then calmly handed back the stolen car keys, and, to celebrate, they began to download a child porn movie? When the flics get through with them – if they ever get through with them – Monsieur et Madame L’Inspecteur will still have the pimp to reckon with. And his dear old mother lives just down the road from them, remember? And they’ve just run up an uninsured bill of three thousand Euros on the pimp’s cell phone, and got him branded a paedophile to boot.’
‘Christ, Abi. That’s genius.’
Abi used his own cell phone to call up a local taxi. ‘You’re right. It is. Why bother to kill people when you can simply ruin their lives with a little creative imagination?’
Genevieve de Bale, dowager Countess of Hyeres, stood on the steps of the Chateau de Seyeme and watched as her adopted twin sons descended from their taxi. They were the last of her children to arrive, and she was marginally displeased.
‘You were due in at 8.10.’
She leaned towards her personal assistant, Madame Mastigou, who consulted her brooch watch and mouthed the correct time to her.
‘Abiger, you are twenty-five minutes late. I had expected you to join me on the steps to greet your brothers and sisters. You are the new Count now. As I am a widow and you are still unmarried, it would have been proper for you to have welcomed the family at my side. Instead, I have had to stand here alone.’
Abi kissed Madame, his mother’s, hand, and touched it to his forehead. Then he took up position a step or so below her on the stairs. ‘Vaulderie and I had a little business to attend to. You would have approved, I promise. Please forgive me.’
On the opposite hillside, Joris Calque fiddled with his night glasses, cursing the gibbous moon and the clouds that were obscuring it.
The Countess bent over and kissed her eldest son on the crown of his head. Vau hurried expectantly towards her, but was rewarded by a simple one-handed cupping of the face. He gave his brother a ‘nothing ever changes’ look, and hurried inside.
‘Of course I forgive you, my darling.’
The two of them – mother and adopted son – stood staring out into the surrounding gloom for a few moments, as though an invisible cine camera were recording them for posterity.
Then Abi took his mother’s arm and they followed Madame Mastigou back inside the house.
Calque threw himself back on his inflatable armchair and felt around for his cigarettes. Normally, at this time of the evening, he would never have dreamt of lighting up for fear of giving away his position – but today’s events were just cause for celebration. He was in with a fighting chance again.
The butler, Milouins, had been the first to emerge from the house at around four o’clock that afternoon. After a short pause to sniff the air, he had begun to rake the courtyard into something approximating Zen spirals. Then one of the footmen had appeared with a bucket and a squeegee mop to wash down the stone steps. Finally the gardener had entered unexpectedly from stage right and had attempted to snatch the rake back from Milouins – an altercation ensued, which the gardener lost.
The gardener had then retreated without his rake, scuffing the once immaculate gravel behind him as he went. The footman, plainly recognizing on which side his bread was buttered, had jettisoned whatever remained in his water bucket in the direction of the gardener’s retreating back.
Calque made a swift mental note to ascertain the gardener’s identity as a prelude to approaching him for indiscreet information about the household setup – disenchanted domestic servants, embittered spouses, and disinherited relatives had always formed a major part of his stock-in-trade.
After the initial flurry of preparatory activity there had been a pause of three hours, during which Calque had dozed off on six separate occasions – he had been on the job since early that morning, and was not in the first flush of youth. At about eight o’clock, during a gap between dozes, the Countess had appeared on the steps with her assistant, the ever-elegant Madame Mastigou, at her side. A certain amount of clock consulting had then gone on. At 8.15 the first of a total of five separate cars had drawn up in the driveway.
Each car had then disgorged its occupants, each of whom had gone up to the apparently immovable Countess to kiss her hand and to receive a series of four kisses – two on each cheek – in return.
Then the cars had retreated, leaving the Countess and Madame Mastigou to contemplate the abandoned courtyard like the final guests at a Wagner evening.
Not long afterwards a local taxi had lurched into view, and two men had emerged from its maw. The deteriorating quality of the light had made it impossible for Calque to make out the men’s faces – either one or both of them appeared to be the exception to the Countess’s rule on stasis, however, for she actually moved a step or two towards them in welcome, implying that they were marginally higher in the pecking order than the other arrivals.
One of the men had then disappeared inside the house, leaving the Countess and the other man standing in a pool of light halfway down the entrance steps.
By the time Calque had succeeded in refocusing his night glasses, the pair had turned around and gone inside.
Madame Mastigou sat with her pen poised over a sheet of finely milled Florentine writing paper and waited for the Countess to break her silence.
There was a palpable sense of expectation in the hermetically sealed assembly room. This was the first time in five years that all the Countess’s adopted children had been brought together in one place, and Madame Mastigou could sense the tension behind her employer’s otherwise frozen countenance.
The butler, Milouins, had been delegated for guard duty outside the hidden door in the library, and one of the footmen was acting as outrider in the salon, ensuring that no one could make their way through the household’s cordon sanitaire unannounced. Inside the secret chamber the Countess stood at the head of the table, with her children, in strictly descending order of seniority, taking up the remaining seats to her right and left.
They ranged in age from a mature twenty-seven, in the case of Lamia de Bale, the oldest girl, to around eighteen, In the case of Oni de Bale, the youngest male – a virtual giant, nearly seven feet tall, with the trademark red eyes and unpigmented skin of the true albino.
Abiger and Vaulderie, being the oldest males present, and therefore in legal receipt of the countcy and viscountcy through agnatic primogeniture, had been allocated the two senior seats, despite being two years their sister’s junior. At the very end of the table, a chair had been left empty. In front of it lay a sword, a signet ring, and a velvet brocade sash in memory of their brother, Rocha.
To the clinically detached eye it would soon have become apparent that each of the Countess’s adopted children was graced with some defining mark or characteristic that separated them from the herd.
The oldest girl, Lamia, had a prominent strawberry birthmark that spread across half of her face – seen from one side, she was beautiful, whilst from the other side her beauty was disguised by what, at first glance, appeared to be a piece of blood-soaked surgical gauze. Her younger sister, Athame, was dwarfish in stature, with tiny hands and feet. Berith, the young man sitting below her, had a harelip. Rudra de Bale limped as the result of an untreated club foot, and Aldinach de Bale was a natural hermaphrodite, something which only manifested itself in the marked delicacy of some of his movements – in reality there were times when it suited him to dress as a woman, and other times as a man.
Further down the line came Alastor de Bale, who suffered from cachexia, a wasting disease that made his near neighbour, Asson de Bale, appear even larger than his 22-stone frame would normally warrant. The 21-year-old Dakini de Bale had preternaturally long hair, which framed a face that seemed frozen in a sort of malevolent rictus, and her twenty-year-old sister, Nawal de Bale, suffered from hirsutism, which gave her the visage of an animal.
Each of the thirteen children had been told, since earliest childhood, that they had been marked out in this way by God as a sign of His especial grace. As a result they each bore their affliction not as an affliction, but more as a mark of special selection. The Countess had also explained to them that, thanks to the prevalence of a certain sort of guilty sentimentality in much of the twenty-first century’s increasingly decadent populace, they might even be able to use their afflictions to divert suspicion from themselves – and out towards innocent parties – in the event of a crisis.
Glancing about the room, the Countess could barely disguise her satisfaction. It was at her direct instigation that her husband had resuscitated the almost moribund Corpus Maleficus. The first time he had described the cabal to her – and his family’s inextricable link to its aims over a history spanning nearly eight hundred years – had been just a few days before their marriage. The Count had sounded almost apologetic, as if he had been forced to summon up a hoary old skeleton from the family vaults in order to forestall his future wife learning about it from other, less well-intentioned, sources.
The Countess – the accustomed recipient, since early childhood, of the complete attention of her extended family thanks to her position as sole inheritrix of both her father’s and his distaff relatives’ extensive fortunes – had realized its glorious potential at once. She could feel herself moving, inchmeal, from one non-carnal embrace to another, infinitely more preferable one. Before this moment she had merely sensed, thanks to her father’s subtle hints, that she would be investing in something more than simply a name with her fortune, but she hadn’t realized exactly what she was buying into. Now she knew for certain. ‘You can’t let something like this just die.’
Her elderly fiance had smiled. ‘How can one resuscitate a skeleton? The outer body and epidermis began to expire alongside the final vestiges of the age-old aristocratic order after the disasters of the Great War. The inner body, along with its vital organs, finally perished alongside my manhood, on Monday the third of June 1940, during the German bombardment of Paris. Do you remember Jean Renoir’s film, La Grande Illusion? The characters played by Pierre Fresnay and Erich von Stroheim? The Old Guard aristocrats recognizing each other, and realizing that they had both reached the end of their usefulness? Well Renoir was right. We are tired and irrelevant.’
The Countess had turned on him, revealing for the very first time the inner fire that drove her. ‘Von Stroheim was not an aristocrat, but the son of a Jewish hat-maker. Fresnay’s father was a Huguenot, and therefore a hater of Catholics. And Renoir’s father was a hack painter who depicted his women as if they were made out of marzipan. Who are such people to tell you that your class is doomed?’ She turned on him. ‘I won’t have it. A man doesn’t need a functioning member to be a man. An institution doesn’t need the sanction of the State to give it weight. The flower of France’s chivalric tradition should not need the permission of its inferiors to celebrate its past achievements and prepare its future triumphs.’
The Count had continued smiling. ‘Future triumphs? For reasons that are entirely beyond my control, it seems that I am to be the last in my line. More than a thousand years of history will die with me, my dear. Where are these future triumphs you speak of going to come from?’
And so she had told him – told him of her plans to adopt a new generation of soldiers for the de Bale cause. Told him of the true extent of her fortune, and what they could both achieve with it. And gradually his face had started to light up. His expression to change. ‘You really think this is possible? I am an old man.’
‘But I am not. I shall represent you. Represent our family. Fight for our status as hereditary peers of France.’
‘Why? Why should you do this?’
She had hesitated for some little time, almost as if she had no answer to his question. Then she had turned to him, taken his hand, and placed it above her heart. ‘Because it is my destiny.’
It was only later, and well into their marriage, that the Countess had realized just how elegantly the Count had steered her towards exactly the conclusion he himself had so fervently desired.
So. It was time. The Countess laid aside the document whose ancient codification had caused so much trouble to the inquisitive police Captain – what had been his name? Clique? Claque? – the one who had so dogged her footsteps in the run-up to the death of her eldest son earlier that summer. She knew its entire contents by heart.
‘Who are we?’
‘We are the Corpus.’ Her children responded as one.
‘The Corpus Maleficus.’
‘And what do we do?’
‘We protect the realm.’
‘And who is our enemy?’
‘And how shall we defeat him?’
‘We shall never defeat him.’
‘And how shall we unseat him?’
‘We shall never unseat him.’
‘So what is our purpose?’
‘And how do we procure it?’
‘By serving Christ’s dark shadow.’
‘And who is that?’
‘The antimimon pneuma. The counterfeit spirit.’
‘And what is his name?’
‘And how do we serve him?’
‘By destroying the Parousia.’
‘And what is the Parousia?’
‘He is the Second Coming of Christ. He is the brother of Satan.’
‘And how shall we know Him?’
‘A sign will be given.’
‘And how shall we kill Him?’
‘He will be sacrificed.’
‘And what shall be our reward?’
‘And what is our law?’
‘And how shall we achieve it?’
‘And who are our brothers and sisters?’
‘We shall know them.’
‘And who are our enemies?’
‘We shall know them.’
‘And who is the Third Antichrist?’
‘We shall know him and guard him.’
‘And who is the Second Coming?’
‘We shall know Him and kill Him.’
The Countess made the reverse sign of the cross, followed by the reverse sign of the pentacle, just as her son, Achor Bale, had done just a few short hours before his death.
‘And Holy is the Number of the Beast.’
The children intoned the answers to the Countess’s questions with their eyes turned up into their eyelids – as they spoke, their hands also made reverse crosses, reaching from their crotch back over to the nape of their necks. This was followed by the sign of the six-sided pentacle, also from the direction of the lower to the upper body.
When the invocations were over, the Countess walked the length of the room to stand behind Achor Bale’s empty chair. She kissed her fingers and laid them tenderly on the hilt of his sword. ‘You all realize, of course, that Rocha’s death occurred as a direct result of investigations he was undertaking on behalf of the Society?’
There was a generalized intake of breath.
‘It was at my instigation that he followed the man Sabir. It was at my instigation that he intervened following Sabir’s discovery of the lost verses of Nostradamus. He died fulfilling his duties to the Corpus.’
Abiger glanced across at his brother. He was scarcely able to keep the grin off his face. He knew what was coming.
‘A spy in the apostate Nostradamus’s household – a spy in the pay of one of the noblest of your ancestors, Forcas de Bale – alerted his master to the verses’ potential contents. The Count was already on his way down to Agen when news reached him of Michel de Nostredame’s death. When he arrived, the verses had already been dispersed and the seer buried. It took nearly 450 years for the verses to reappear. We in the Corpus have long memories. An oath is an oath for us. Once bound, always bound.’
‘Once bound, always bound.’ The children whispered in echo of her words.
‘Abiger…’ The Countess turned towards her eldest son. ‘The time has come for you and your brother to travel to America. You will identify the man Sabir. First, you will extract the secrets of the prophecies from him in whatever manner you may deem appropriate. Then you will take revenge for the murder of your brother. Is that clear?’
The Countess turned towards her eldest daughter. ‘Lamia, you did not make the reverse cross. Kindly make it now.’
Lamia’s hand crept towards her throat. The rufous complexion marring one side of her face turned, if anything, a deeper red.
‘I am waiting.’
‘I cannot do it, Madame.’ Lamia shook her head.
Her brothers and sisters stared at her like dingoes alerted to a kill.
‘Abiger. Escort your elder sister to her room. She will remain there until she is able to offer a suitable explanation for her behaviour. Apprise Milouins of the situation. The rest of you may take the blood oath. You will be told when you are needed.’
Oni de Bale glanced down at his mother from his great height. ‘Do we others continue with our work, Madame?’
The Countess turned away, motioning to Madame Mastigou, who was cleaning a small ivory receptacle. Then she turned towards her dwarfish daughter, Athame, a sufferer from Ellis-van Creveld Syndrome. A polydactyl, Athame was unconscionably dexterous with all of her twelve fingers. ‘Athame. Live up to your name. You may do the necessary cuts for the blood oath.’
‘I heard you, Oni.’ The Countess turned and laid a light hand on her youngest son’s forearm. She glanced up into his eyes, her neck forced back against the collar of her elegantly tailored 1950s Dior suit the better to take in his span. ‘Always continue with your work. That is the way to please me. Stir, stir, stir. Keep the broth moving. Never let the commoners rest at ease. The Devil is a hungry angel – he will come calling if we don’t forestall him. That is your primary job.’
‘Soon, I may have a more specific use for you. You must hold yourself in readiness for that.’
Oni hunched down and kissed his mother’s hand.
The Countess noticed Lamia hesitate on her way to the door. ‘Have you anything to say to me, my child?’
It looked for a moment as if Lamia would speak. Then she shook her head and followed her brother quietly out into the library.
At precisely 9.30 the next morning, Joris Calque watched from his camouflaged hiding place as the battery of chauffeur-driven cars returned to collect their clients. He counted them off, one by one.
‘That leaves three of them still inside the house. Two males and a female, if I am not mistaken.’
In the lonely weeks that Calque had spent ensconced inside his eyrie, he had occasionally drifted into the habit of talking out loud to himself. He was well aware of this new tendency, but didn’t, as yet, feel that he was in imminent danger of turning into one of those ubiquitous males – and they were always males, weren’t they? – who stride up and down the pavements of their home town mouthing off to imagined companions.
If he ever did slide into such a public form of idiocy, Calque hoped that he would have enough wit left to wedge a cell phone speaker in his ear, thereby protecting himself against the very forces of public order to which he had for so long subscribed.
His main problem now wasn’t incipient dementia, however, but rather to retrieve the – hopefully – brimming voice-activated tape recorder from the Countess’s inner sanctum.
He stood up and glanced around his eyrie. So. His time here was over.
He wouldn’t miss the chemical toilet, the smell of stale tobacco, or the curious quality of light that filtered through the gaps in the camouflage netting. But he would miss the birdlife, and the sightings of badgers, rodents, rabbits, deer and foxes with which he had wiled away the more tiresome hours of his vigil. He decided, on the spur of the moment, to bequeath the entirety of his hidey-hole to the poacher who had set it up. That would save him the trouble of carting everything back to his car. It would serve to cover his back-trail rather nicely, too.
Calque’s experience told him that he didn’t stand a cat-in-hell’s chance of getting into the Domaine to retrieve the recorder himself. He was neither young, suicidal, nor particularly eager to see the inside of any of the prisons to which he had consigned so many felons, child-molesters, and murderers in the course of his detecting career.
But there was one possible alternative to professional suicide. And Calque made up his mind to explore it without further delay.
Calque watched as Paul Macron’s cousin put the finishing touches to a louvred shutter. The man was aware of him, that much was obvious. But it would have been unrealistic of Calque to expect an ex-Foreign Legionnaire to come running just because a captain – strike that, an ex-captain – of police showed up at his workshop. At least it would give him time to have a cigarette.
Just as Calque was preparing to inhale, he saw Macron gesticulating at him with his sander from across the atelier.
‘Put that fucking thing out. This isn’t a country club. There’s enough dry wood stacked up in here to smoke a whale.’
Calque gave a sickly smile and crushed the as yet unsavoured cigarette and its accompanying match out beneath his foot. He should have expected that, too. Macron’s cousin had no reason to view him with anything other than disdain. Paul Macron had been killed on his watch, and it was only luck, and Adam Sabir’s suicidal bloody-mindedness, that had allowed the police to put a line under Achor Bale’s killing spree.
Aime Macron went over to a sink in the corner of the workshop and started on the laborious rigmarole of washing his hands, his face, and the back of his neck. Calque could see Macron weighing him up in the pin-up plastered mirror above the basin.
Calque didn’t move. He was weighing Macron up, too. Deciding whether to trust him with information that, in the wrong hands, could send him to prison.
‘You’re not a flic any more, are you?’ Macron was moving towards Calque now, scrubbing at his neck with a towel, his eyes hooded.
Calque was fleetingly tempted to brazen the thing out – pretend he was still on the force – flash his purposefully mislaid badge – but he thought better of it. ‘No. I’m not. How did you guess?’
Macron shrugged. ‘I was in the Legion for twenty years. I can tell when a man has power by the way he carries himself. You don’t have power any more. If you were still a flic, you would have breezed in here and interrupted my work, knowing it was your fucking right. But you waited for me to finish instead. Cops aren’t usually that fastidious.’
‘ Touche.’ Calque was impressed despite himself. He instantly changed tack, and approached Macron from a different direction to the one that he had initially intended. ‘You remember me, don’t you?’
‘How could I forget? You brought us the news of Paul’s death.’
Calque squirmed inside, each word like a touchpaper to his policeman’s soul. ‘You helped me that time. You gave me valuable information about Achor Bale. About his time in the Legion.’
Macron squinted, as if something he had not understood had just been made blindingly clear to him. He lit a cigarette.
Calque made a face.
Macron grinned. ‘Yeah. I was just bullshitting you back there about the fire hazard and the cigs. Have one of mine.’
Calque cocked his head questioningly. ‘Why the change of attitude all of a sudden?’
‘Do you really want to know?’
‘I really do. Yes.’
Macron snorted smoke through both nostrils. ‘Because you’re not a flic any more. I like you better this way. They kick you out because of Paul’s death?’
‘Fuckers. It wasn’t your fault. If it had been, you wouldn’t have made it past the front gate.’
‘I suspected that.’ Calque lit the proffered cigarette.
The two men stood staring at each other, smoking.
‘So what do you want, Monsieur l’ex-Capitaine?’
Macron scrubbed his fingernails across his razor-stropped head. ‘Don’t fuck with me, Inspector. You haven’t come around here to see how I’m getting on. Or to chew the fat about all those happy times you shared with Paul. Neither of you could stand each other.’
Calque could sense himself about to go on the defensive – he wrestled the instinct down. ‘You’re right, Macron. I need more than information this time. I need your help.’
Macron allowed himself the ghost of a smile. ‘Paul’s killer is dead. What do you need me for?’ His face changed expression. ‘You need someone nobbled, don’t you? That’s it, isn’t it? And you remembered that good old Aime Macron was on the prison register for GBH, and maybe he hadn’t forgotten some of his old tricks in the years since they let him out?’
‘It’s not that.’
‘Then what is it?’
Calque felt like a fool. What was he doing here, talking to a compete stranger about breaking the law, after spending his entire working life as its bondservant? He swallowed. Might as well get it out. What did he have to lose? His pension? It was hardly enough to keep him in toilet paper. His good name? What was that worth in this brave new world they called France? His integrity? He’d lost that when he’d trousered his badge back at the station. ‘Do you have any ex-Legionnaire friends who are firemen? Down St Tropez way, maybe?’
‘Firemen? Are you serious?’
Calque flicked his cigarette into the puddle of water left over after Macron’s frenetic ablutions. ‘Perfectly.’
Abiger de Bale sat on the bed across from his sister.
Lamia de Bale had her back to him, and was staring pointedly out of the window.
‘I’ve never liked you, Lamia. I’ve always considered you the weakest link in our family chain.’ Abi threw himself back on the bed and lay there, staring up at the ceiling.
Lamia turned towards him. ‘Why not kill me then? That’s what you’re good at, isn’t it? Just like Rocha. Both of you, born killers.’
‘I only kill vermin. You should view me like a terrier, trained to kill rats. I’m sweet when you get to know me. Cuddly, even.’
‘Get out of my room. You’re dirtying my bed.’
‘I’m waiting for Milouins. He’s coming up to take over keeping an eye on you.’
‘I don’t need keeping an eye on. What do you think? That I’m going to betray you all?’
Abi shrugged. ‘What’s to betray? We all work separately. None of us has a record of any sort. If you said anything, nobody would believe you. What we do makes no logical sense, unless one understands the Mysteries.’
‘What Mysteries? You don’t actually believe in a Second Coming, do you? Or the emergence of the Third Antichrist?’
‘Of course not. But Madame, our mother, does. And she holds the purse strings.’
Lamia shook her head. ‘So it’s just an excuse, then? For you and Vau?’
‘No. Vau really believes in all that hogwash too. I do it for the fun of it. He does it out of conviction. The result’s much the same.’
‘You make me sick.’
‘Why? The others all believe it too.’ Abi grinned. ‘Gather together a bunch of freaks. Then brainwash them from birth. Tell them they’re special – that they’ve been handpicked by God, and that everyone else is inferior to them. Then shower them with money and privileges. Works every time.’
Lamia glanced towards the open door. ‘If Madame, our mother, heard you talk like this, it wouldn’t be me whom she imprisons.’
‘But she won’t ever hear me talk like this. I’m not going to kill the golden goose. Do you think I’m insane?’
‘I refuse to answer that.’ Lamia hesitated. Against her better instincts she allowed herself to frame the question uppermost in her mind. ‘What do you think she will do with me?’
Abi laughed. ‘If I were you, I’d change my tune. Fast. That way you won’t need to find out.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I don’t know why I’m telling you this, because it’s not to my advantage in any way to do so. But you are my sister. Even if not by blood.’ Abi sat up straighter on the bed. ‘Do you know what I would do if I were her?’
Lamia took a step towards him. ‘Tell me.’
‘I’d ask someone like me to kill you.’
Lamia stopped. The unmarked side of her face turned deathly pale. ‘Is that what you’ve been sent to do?’
‘Me? No. You’d be dead already. I wouldn’t have bothered warning you either. We’ve got a jellyfish plague out in the bay. I’d simply have dumped you out there, in the middle of the biggest school of lashers I could find, and dragged you around on a rope and a life-ring. Everybody would think you’d been caught out swimming. Enough jellyfish stings, and you go into anaphylactic shock and drown. It’s happened hundreds of times. There are no EpiPens out at sea.’
She stared at him. ‘Why? What’s so vital about now? What could possibly be important enough to kill your own sister for?’
Abi shrugged. ‘I’d have thought it was obvious. This is the moment our family has been waiting eight hundred years for. Madame, our mother…’
A voice at the door interrupted him. ‘Yes, Abiger. You are right. Madame, your mother, does think that this is the moment the Corpus has been waiting eight hundred years for.’ The Countess swept in, accompanied by Milouins and Madame Mastigou. She inclined her head first towards Abiger, and then towards her daughter. ‘But Niobe did not kill her own children, did she, Lamia? It was the immortal gods who decided on their fate.’ She glanced around the room, her eyes strangely unseeing. ‘You will remain here at the house for the foreseeable future. Or at the very least until such time as you can convince me that you’ve seen reason. Milouins will see that you are adequately looked after, and he and the men will watch over you in shifts. You will take your meals with me of course. That will give us time to talk. Aside from that you may use the library and the games room. But not the telephone or a computer. Do you understand me?’
Lamia’s eyes flared briefly. Then she lowered her gaze in acquiescence. ‘Perfectly, Madame.’
‘This is all highly inconvenient, you understand? I have more important things to think of.’
Abi, who had sprung to attention the moment his mother had entered the room, flashed his sister an old-flashioned look.
The Countess turned towards her son. ‘Abiger. You have your orders. You and your brother are no longer needed here.’
‘Do you have adequate funds?’
‘Ample, Madame. As you are well aware.’
‘Then don’t let me down.’
‘Yeah. I know a fireman. He works in Draguignan, though. Not in St Tropez. He’s a communist. Wears red underpants. Is that any good?’
Calque closed his eyes. I must be insane, he thought to himself. Why am I doing this? I should be in Tenerife, living in one of those long-let apartments they lease out at peppercorn rents to the silver-haired brigade for the winter. I could play dominoes every morning with retired bank managers and redundant civil servants, and then flirt over the lunchtime aperitif with their wives. I wouldn’t even notice when the infarct took me. And my terminally uncommunicative daughter would only find out her father had finally cashed in his chips when they brought her my medals and the accompanying life-insurance cheque on a velvet-covered tray.
‘I’m afraid that won’t do.’ Calque hesitated. ‘I’ll be frank with you, Macron. I owe you that much. I need to get inside a house. A well-guarded house. I need to retrieve something I left there some months ago. Something that involves your cousin, and the people responsible for his death. It occurred to me that if a fire alert were called in – by a concerned citizen, say – everyone inside the house would be forced out while the firemen were checking around inside. I would pay the man for securing this article for me, of course. And I can assure you that it would not be a case of theft. The article belongs to me already. No one else even knows of its existence.’ Calque’s voice trailed off. Brought out into the open like that, his idea sounded lame in the extreme.
Macron opened a cupboard concealed in a far corner of the workshop. He brought out a bottle and two glasses. ‘Pastis?’
Calque was on the verge of saying that he was on duty, when he realized that he wasn’t. ‘Gladly.’
The two men avoided each other’s eyes as they sipped from their glasses.
Macron allowed his gaze to wander around his workshop. ‘Took me two years to build this place up from scratch. Can you believe that? Summon up a reputation. Get in some regular trade.’ He took another sip of his drink. ‘I’m on the up now. Might even think about getting married. Breeding some hoppers.’
Calque put down his glass and prepared to leave. The game was up, and he knew it.
‘Wait.’ Macron tipped back his head. ‘You see all this?’ He pointed to his carefully tiered stock. ‘Each piece is best-grade hardwood. Over 95 per cent yield. Quadruple A. I get all my lumber from an ex-Legionnaire who lives out near Manosque.’
‘Manosque?’ Calque couldn’t work out where Macron was headed. Was the man deaf? Hadn’t he heard anything Calque had said?
‘Manosque. Yes. The man’s a marvel. He gets me anything I need. Doesn’t matter what sort of notice I give him. Totally reliable.’ Macron pointed with his chin. ‘That’s his card. Pinned up on the wall over there. You can scribble his name down in your notebook. Say you come from me when you speak to him. Tell him Aime L’OM says marche ou creve. Droit au but.’
Calque hunched his shoulders questioningly. ‘Lumber? You get your lumber from this man?’ He wanted more. Some assurance that he wasn’t being led up the garden path.
‘Good luck. I hope you get back what you lost.’
Calque sighed. He wrote down the woodsman’s name in his notebook.
Macron hesitated, still reluctant to commit himself – still reluctant to trust a flic. ‘That cousin of mine, Captain. The one the eye-man shot. Your associate. He was a little Front National shit. That metis fiancee of his is well rid of him.’ He slugged back the remnants of his pastis. Then he looked Calque straight in the eye. ‘But his mother. My uncle’s wife. The one who collapsed into her husband’s arms when you told her the news about her son. She’s a woman in a million, that one. I think the world of her.’
Lamia de Bale glanced out of her bedroom window. It was midnight. The house was finally asleep.
Outside her door she could hear Philippe, the footman, resettling his chair on the tilt.
Her first idea had been to switch on the radio. Get him used to the music. But everybody knew that she never listened to music. The little pervert would come straight in to check what was going on out of sheer curiosity. And then he would probably try to inveigle her into bed, as he’d attempted to do on at least three separate occasions in the past year. And this time she was vulnerable. Not his employer’s daughter any more, but a prisoner, with no rights of her own. It wasn’t worth the risk.
She picked up the bundle of sheets, went into the bathroom, and closed the door.
First, she switched on the shower. Then she took the pair of surgical scissors out of the first-aid kit, and began slicing the sheets into strips.
I can’t believe I’m doing this, she intoned to herself. What if I fall? What if I break a bone? They will kill me.
When she’d finished dissecting the sheets, she began the laborious task of twisting and knotting them together. At one point she switched off the shower, and padded through into the bedroom, making sure to switch on the lamp by her bed and turn off the main light, just as she normally did.
Then she tiptoed back into the bathroom and continued with her task.
When she had the sheets knotted together to her satisfaction, she measured them out against her forearm. Their length came to about ten metres. She hoped it would be enough.
Her room was on the third floor of the house, over the courtyard. Once she was safely down, she intended to make inland for Ramatuelle. She knew where Monsieur Brussi, the taxi driver, lived. She had known him all her life. Even though Madame, her mother, had confiscated her purse and credit cards, surely he would agree to take her somewhere – anywhere – on credit?
She unlatched the window, and sifted the knotted sheets through her hands. She’d taken the precaution of tying a hairbrush to the bottom sheet, and she hoped, in this way, to be able to gauge, even in the dark, how much further she would need to drop if her makeshift rope didn’t stretch all the way down to the ground.
When the sheets had reached their full extent, she began swinging them from one side to the other, as gently as she was able. The hairbrush struck something a glancing blow.
Lamia stopped her swinging, and listened, one hand cupped behind her ear. After a minute’s intense concentration, she relaxed. She had learned two things. The first was that there was no one stationed down in the courtyard. The second was that there was a further potential ten-foot drop between the opened shutter that she had just struck with her hairbrush, and the ground.
She attached the free end of the knotted sheet to the central section of her bedroom window. There. Now she’d lost another foot in length. She’d have to drop down maybe eleven feet in the darkness. She racked her brains as to whether there was anything below her that might fall over and give her away. How stupid she had been not to have checked the whole area over while it was still light.
With a final, bemused glance at her room, Lamia eased herself out of the window. She was about to leave everything she had ever known behind her. Security, family, tradition, and emotional ties. For twenty-seven years she had been living a monstrous lie.
The real truth about her life, together with the true motives of the cabal that had adopted her – a cabal to which she had unwittingly and unthinkingly transferred all her loyalties – had only dawned on her following the publicity surrounding her brother’s death. If what she had been doing was by order of the Corpus Maleficus, then just how damaging had all the pathetic little courier jobs – which were all that Madame, her mother, had seen fit to allocate her over the years since her majority – actually been? How much damage had she inadvertently foisted on a society ignorant of the extent – or even the existence – of its own guilt? Now, at last, she would be able to enter the real world unencumbered by any of the baggage of the past.
Using her feet as clamps, Lamia eased herself gingerly down the knotted line. She was fairly fit in terms of her age – tennis, yoga, and the occasional dance class had been her staples – but she was prone to vertigo, and she found herself thanking Providence that she had been forced to conduct her stunt in the dark.
Once, halfway down her ersatz rope, and feeling herself in danger of freezing in fear, she had twisted the sheets violently around one wrist until the interrupted blood flow had forced her to gather her wits together and continue on with her descent.
Finally, after what felt like half an hour but which had, in practice, been no more than a three-minute descent, she encountered the hairbrush with her feet. Carefully, she eased herself all the way down until she was hanging off the extreme end of the knotted line.
Then, without allowing herself to think, she let go.
Her plan was to strike the ground running. Instead, she took two lurching paces and fell to her knees. Instantly, every light in the courtyard switched on. Lamia twisted onto her back, her face contorted in shock. This was new. Madame, her mother, had never thought to safeguard the house with automatic security lights before.
Lamia scrambled to her feet and began to run. Perhaps, when she was out of the courtyard, the lights would switch themselves off? Perhaps, if no one had been watching, they would think that a deer had wandered in from the surrounding fields and triggered the sensor?
The front doors of the Domaine burst open and Milouins emerged. He was carrying a shotgun.
Lamia struck out with all her might for the gap between the garage and the stable block. If she could only make it beyond the outbuildings, she might be able to lose herself amongst the vines.
Milouins threw the shotgun aside and started after her.
The instant he began to run it became obvious to Lamia that she stood no chance at all of evading him. He ran like an athlete, his hands pumping high above his hips, his face in a rictus of concentration.
Lamia looked wildly around. Then she stopped, and fell back against the wall, holding her heart. She watched Milouins approach with her head down, sucking in air, like a feral, tethered mare, facing up to the man who intends to master her.
‘You’ll come with me, Mademoiselle.’
Lamia shook her head.
Milouins took her arm just above the elbow. When she attempted to struggle, he changed his grip so that he was holding both of her arms straight behind her back, where he could exert any pressure he chose against her shoulder sockets. ‘Please, Mademoiselle. I have no wish to hurt you. I’ve known you since you were a little girl. Walk quietly with me. I’d be beholden to you.’
Lamia let out a sob of frustration. She nodded her head.
Milouins relaxed his grip. He contented himself with walking two paces behind her, confident in his ability to catch her once again should she attempt to flee.
The footman who had been guarding Lamia’s room skittered down the steps at the front of the house, the leather soles of his shoes echoing off the marble cladding. He stopped and made a face at Milouins as the pair came abreast of him. ‘The old woman will massacre me for this.’ He scowled at Lamia. ‘I hope she gives you to me to do over. I’ll stick a plastic bag over your head so I won’t have to look at you.’
‘Shut up,’ said Milouins. ‘And go and wake Madame la Comtesse.’
‘She’s up already. The burglar alarm must have gone off in her bedroom when you came through the front door without neutralizing it.’
Lamia, Milouins, and the footman stood in the hall, looking up towards the stairs.
The Countess, in her dressing gown, and accompanied by a similarly clad Madame Mastigou, was descending the staircase to meet them.
‘What shall we do with her, Madame?’ Milouins looked marginally uncomfortable, like an axe-man at a royal execution who is suffering from a sudden onset of lese majeste.
‘Do with her?’ The Countess came to an abrupt halt. ‘Get Philippe to tie her up, feed her a sedative, and then lock her in the Corpus chamber. That way we can all get some sleep. There are no windows in there to tempt her towards further recklessness. I shall decide on her future in the morning.’
Ex-Sergeant-Chef Jean Picaro – twenty years in the Legion, ten years banged up in La Sante prison for armed robbery, eight years on the outside as a procurer of hard-to-access items to the criminal fraternity – scratched his clean-shaven head with fingernails worn down by years of automatic habit. A former sufferer of bread scabies, which he had contracted at La Sante during a particularly pernicious period in its history, Picaro had found it physically impossible to rid himself of his fifteen-year-old anxiety tic whenever he entered periods of high stress.
And it was most definitely stress that he was feeling now. One thing was certain – to all intents and purposes he was looking at a straight in-and-out affair. So why was he sweating? And why was he scratching his head like a chimpanzee with mange?
At first he had been minded not to take the job at all. It went against the grain to deal with ex- flics. Shit sticks – and old shit sticks the worst. But the man came recommended by Aime Macron. And Macron had saved Picaro’s life in Djibouti when he’d fallen foul of an Afar brigade leader in a convoluted deal involving drugs, women, and a consignment of FAMAS assault rifles which had somehow gone missing from the Legion warehouse.
The flic had further undermined his objections by coming straight out and offering him 1,500 Euros on the nail, and a further 1,500 down the line, to liberate a personal item belonging to him from inside a house on the Cap. The deal didn’t even involve a break-in. The flic, as flics do, had secretly palmed and wax-pressed a backdoor key while conducting an investigation inside the house two months before. Picaro had even been given a detailed map of the layout, showing the position of the library and of the concealed doorway leading to the room containing the object. A piece of cake, surely. But something was still bothering him.
He played his torch over the map. He’d been watching the back of the house for over an hour now, and everything seemed quiet. No dogs. No automatic lighting sensors this side of the property. The flic had even explained to him where the alarm system and circuit breakers were, and how best to de-activate them. The whole thing was a fucking dream. But in Picaro’s experience, dreams had a nasty habit of jolting you awake when you least expected it.
He flicked some imaginary skin from the collar of his jacket.
Right. Either you do it or you don’t, Legionnaire.
Picaro rose to his feet and padded down towards the buanderie.
Picaro stood inside the back door and sniffed. He didn’t know how or why, but sometimes you could smell the presence of people, even rooms away from you. It was some atavistic instinct, he reckoned, from mankind’s earliest times as a cave dweller. Enter an empty cave which you meant to occupy yourself, and before you settled down in front of the fire it was a smart idea to make sure that no one else, man or beast, felt they had a prior claim.
Satisfied, Picaro padded up the concrete stairway that led to the back of the hallway. After neutralizing the alarm system within the stipulated two minutes, he cracked his torch and checked his map one final time. A left, a right, and then another right, and he should be in the library. Then a few steps across the room to the bound set of La Vie Parisienne – the flic had even set down the exact number of volumes there were in that particular run – and hey presto, open sesame.
Picaro cast a quick glance up the stairs as he passed through the hall. Despite the multitude of houses he had broken into during the course of his life, Picaro still couldn’t stop himself fantasizing about his own particular nightmare – that of an Alsatian – it was always an Alsatian – bounding noiselessly down the stairs, dewlaps flapping, saliva jetting into its mouth at the prospect of a piece of Jean Picaro’s thighbone.
Giving a little jump to settle his gooseflesh, Picaro eased himself through the doorway of the library. Jesus. He was getting too old for this. What did he need 3,000 euros for, anyway? His bank account was heaving. He owned his house outright. His son was apprenticed to the best electrical engineer in the business, and he had vowed to die rather than ever to go back to prison again. So what the hell was he doing it for? Habit? Addiction to the kicks? Or just because it was one of the few things he could still do well?
He bent down and felt around for the catch that the flic had told him was hidden under Volume Three of the collected periodicals.
A door, hidden in the bookcase, flicked open. With a cautious glance over one shoulder, Picaro stepped inside the concealed room.
‘ Putain de merde!’ he mouthed to himself, his eyes widening in horror.
The unconscious figure of a woman was tied to a chair in the very centre of the assembly table. Her head had fallen at an angle, and as Picaro played his torch across her, he saw that one whole side of her face was covered in what appeared to be a thin sheet of congealed blood.
Ever the professional – and ever mindful of his 3,000 euros – Picaro felt around under the table for the flic’s precious tape recorder. Exactly two metres to the right of the master chair, taped up inside the skirt, at the exact angle of the joist and the cross-brace. Yes. There it was. Picaro pocketed it.
He hesitated, and then made briskly for the door. What business was the woman of his? He’d done what he came here to do. He was already running late because of his previous caution. Why complicate matters? This way, he could get out of the house before daybreak with no one the wiser.
His gaze travelled inexorably back to the woman. What the hell had they done to her? Maybe she was dead, even? But no. He could see her breathing by the light of the torch.
As he played the light across her body, a memory came back to Picaro from his time at La Sante prison. A young lad, mixed race, not more than nineteen years old, who had fallen foul of one of the methamphetamine gangs. One day the gang had waited for him in the showers – for sooner or later, as Picaro had tried to explain to the boy, the bad guys always get you. What the hell else did they have to do with their time? But the boy had been too young and too cocksure to listen to him.
This one they’d condemned to a tournante – a gang rape. When Picaro found the boy, they’d left him tied to a chair, with his head through the seat, his belly over the backrest, and his hands and feet strapped to the legs – that way he would be available for anyone else to use who happened along.
At first Picaro hadn’t understood what he was looking at. It was like when his son had emerged, balls first, from his mother’s womb. Picaro had fallen back, his face ashen, shouting, ‘Christ, what’s that?’
‘It’s his testicles, Monsieur,’ the midwife had told him. ‘They swell up in a breech birth, because the legs are stretched back over the head.’
When he’d seen the state of the young man’s anus, Picaro had vomited. Then he’d untied the boy, straightened him out as best he could on the cold floor of the shower room, and gone to fetch the toubibs.
They’d stitched him up good, but the boy had never been right again after the attack. One day, about six months later, he’d cut off his own balls with a piece of broken glass.
Sighing, Picaro moved back to the table. Taking out his Opinel, he cut the cords binding the young woman to her chair, eased her towards him, and let her fall across his right shoulder.
With a hitch of his arms, he settled her weight more squarely. Then, feeling all kinds of a fool, he started back across the hall.
No point closing the door behind me now, he thought to himself. I might as well leave a fucking paper trail.
Picaro laid the woman gently on the rear seat of his car. He stood back and looked down at her in the cold glow of the interior lights. What he had imagined in the darkness of the sealed room to be blood, now proved to be nothing more than a strawberry birthmark. Poor bitch. She’d have been pretty without that. Sometimes you wondered what God was thinking of.
Picaro sprung back her eyelids and checked her pupils. She was doped – that much was obvious. He was briefly tempted to tie his chamois leather duster around her eyes so that she couldn’t identify him if she woke up – but with his present run of luck, she’d probably panic on awaking and cause a car wreck. Best to leave things be for the time being.
He’d arranged to meet the flic at the old parking place behind Pampelonne beach. A twenty-minute drive at the outside. He’d simply dump the female and the tape recorder on him, get the rest of his money, and then scram. The flic could sort her out. That’s what flics did, wasn’t it? Sort things out?
Three times on the drive to Pampelonne Picaro wondered whether he wouldn’t do better just leaving her on the side of the road. She hadn’t seen him yet. She hadn’t seen the flic. Why complicate life when you didn’t need to?
But the image of the girl tied to the chair in the centre of the table haunted him. What had that boy’s name been? The one in the prison? Chico? Chiclette? Something like that.
Stupid to put the chair on the table. What if the girl had woken up and thrown herself to one side in a panic? She could have broken her neck and paralysed herself. People could be dumb sometimes.
He saw the flic waiting for him in the curve of the headlights. Well. Here goes. What a man will do for three thousand smackers.
Picaro pulled up beside Calque. He got out of the car and looked around. Well. No unexpected reception committee. That was a good first sign.
‘Did you get it?’
‘Of course I got it.’ Picaro eased the tape recorder from his pocket and handed it to Calque.
Calque palmed him the remaining fifteen hundred.
Picaro jerked his thumb back towards the car. ‘I’ve got something else for you, too. No extra charge.’
Calque flinched, as if someone had fired a dried pea at the back of his neck. ‘What do you mean?’
Picaro opened the back door of his car and stood waiting for Calque to join him. They both stared down at the girl.
‘Don’t worry. She’s not dead. Someone drugged her and tied her to a chair. They left the chair on the table in that secret room of yours. I thought at first that it might have been one of those sex things – you know, a bondage thing, when they pop amyl nitrate and then half suffocate themselves in an effort to increase their kicks. But one look at her face told me otherwise. I thought about leaving her there, but I just couldn’t do it. She hasn’t seen me and she hasn’t seen you. My advice would be to abandon her here. But she’s your problem from here on in. Agreed?’
‘Agreed.’ Calque had total control of himself again. He was already busy working out the possible ramifications of this new development.
‘Want me to move her, or will you?’
‘You’d better move her. I’m not in the best of health.’
Calque watched as Picaro eased the girl across the back seat towards him.
‘What’s that on her face? Is she injured?’
Picaro held the girl’s head up towards the light as if he were exhibiting a vase to a potential buyer at an auction house. ‘No. Birthmark. It’s a fucking shame, isn’t it?’
Calque recognized the girl’s facial disfigurement at once. She had been one of the members of the first party to arrive at the house – the party which had preceded the arrival of the two men. She had to be one of the Countess’s daughters, therefore – one of the Devil’s dozen. But what could she possibly have done to turn the Countess against her? Either way, he desperately needed to talk to her.
At that exact moment, Lamia opened her eyes.
Picaro raised his hand, ready to rabbit-punch her before she could catch a glimpse of his face.
‘No. No. Wait!’ Calque hurried forward. He scrabbled in his pocket and held out his badge. ‘Police, Mademoiselle. For your own good, do not look around. I’m going to ease you out of the car.’ He took her face in his hands. ‘Keep looking at me. Don’t look around. Trust me.’
Lamia was still dopey. She stumbled forwards and fell against Calque’s chest, her knees buckling.
Calque nodded at Picaro.
Picaro jumped into his car and slewed away. The back door slammed shut of its own accord as he revved up through the gears.
Philippe Lemelle had been one of the Countess de Bale’s footmen for eighteen months now. It was the single longest period in his life that he had ever held down a job, and he was beginning to get itchy feet. Something good needed to happen, or the old cow wouldn’t see his trail for dust.
Lemelle’s father and his grandfather had both worked for the old Count, and it was this fact, and this fact alone, which had secured the slow-witted and low IQ’d Lemelle the job. As a result, Lemelle was fully conversant – or so he fondly thought – with all the Corpus’s aims and aspirations. If it wasn’t for the butler, Milouins, who was clearly jealous of his good looks and his success with women, Lemelle was firmly convinced that he would have risen far more rapidly in the Corpus hierarchy, with the Countess using him for something just a little more onerous than the cleaning of people’s rooms and the mounting of guard duty on her disfigured bitch of a daughter.
Lemelle felt personally humiliated by Lamia’s escape during his watch, and his sense of humiliation was further compounded by Milouins’s triumphant recapture of the stuck-up bint just a few seconds after she’d touched down in the courtyard. He derived belated comfort from the fact that it was to him, and not to Milouins, that the Countess had reassigned Lamia after the escape fiasco. Madame la Comtesse had clearly marked him out from the herd, and intended him for higher things.
From the very first moment that he had seen her, fourteen months before, during a brief visit on the occasion of her mother’s birthday, Lemelle had found Lamia sexually attractive – despite, or perhaps even because of, the strawberry birthmark that marred her face. After all, as his father used to say, you don’t stare at the mantelpiece while you’re poking the fire.
As a result he had taken an unusually keen pleasure in knotting her to her chair, and forcibly dosing her with twice the regulation measure of tranquillizers. He was beginning to regret his final sadistic flourish, however, which had seen him balancing the now unconscious woman on top of the council room table for reasons which, in retrospect, eluded even him. In fact the memory of his stupidity had positively begun to haunt him. What if she woke up in a panic, fell off the table, and broke her stupid neck? That would complete Milouins’s triumph over him, wouldn’t it? The Countess would have every reason to bury him alive.
Lemelle threw on a few clothes and padded furtively downstairs. The stillness of the sleeping house was oddly comforting to him, for ever since childhood Lemelle had been prone to passages of voyeurism, and night time – with its secrets, and its recondite laws, and its infinite promises of concealment – held deeply stimulating associations for him.
The in-built connection between darkness and sexual promise now provided Lemelle with his next brainwave – with Lamia dosed up to the eyeballs on tranquillizers, what possible harm could there be in paying her something more than just a fleeting visit? If he was caught, he could always claim that he’d simply gone downstairs to check on her welfare.
For the fact remained that when Lemelle wasn’t working, sleeping, or eating, he was busy constructing elaborate sexual fantasies about any real-life women he happened to encounter. And ever since he had first heard of people using roofies to drug women so that they would neither resist nor remember anything that occurred, Lemelle had dreamed of getting hold of the stuff and using it as a means of self-empowerment. And if he couldn’t get his hands on the date rape drug Rohypnol, surely a double dose of Temazepam was the next best thing?
Even a cursory glance at Lemelle’s computer would have thrown up thousands of images from rape, BDSM, and sleep-attack websites. Here was his chance to turn fantasy into reality. If Lamia was still out cold, he could do whatever he wanted to her. The thought turned his legs weak with anticipation. He patted the digital camera in his jacket pocket. It would serve the bitch right if she found out in a month or so’s time that she was unexpectedly pregnant by her mother’s footman – and that if she decided to cut up rough he could take his revenge by plastering pornographic pictures of her all over the internet. She’d have to notice him then, wouldn’t she? She’d have to come to terms with him then. And Christ, how he’d make her suffer.
Lemelle’s first hint that his future plans weren’t going to run quite as smoothly as he expected came at the library door. It was wide open. And the Countess’s standing orders were that every unused door in the house be kept tightly sealed unless the room was actually in use. In fact the bastard Milouins set such store on pleasing the Countess on this subject that it would have been more than Lemelle’s job was worth not to double-shut the damned thing after he’d trussed the woman up and stuck her on the table like Quasimodo. Shutting doors had become an automatic part of his make-up – rather like a man who runs around the house switching off unnecessary lights.
The Corpus chamber door was wide open too. A wave of nausea leached through Lemelle’s body. If the woman was gone a second time, he’d get the blame for that too. That was as clear as day. He’d lose his job. Even his mother wouldn’t be able to protect him this time.
Lemelle eased himself around the open door. Lamia was nowhere to be seen. Her chair lay upside down on the floor, next to the council table. Lemelle picked up one of the discarded ropes and thumbed its end. It had been cut – clearly cut. So the bitch had got someone in to help her. Lemelle could already hear the triumph in Milouins’s voice when this new disaster came to light.
‘Twice? You let her go twice? We told you to tie her up and dope her, for Christ’s sake. What did you do, Lemelle? Give her a double espresso?’
Lemelle hurried through the empty house, his eyes searching for anything remotely out of place. Yes. Here was another door left wide open. Lemelle descended towards the buanderie. He could already feel a current of colder air playing against his forehead. Should he call Milouins and tell him what had occurred? Of course. That would be the smart thing to do.
Lemelle took out his cell phone and glared at it. He was near the back of the house now, looking out over the fields. As he watched, some car headlights cut a circular swathe across the vineyard.
Lemelle thrust the cell phone back in his pocket and hurried around to the servant’s garage. In the fantasy world Lemelle had constructed for himself, heroes didn’t fritter away their second chances. As he passed the gunroom he helped himself to Milouins’s precious Mossberg 500 pump-action shotgun and a box of twelve-gauge cartridges.
Whatever route they intended to take, Lamia and her white knight would have to pass within half a kilometre of the front of the property. This meant that Lemelle would have ample time to get the estate Land Rover out, douse the headlights, and follow on behind.
Fuck Milouins. This time around, he’d get the woman back himself.
Twelve minutes into his pursuit of Picaro’s car, Lemelle’s cell phone started to vibrate. The shock of it nearly launched him out of his seat.
He glared down at the lighted screen. It was Milouins. Best answer it then. He wasn’t on the strongest ground.
‘What the blazes is going on? I heard an engine start up down in the garage.’
Lemelle ground his teeth together and hammered silently at the steering wheel.
‘Lemelle? What’s happening? Out with it.’
While Lemelle was still debating what to say, the car he was following turned unexpectedly down the track towards Pampelonne beach. Lemelle thought for a moment, and then pulled off the road. He backed the Land Rover just inside a stand of trees and cut the engine.
‘Answer me, Lemelle – I know you’re listening.’
Lemelle made a violent arm gesture at his cell phone. Then he switched it on to hands-free, and threw himself back in his seat. ‘The girl. Lamia. She’s bolted again.’
‘I can see that. I’m standing in the library.’
‘Listen to this, then. She had help. One man. I was just in time to see them getting into their getaway car. So I borrowed the Land Rover. I’ve been following the two of them ever since they left the house.’
There was a brief silence. Well thank me, you bastard, thought Lemelle.
In a pig’s ear.
‘Where are they now?’
‘The guy must be an idiot. He’s backed himself into a corner. He’s just headed down the cul-de-sac at Pampelonne. You know. The road to the beach. There’s no possible way out but back past me. Because I can’t see that shit-heap of a car of his ploughing off around the point through the sand.’
‘Does he know you’re following him?’
‘Of course not. I held way back with my lights off. There’s no way he can have seen me.’
‘What if he’s simply dropping the girl off?’
‘Oh come on. That’s bullshit. Why would he drop her off down there? The place is as good as abandoned this time of year. He’d get the fuck away, that’s what he’d do. He’s made a mistake, that’s all. He’ll be back past here in five minutes. Then I’ll have him.’
‘What do you mean, you’ll have him?’
‘Just that. I borrowed your shotgun too.’
Milouins’s voice crackled through the speaker. His tone was urgent. ‘Don’t even think of it, Lemelle. If Lamia is in that car, and she gets hurt…’
‘Wait. Wait. I think I can see his headlights coming back. Yes. Yes. I’m sure of it.’ Lemelle broke the connection as fast as he could, a wolfish grin on his face. There were no headlights, of course. But there was also no way he would allow that bastard Milouins to queer his pitch again. This time he would do the job himself. It was still dark. There were no houses around. No one to see what happened. He had the whole fucking place to himself.
Lemelle eased himself out of the Land Rover and slammed the door. He fed eight cartridges into the Mossberg and then positioned himself behind a nearby tree. He was only ten yards from the road. The bastard who took Lamia would have to pass right by him when he returned from the beach after realizing he’d taken a wrong turn. Lemelle would simply spring out from cover and take the guy’s tyres out – after that he could do over the engine or not, depending on circumstances.
Lemelle could already taste the crump of lead as it bit into sheet metal – already feel the power the shotgun would give him over the two passengers in the car. Christ, how he’d make them grovel. There was no danger in all that, surely? When it was all over, and he’d had his kicks, he’d head back in triumph to the Domaine with his prisoners.
‘I’m returning your daughter to you, Madame la Comtesse. No. No problem at all. Just doing my job.’
Lemelle’s fantasy world had switched to overtime.
Jean Picaro was relieved to be rid of the girl. There had been something uncomfortable about the whole affair – as if it were tainted in some way. Devil-struck. It didn’t make sense to leave a woman tied up and doped like that, in a sealed room, stuck up on top of a table. What sort of a maniac would do a thing like that?
Privately, Picaro had made up his mind that this would be his last ever job. His wife and son were secure, his business, on the surface at least, was legal – or if it wasn’t strictly legal, at least it didn’t involve breaking into people’s houses and kidnapping sex victims.
He was too old for the action stuff now. Didn’t crave it. He’d experienced enough of that to last him a lifetime, and he didn’t want any more. His conscience was clean. He could have left the woman behind, but he hadn’t. While that didn’t make him a hero, it didn’t make him a total villain either.
He saw the stationary Land Rover first. Then he caught a flash of movement from behind the tree. He was already travelling faster than was strictly wise, thanks to his relief at getting away from the flic .
As a Foreign Legionnaire, Jean Picaro had spent the formative years of his life being trained to look out for – and to counter – ambushes. And he was still hyper-keyed up from the break-in, and angry about the way the woman had been treated, with its revocations of what had happened to the boy at La Sante.
He didn’t even need to think.
As the man raised his shotgun, Picaro wrenched the steering wheel over to the left and headed straight for him.
The man’s mouth dropped open in shock. He didn’t even have time to fire off a single shell.
Picaro’s car careened off a ridge of earth and struck the man mid-thigh. The man’s face and chest slammed down onto the bonnet, the shotgun skittering off to one side.
Picaro backed up and made a second pass over the man’s body. No point leaving witnesses. This one wasn’t going to blab to the flics if Picaro could possibly avoid it. There would be no more prison for him.
Leaving the engine running, Picaro stepped out of the car. He gathered up the Mossberg, checked it for damage, and threw it onto the back seat.
Then, without so much as a backwards glance at his victim, he got into his car, manhandled it back onto the road, and headed off in the direction of Ramatuelle.
Milouins arrived at the scene twelve minutes later.
He saw the Land Rover straight away, and marked its position. No sign of Lemelle, though.
Milouins hesitated, debating with himself whether to ignore Lemelle entirely and continue on towards the sea, or rope him in as back-up. But the fool was right about one thing. There was only one possible route back from the beach. Lamia and her chance abductor – because there was no conceivable way in Milouins’s mind that her kidnap could have been pre-planned – had no choice but to come back past here, if they hadn’t done so already.
And this time of morning, who else would be using the beach road? It wouldn’t do to meet them on the narrow road coming back from the beach. Best to wait here and follow them with his lights off – just as Lemelle had done from the house – when they eventually came back on by. Find out where they were heading. Who was behind the whole thing.
Checking in every direction, Milouins pulled his car off the road, facing back towards St Tropez. Where was that stupid bastard Lemelle hiding himself? He’d have his guts for garters.
It was then, with the dawn slowly breaking in the eastern sky, that he saw the body.
‘ Oh, putain. ’
Milouins glanced up and down the road. Nothing was moving. It was five o’clock in the morning, and the holiday season was over. Builders and maintenance men wouldn’t be about for another hour or so at the very least.
He moved across to Lemelle, his gaze focused away from the body and towards the beach road, watching for traffic.
He ducked down and pressed a finger against Lemelle’s carotid artery, his gaze still fixed on the road.
Then he took a deep breath and looked down.
Whoever had done Lemelle over had done him good. His head looked as if it had been laid open with a baseball bat. He had bled from the chest cavity, but the blood flow had staunched itself, and strings of coagulated gore lay scattered across his belly, his groin, and the surrounding tussocks of grass. If Milouins had wanted to, he could have reached in past Lemelle’s shattered breastbone and plucked out what remained of his heart.
Milouins dry-retched. Then he stood up and glanced over at the Land Rover. Only one thing to do.
Still gagging, he hefted Lemelle in both arms and manhandled him across to the vehicle. The man reeked of shit from his ruptured bowels. Milouins threw open the cat-flap and windmilled Lemelle in over the lower tailgate. Then he hunched down behind the Land Rover and vomited up his supper.
With Lemelle safely tucked inside the vehicle, Milouins set about covering the body with some sacking and a scattering of loose straw. Then he tidied himself up as best he could with a horseman’s wisp made from the remainder of the straw. When he was done, he refastened the tilt and went to look for his Mossberg.
A ten-minute search produced a grand total of three unused cartridges that had probably been ejected from Lemelle’s pocket when the vehicle – and Milouins now accepted that it had to be a vehicle – had hit him. But no Mossberg.
So either Lamia and the man who had rescued her had clean escaped, or Milouins’s original hunch still held, and her abductor had dropped Lamia off at a secondary vehicle, fallen foul of Lemelle on the way back out, and driven straight at him.
Lemelle, being Lemelle, had no doubt brandished the shotgun menacingly at his intended victim before actually getting around to firing it. That’s what the tracks told Milouins, anyway – and Milouins was a man who always believed the evidence of his own eyes.
Milouins glanced down at his watch – 5.20. And the rapidly stiffening Lemelle was obviously in no hurry to go anywhere.
Milouins checked back down the road again, one forearm clamped to his nose in a vain effort to obviate the smell that still permeated his clothes. Either Lamia and her St George were long gone, or she was still down there, cash on delivery. What did he have to lose by backing his hunch? He’d either lost them, or he hadn’t. If they came back down the road he would follow them – to hell and back if necessary. If not, he would go back to the Domaine and arrange Lemelle’s secret burial.
Satisfed that he had cleaned up the area and secured Lemelle’s body, Milouins got back inside his car and settled down to wait.
Incongruous in his ten-year-old charcoal-grey Le Bon Marche suit, Calque sat in the sand, his knees spread, staring out to sea at the gradually emerging dawn. The woman, covered in a tartan blanket from the back of his car, lay motionless beside him.
The sudden opening of her eyes had proved to be a false alarm – a purely automatic reaction to the change of light. She was still doped out, her mouth partly open, her hands turned back on themselves as if she were trying to fend off the attentions of an overactive pet.
Calque lit a cigarette. Scrunching his eyes against the smoke, he fished the tape recorder out of his pocket and reversed the spool. Then he hit the play button and held the recorder up to his ear.
The recorder was sound-activated – meaning that the moment it identified a sound within a radius of maybe three metres, it would start itself up. The tape would then automatically turn itself over after forty-five minutes, and cut off for good after ninety. Calque noted with satisfaction that the full ninety minutes appeared to have been used.
The first noise Calque heard was that of a vacuum cleaner. The tape switched itself on and off a dozen or more times as the vacuum cleaner moved in and out of focus. Calque reined in a desire to fast-forward the tape. He had time. No one knew he was here. And the sea was calming in its way.
Half an hour in, he picked up his first voices. Calque shrugged out of his jacket and draped it over his head, creating a mini echo chamber. Two men were talking. Calque recognized the voice of the butler, Milouins, and someone whom he assumed to be one of the footmen – for it was clear from Milouins’s tone that he was addressing a subordinate. The two men seemed to be preparing the room for a meeting. As Calque listened, Milouins told the footman to lay on the wax polish with a will. A series of bumps followed.
‘The bastard is cleaning the table,’ Calque said to himself.
‘He’s moving chairs. The bastard is moving chairs.’
Another ten minutes went by and the tape auto-reversed. Still cursing, Calque began to fast-forward. Nothing. Just bumping, banging, and the occasional word between Milouins and the footman he was ordering about.
Calque switched off the tape recorder, replaced it in his jacket, and let the jacket slip down around his shoulders. He threw back his head as if he were about to howl at the moon. Five weeks. Five weeks of waiting and watching, and for what? A ninety-minute tape recording of two men cleaning a room.
He was past it. That was clear now. He had finally lost the plot. The Service had been right to green-light his early retirement. He was nothing but a liability. A dinosaur.
He looked down at the woman.
The dawn was up and her face was clearly visible now. She was watching him, her eyes wide open in shock.
Calque fought the temptation to plunge his hand back inside his jacket pocket and drag out his purloined badge for the second time. Why aggravate the situation? If the woman decided to prosecute him for kidnap, the fact that he had attempted to masquerade as a serving police officer would doubtless secure him a good two-to-three years’ extra prison time. Think what a field day some of his recidivists would have with him inside. They’d tattoo his eyeballs with a screwdriver.
‘You’re free to go, Mademoiselle. I want you to understand that. I’m not coercing you in any way.’
Lamia raised herself up on her elbows. After staring silently at him for what seemed the better part of sixty seconds, she allowed her eyes to drift away from Calque’s face and off towards the horizon. ‘Where am I?’
‘You’re at Pampelonne Beach. Near St Tropez. It’s just after dawn.’
Lamia sat up, shrugging the blanket away. She stretched her hands out in front of her, as if she still expected to find them tied up. ‘What am I doing here?’ She glanced across at Calque. ‘And who are you?’
‘Ah,’ said Calque. ‘You want to know who I am?’ once again he found himself on the cusp of declaring that he was Captain Joris Calque, Police Nationale, 2eme Arrondissement, Paris. Instead, he muttered, ‘If you will forgive me, Mademoiselle, I will withhold my name until the situation we are in establishes itself a little clearer.’
Lamia began to laugh. ‘Are we really in a situation?’
Calque shrugged. He felt like digging a hole in the sand, laying himself face down in it, and inviting the woman to fill it in. ‘In a manner of speaking. Yes.’
The smile stayed on Lamia’s face. ‘Have you kidnapped me? Or have you saved me? Make up your mind, please.’
Calque unslung his jacket from about his shoulders and replaced it carefully over Lamia’s. ‘It’s cold, Mademoiselle. This is the time of day when the body is at its most fragile.’
Lamia reached across herself and touched the flap of the jacket. ‘If you’re a kidnapper, you’re not a very good one. You’ve left your gun in your jacket pocket.’
Calque gave a small bow. It was clear that the woman was inviting him, for the second and last time, to lay his cards on the table. ‘It’s not a gun but a tape recorder, Mademoiselle. A tape recorder that I secreted illegally in your mother’s house some months ago, whilst I was still a serving police officer.’
Lamia pinched the jacket closer around her shoulders. ‘Ah, yes. The intellectual policeman. I’ve heard all about you. You’re the man my mother says harassed my brother into an early grave.’
Calque could feel himself bridling. An early grave? A psychopath like Achor Bale? Best place for him. He stopped marginally short of expressing his feelings in words, however, for he was still trying to second guess the woman’s intentions – just as she was attempting to gauge his.
He cleared his throat, measuring the level of his tone against the distant sound of the sea. ‘You were tied up and doped when my associate found you. Am I right in assuming that my admission about bugging your mother and your siblings has not distressed you quite as much as it might have done under other circumstances? That you might even…’ and here Calque felt perversely tempted to burst out laughing ‘…be alienated in some way from the rest of your family?’
Lamia gave Calque his jacket back. ‘Could we discuss this someplace else, do you think? Over a coffee and a croissant perhaps? I haven’t eaten anything in fifteen hours.’
Calque shrugged on his jacket. He could smell the woman’s scent on his collar, and it disturbed him. ‘Of course.’
‘And my name is Lamia.’
The sudden volte-face wrong-footed Calque. ‘Lamia? That is certainly an uncommon name.’ He vainly tried to conjure up who or what Lamia had represented in Classical mythology. Had she been the one whose tongue Jupiter had torn out in a fit of pique to prevent her giving the game away to Hera about one of his many affairs? No, that had been Lara. Or was that Laodice? So it was true, then. His brain was definitely going. ‘My name is Calque. Joris Calque. Ex-Captain in the Police Nationale.’
‘Well, Ex-Captain Calque, do you have any aspirin on you? I have a splitting headache. And your associate – for you mentioned an associate, didn’t you? – appears to have overlooked my handbag in his headlong rush to kidnap me.’
Lamia emerged from the unisex washroom at the back of the fisherman’s cafe near the Pointe de la Pinede. She had scrubbed her face and fluffed out her hair with her fingers, but the corrugations in her slacks were more terminal. She bent down, yanked at the slacks one final time, and then gave up.
Calque saw some of the early morning regulars watching her. Despite the catastrophic blemish on the side of her face, she was still a self-evidently handsome young woman.
Calque stood up as she approached his table. ‘I thought you might have run away. Or gone to call the police. You would have been perfectly within your rights to do so.’
‘I know that.’
‘So why didn’t you?’
Lamia sat down. She stared at Calque, her eyes unwavering. ‘Because you offered me your jacket when you thought I might be cold.’
The waiter interrupted to bring them their cafe-cremes and a metal basket of croissants.
Lamia looked up at him. ‘Do you have any aspirin?’
She pinched two of her fingers together. ‘Two? With a glass of water? I’d be eternally grateful.’
Calque saw the waiter’s eyes hovering anywhere but on the woman’s strawberry birthmark. He felt an unexpected rush of pity for her – almost as if she were his daughter, instead of the pathetic, alienated girl who truly fulfilled that role, and who, terminally brainwashed by her termagant of a mother, hadn’t been able to bring herself to speak to him for the past fifteen years.
Lamia pecked at her coffee. ‘I suppose you’ve got everything on that tape machine of yours? The full record of what took place in the Corpus chamber? Or did you hide your recorder in the kitchen by mistake?’
Calque thrust his sentimental nature resolutely to the back of his mind, where it belonged. He took a preparatory breath – something he always did when he was about to tell an untruth to someone he was questioning. ‘To answer your questions in reverse order, Mademoiselle – no I did not leave my recorder in the kitchen. And yes I do have a full record of what went on.’ The lie sat uneasily with him for some reason, and he could feel the strain telling on the muscles below his eyes.
For Joris Calque had always been susceptible to women – it was a fact that he had been obliged to live with during his thirty years as a police officer. But he was not so naive that he didn’t realize that women, at their worst, could be just as lethal as men. Look at the Countess. And here he was, calmly chatting away to the woman’s daughter as if she were a work colleague – or his next-door neighbour.
He forced himself to remember that he was still dealing with a potential accessory before the fact. A woman who might even be a joint principal in the actus reus committed by Achor Bale against his subordinate, Paul Macron.
‘So I’ve no need to explain anything to you, Captain?’
Lamia prodded at her croissant, but didn’t make any further stab at eating it. ‘So what are you planning to do about it?’
Calque dipped his croissant in his coffee and transported it to his mouth, one hand automatically protecting his shirt from drips. ‘What do you suggest?’
Lamia took the glass of water and the two aspirin from the saucer the waiter was offering her. Still watching Calque, she tossed back the pills and swallowed the water. ‘You could alert the police, for a start.’
The waiter flinched, then backed away, as if he had inadvertently wandered too close to an open fire. Lamia gave him an absent-minded smile of thanks.
‘The police?’ Calque laughed. ‘I’m something of a persona non grata with my ex-colleagues at the moment. And you must know that tape recordings do not constitute evidence. They can be doctored too easily.’
Lamia massaged her temples, as if she felt that this might serve to speed up the aspirin’s effects. ‘But you knew that before you started, Captain Calque. You must have made some contingency plans?’
Calque sat up straighter in his chair. ‘Contingency plans? How could I make contingency plans when I didn’t know what I was about to hear?’
Lamia stared at him quizzically. ‘And Adam Sabir? What are you going to do about him?’
Calque could feel his fragile house of cards beginning to topple. ‘I’m going to phone him up, of course, and bring him up to date.’
‘Phone him up? Bring him up to date? Are you quite mad? Bring him up to date about what?’
Calque tipped back his head and closed his eyes.
Lamia sighed. ‘You don’t know anything, do you, Captain? You’re merely grasping at straws. Was there anything on that tape of yours at all?’
Calque allowed his head to snap forward. ‘Oh yes. I have a good hour-and-a-half’s worth of material.’
‘Material? What sort of material?’
‘Your meeting. Two days ago.’
‘Then you know what I was doing in the room where your mystery associate found me? Why I was doped and tied up?’
Calque felt as if he were sucking on a lemon and trying to blow through a trumpet at the same time. ‘Of course.’
Lamia stood up. ‘Then you don’t need anything from me, do you, Captain? I thank you for your frankness. Would you kindly do me a further favour and call me a taxi? And I would appreciate the loan of a few sous until my bank opens and I am able to inform them about the loss of my cards. I will write you an IOU if you so desire.’
Calque followed Lamia out onto the street. The early morning rush hour had started, and the buzz and swish of passing traffic merely added to his sense of frustration. ‘What are you going to do, Mademoiselle? Where are you going to go?’
‘What possible concern can that be of yours?’
Calque was briefly tempted to come clean and admit that his tape recording was useless. To follow his hunch that the woman was genuine. Perhaps she really had rebelled against her mother and all that she stood for? But thirty years of ingrained caution, in which Calque had lived by the rule that you never, ever, offer information to your opponent that he might one day use against you, overrode his better instincts. ‘Please let me drop you off somewhere. It’s the least I can do in the circumstances.’
Lamia shook her head distractedly. She was on the look-out for a taxi, and already seemed to have blanked Calque out from her consciousness.
Calque’s cell phone rang. He received a call so rarely that at first he only looked around vacantly, as if the call belonged to someone else. Then he slapped his jacket, and began to rummage in his pockets.
Lamia had seen a taxi, and was beckoning it towards her.
Calque pressed the receive button and raised the cell phone gingerly to his ear, as if he feared that it might be about to explode. ‘Yes? Calque here.’
Calque flinched. What the hell was Picaro doing, calling him up in a public place? Their business was over. The whole sorry fiasco had cost him 3,000 Euros that he could ill afford, and had provided him with precisely zero information, and a resentful woman eager to wipe his dust off her shoes as fast as humanly possible.
‘Listen, Captain. Don’t ask me why I’m doing this. But I can’t let you walk into a shit storm with a leaking umbrella.’
Calque was concentrating all his attention on Lamia. A taxi had stopped directly in front of her. She caught Calque’s eye and made a money movement with her fingers. ‘What? What are you talking about, Picaro? What shit storm?’ Calque raised a placatory hand and started across the road towards Lamia, the phone still clamped to his ear.
‘You’ve heard of a shamal, Captain? That’s what the desert Arabs call a five-day, three-thousand-foot-deep sandstorm. The type that’s so fucking powerful it can strip the skin right off your face. Well this is a shamal of a shit storm.’
‘Listen. On the way out to the main road. After I’d delivered the woman and the tape recorder. A man was waiting for me. An armed man.’
‘You heard me, Captain. I’m not going to repeat myself. This man I’m speaking about. He must have gone to check on the woman, realized she was gone, and followed me from the house. He came at me with a pump-action shotgun. So I had to kill him.’
‘You killed him?’ Without realizing it, Calque had switched back into police mode. He patted at his jacket in a vain search for his notebook.
‘Look, Captain. I don’t want this coming back at me in any way. I’ve a wife and son to think of. I’ve thought about it, and I think you owe me that much.’
‘How did you kill him, Picaro?’ Calque had abandoned the search for his notebook. What was the point?
‘I smashed into him with my car. He was going to put out my lights. I had no choice in the matter.’
‘And the shotgun?’
‘Already disposed of.’
‘Where did you leave him?’ The taxi driver was shrugging his shoulders at Lamia, and pointing to his meter.
‘In the brush. By the side of the road. Did you see a parked Land Rover when you drove away from the beach?’
‘Yes. Yes, I did. And another car. An empty blue Renault. Parked close up nearby.’
Picaro froze. ‘Captain. There was no blue Renault parked when I left there. The area was clean. I’m getting off the phone right now. And you. You’d better look to your own arse.’
Calque reached Lamia in three strides. He held up a placatory hand to the taxi driver, and drew her to one side.
‘We have a problem. The man who got you out of the house has just telephoned me. He ran into one of your mother’s people on the way back from the beach. The man came at him with a shotgun, and he was forced to kill him. As a result, we were almost certainly followed here.’
‘But that’s impossible…’
‘We don’t have time for this, Lamia. I’ll explain later. You know your mother better than I do. You know what she and her people are capable of. Will you do as I ask?’
Lamia allowed her eyes to search across Calque’s face. She nodded.
‘Get into the taxi. Now. I’m going to give the driver the address of my hotel in Cogolin. You must go there. I shall follow along behind in my car. At some point you’ll see me turn off the road. Don’t change the driver’s instructions. I must know where to find you. My hunch is that we are dealing with only one man. He will follow me, because I present the greatest threat to him. And if he doesn’t follow me and follows you instead, I will know where to come to find him. Do you understand what I am saying?’
Calque leaned across and gave the driver his instructions. He handed Lamia some Euros.
‘I’ll catch you up. Don’t worry. Take a room at my hotel under the name of Mercier. Then lock your door until I come. Have you got that?’
He backed off before she could change her mind. Without looking around, Calque made for his car. He got in, started the engine, and pulled into the traffic fifty metres or so behind the taxi. There were three cars between him and Lamia. None of them was a blue Renault. Calque glanced into his rear-view mirror.
The Renault was five cars behind him.
Calque’s belly tightened with fear. He wasn’t an action man. Never had been. He had always left that to the young – to people like Paul Macron. Which is why Macron was dead, and he was still alive. The thought ate into him like acid.
Now his only priority was to protect the woman. It was clearly his fault that she was in this situation, and he must do his very best to extricate her. He mustn’t fail her the way he’d failed his assistant.
Five kilometres down the road, at the Cogolin Plage roundabout, Calque veered off to the left, onto the La Croix Valmer road. The blue Renault followed him.
Calque made the sign of the cross. He knew that his only chance now was to use his intelligence. Outflank his opponent. Think laterally. If he couldn’t achieve that, the man would simply force him off the road at a suitable spot and do away with him.
He must keep the man guessing. Force him to hold back.
Calque hung a left towards Gassin. That would make the man think. Was Calque heading back towards Pampelonne? Or to the Countess’s house?
Calque accelerated up the steep hill towards the village. The road beyond Gassin was a winding one, and little used at this time of year. If the man was to make his move, he would doubtless make it there.
Calque was counting on the man’s innate curiosity to stay his hand. It was a thin edge to trust your life to, and Calque could feel the anxiety eating away at him. He had no weapon in the car. No possible means of self-defence. His heart was weak, and a lifetime of heavy smoking had ensured that his lungs would be of little use in a crisis.
The blue Renault closed in on him. They were well out of Gassin, now, and heading into the hills towards Ramatuelle. They couldn’t be more than five or six kilometres from the Countess’s house. Surely the man would hold his fire for a little longer?
Calque saw a car ahead of him, and speeded up. There was safety in numbers. People instinctively tried not to shit on their own doorsteps if they could possibly avoid it. And certainly not with witnesses present. The man behind him had already had one body to deal with – two would prove something of a crowd, surely?
The extra company appeared to have put the blue Renault man off his stride. Calque saw the car behind him drop back again. Perhaps he still thought that Calque was unaware of his presence?
Now they were approaching Ramatuelle. Calque sent up a brief prayer that the motorist in front of him was not intending to stop off for a newspaper or for his morning cup of coffee. He felt an overwhelming affection for the anonymous little man he was following – curious how it was possible to love a complete stranger.
The man continued on out through the village with Calque clinging to his tail like a pilot fish. They were barely three kilometres from the Countess’s house now, and Calque began to feel an upwelling of confidence in his own judgement. He had called the thing correctly. The man driving the blue Renault had obviously been in touch with the Countess, and she had told him to hold off and see what Calque intended.
Now it only remained for Calque to keep his head – before inserting it directly inside the tiger’s mouth.
With one hand still on the wheel, Calque felt inside his jacket pocket and retrieved the tape recorder. He flipped open the lid of the tape compartment and extricated the cassette. He wedged the tape recorder behind the passenger seat cushion, and placed the cassette on his lap. Then he felt around for his cell phone and placed that beside it. He owed that much to Picaro. It wouldn’t do to have the Corpus scrolling back through his recent calls and identifying who it really was who had snatched Lamia.
The blue Renault was still pulling flotilla duty fifty metres behind him.
Two kilometres to go until they reached the Countess’s house – had he left it too late? Had fear eaten into his brain and frozen his intelligence?
Calque saw an S-bend three hundred metres ahead. That was it. This would be his last chance. The man in the blue Renault would almost certainly close up on him as they neared the Countess’s house.
As he approached the bend, Calque triggered the offside electric window and stepped on the gas. It would take the blue Renault a split second to respond to the move and match his speed. That would be enough to carry Calque into the blind part of the corner, temporarily out of sight of both the car in front and the blue Renault behind him.
As Calque rounded the crest of the corner, he tossed the cassette and the cell phone through the open window, his eyes searching feverishly for landmarks in the underbrush at the side of the road. Then he punched the window button, and used his engine braking, and a rapid downshift through the gears, to slow the car back down – he wanted no tell-tale flashing of red lights to mark what he had done.
The blue Renault was sitting directly on his tail now. Calque recognized the butler, Milouins, in the driving seat. So it must have been one of the two footmen that Picaro had killed. Butlers. Footmen. Calque wondered what century the Countess imagined she was in. Hadn’t she heard of the Revolution? Had the woman no shame?
The entrance to the Domaine de Seyeme was fifty metres ahead on the left. Calque fought back a last-minute impulse to accelerate away from the blue Renault and try to avoid his impending fate – but that would mean overtaking the car in front on a blind corner, and dealing with a vengeful Milouins if he happened to survive the manoeuvre. No. The Countess was a better bet. He might be able to bluff her. Milouins, on the other hand, had always struck him as the sort of man who shot first and asked questions afterwards.
Calque switched on his indicator and prepared to turn. Marvellous. Here he was, naked and out in the open, voluntarily putting himself in the enemy’s hands. How was it possible? If he’d tried to botch the thing on purpose, he couldn’t have contrived a more humiliating ending for himself. All they had to do now was kill him – in as tactful and non-intrusive a way as possible – then plant him in his car, and deposit the car on top of Picaro’s hit-and-run victim. He could just imagine the Countess’s relish at describing what must have taken place to the police.
‘We knew the ex-detective was stalking us. That he somehow blamed our family for the death of his assistant. That it had become an obsession with him. So I sent one of our people out to reason with him – we didn’t want to waste any more police time, you see. But the man must have been mad. He simply drove at my footman in a rage – then, when he saw what he had done, he killed himself.’
That would tie in nicely with his purported breakdown, wouldn’t it? He could imagine the Nice Matin headlines. EMBITTERED EX-COP GOES
Talk about an own goal…
Calque drew up in front of the Countess’s house. Milouins pulled the blue Renault across the entrance to the courtyard behind him, effectively sealing him in. Calque sighed, and rested his head back against the seat restraint. The Corpus certainly wasn’t beating about the bush.
Calque reached across and checked that the empty tape recorder was sufficiently well concealed behind the passenger seat cushion. Then he climbed slowly out of the car. No point in locking the damned thing. They’d simply bust in the window.
The last time he’d stood in this courtyard had been with Macron, two months before, with the full force of the French judicial system at their backs.
Now here he was again. Alone.
Calque sat on a porter’s chair in the hallway, and waited. Six feet away stood the Countess’s surviving footman. Calque cracked the man a supercilious smile. The footman drew one finger slowly across his throat, and then pretended to gag, with his tongue dangling out the side of his mouth.
Well. It was communication of sorts.
Twenty more minutes went by.
Calque began to speculate on how the Countess would decide to play it. Would she offer him a cup of coffee first, like she did last time? Play the Grande Dame? Or would she calmly order Milouins to smash in his teeth with a matraque?
Calque cursed himself for having played so cravenly into the Countess’s hands. No one but Lamia knew what he was engaged upon. And there was no one else who could be remotely relied upon to explain to the authorities what he’d been up to these past six weeks. Picaro? Aime Macron? Neither one was the sort of man who easily volunteers information to the police. And what did they have to offer, anyway? Hearsay. Pure hearsay.
Calque sensed that he was about to become a victim of the very loi du silence he had striven against all his working life. He hadn’t even had the nous to bring Adam Sabir back into the loop. No. He had wanted to play it smart, and spring everything on Sabir at once. Prove what a clever man he was. Vainglory. That was what was going to do for him. The fatal hubris of the inadequate soul.
Milouins poked his head out of the salon and indicated to the footman that he should bring Calque inside. He was dangling Calque’s tape recorder like a yoyo from his right hand.
Strike one for the Corpus, thought Calque. I hope to hell they don’t torture me. That would be the final straw. It would never occur to them that I know precisely nothing.
The Countess was sitting in her customary seat, near the fireplace, with Madame Mastigou perched at her right shoulder, dictation pad at the ready.
Milouins positioned the tape recorder on the glass-topped occasional table in front of her as though it were a platter bearing John the Baptist’s severed head. Then, with a toss of his chin, he indicated that Calque should sit down.
‘Are you quite recovered from your previous injuries, Captain Calque? Madame Mastigou reminds me that you had been involved in a car accident when last we met. Alongside your assistant, Lieutenant…’
‘Lieutenant Macron. Yes. The man your son killed.’
The Countess’s eyes flared – the effect was like a dying bonfire receiving a sudden rush of cold air. ‘Please leave my son out of this, Captain Calque – my emotions on the subject are still very raw. It might act to your disadvantage.’
Calque could feel the Countess’s anger burning into him from across the room. He had the sudden, discomfiting conviction that the woman might actually be mad, and that no one in her entourage dared make the first move to have her sectioned. Working for the woman must be akin to being a senior Wehrmacht general in the final years of Adolf Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich.
The Countess drew herself up. It was clear by her attitude that she intended to cut directly to the chase. She pointed to the tape recorder. ‘You, or one of your associates, broke into my house early this morning. I assume that it was not merely to kidnap my daughter?’
Calque stared at her. What was the point of talking?
‘Milouins, where did you find this tape recorder?’
‘In the Captain’s car.’
‘And what sort of tape recorder is it?’
‘A voice-activated tape recorder, Madame.’
‘Which means that it will switch itself on and off according to the volume of incoming sound.’
‘It will respond to any sound whatsoever, Madame, yes. And it is designed to overrun. Meaning that once it has been triggered, it will continue to record for a certain period, even if the sound cuts off.’
‘Have you discovered its original place of concealment?’
‘Yes, Madame. Beneath the table in the Council Chamber. The marks of the electrical tape with which it was attached to the table are still clearly visible. They are also visible on the recorder.’
‘And the tape reel itself?’
‘The cassette, Madame? Nowhere to be found.’
The Countess turned to Calque. ‘That was clever of you, Captain Calque. That idea you had to hide the tape recorder in your car, where it would almost certainly be found. A cynic might go so far as to construe that you wished for it to be discovered. Why would that be, I wonder?’
Calque shrugged. His throat felt drier than a grain extractor.
‘Then I’ll tell you. Milouins has explained your machine to me in all its intricacies. As you can see, we know where it was hidden, and also when it was hidden, for logic dictates that you must have concealed it, illegally, during the search your policemen made of my house in May. Given this limited time frame, we have come to certain conclusions.’
Here we go, thought Calque. Bang goes my chance to bluff my way out of this.
‘Milouins cleans the Council Room at least once a month. No one else goes in there. Just him and a footman. So he conducted a little test while you were waiting outside in the hall. Play the tape, Milouins.’
Milouins retrieved a cassette tape from his pocket and placed it in the machine. He turned the volume to high and pressed play. The sound of a vacuum cleaner resonated throughout the room, followed by voices, and the bangs and crashes of moving furniture. Every now and again the tape would cut off and then start again, following a short period of silence. Madame Mastigou continued busily writing on her shorthand pad.
Calque knew what it felt like to be caught red-handed, with your fingers in the till. He must never again underestimate these people. And the Countess was not mad – that would have been too convenient. She was insane, with a hefty leavening of lunacy.
‘There. Interesting, isn’t it? I merely asked Milouins to recreate the exact sounds he would have made last week, whilst preparing the room for use. It is clear from his demonstration that you will have succeeded in recording nothing of any conceivable interest either to yourself or to the police, Captain Calque, on the ninety minutes of magnetic tape that you had at your disposal. If you had, you would have thrown the entire machine out of the window of your car, rather than just the cassette tape inside it.’
Calque decided to attempt a bluff anyhow. ‘I still have Lamia. And you have a murder you need to hush up. Even you can see that two people from the same household dying in violent circumstances within a few months of each other might stretch the bounds of coincidence. We ought to be able to come to some sort of accommodation, surely? I have considerable influence left on the force.’
The Countess glanced across at Madam Mastigou. Madame Mastigou consulted her brooch watch and nodded.
‘You misunderstand the situation, Captain Calque. My daughter, Lamia, will be back with us very shortly. At this exact moment two of my other children are entering your hotel in Cogolin and demanding to see their sister. She will leave with them, because she is a dutiful girl, and does not wish to vex her mother.’
Calque could feel the colour draining away from his face.
‘I own the main taxi service in the St Tropez peninsula, Captain Calque. In fact I own a considerable part of the peninsula itself. I invested a small part of my fortune in the local economy after my marriage – and very profitable it has been. You forget, perhaps, that my husband’s family have been Counts of this area for nine hundred years? Milouins simply called in the cab number and received an instant reply – the police and the tax authorities require each fare to be routinely logged within a central registration system, as you well know, so the process was a simple one. And Cogolin is hardly Siberia. What did you think? That you were dealing with amateurs?’
‘And the body? Out at Pampelonne?’
‘What body is that, Captain? My footman, Philippe Lemelle, has bipolar disorder. He has already absconded without leave three times during his present period of employment. Once he even sold all his possessions, including his car, to the first man he came across. Milouins came upon him living rough in Mandelieu. We took him back that time. In fact we’ve been very tolerant indeed with him – his family, after all, have been working for us for generations. But he was nevertheless given formal warning that if he absconded again, he would lose his job. That now appears to have happened.’
‘That’s bullshit, and you know it.’
‘Not according to our local doctor. Or to Milouins. Or to Monsieur Flavenot, our company registrar. I can assure you of that.’
‘I have access to the blood-stained car that killed him.’
‘Oh, please, Captain. Whoever drove that car also broke into my house and kidnapped one of its occupants – not to mention killing an innocent man via a hit-and-run. If we wished to pursue this matter, it is you and your associate who would find yourselves caught in the crossfire, not I. I think you will find, upon further reflection, that our interests coincide in this matter.’
Calque’s ears had begun to hum with tension. ‘What are you holding me for, then? You know everything. You control everything. I must be a massive irrelevance to you.’
‘You chose the word “irrelevance”, Captain, not I.’ The Countess stood up. ‘And we certainly aren’t holding you. You came here of your own free will. You may leave here equally freely. We have nothing more to say to one another.’
Calque rose to his feet in automatic echo of the Countess’s movement. What was it about the woman? Was it her impermeable self-belief? Perhaps if you were truly convinced that whatever you undertook was automatically rubber-stamped by God, then you also believed that the rest of the world’s idiots would play along with your fantasy? ‘May I have my tape recorder back?’
‘Perhaps you would like us to indemnify you against the loss of your cell phone, too? There are limits even to my patience, Captain.’
Calque hesitated, still not sure whether the Countess truly intended to let him go free. He took a tentative step towards the door. When no one made a move to stop him, he headed swiftly in the direction of the hall. He was briefly tempted to crook his arm obscenely at the ghoulish footman, but thought better of it. Perhaps this was all some outrageous bluff, and the minute he left the Countess’s presence they would manhandle him down the cellar stairs and start in on him with their rubber hosepipes?
He allowed the thought to fester inside him all the way to his car. Perhaps they’d tricked that up instead? Sawn through the cables? Drained the brake fluid? Set a bomb to go off on a trembler mechanism the moment he broke through the fifty-kilometre-an-hour mark? Christ knows, they’d had enough time. Calque felt like a gallus gladiator, forced to exit through the gates of the Circus Maximus at the tip of a spear in order to appease the bloodthirsty expectations of the crowd.
It was gradually dawning on him that he had pitched himself against an organization so complete in its self-belief – and so hermetic in its identity – that no single man could ever hope to match himself against it.
Puffing with relief, Calque climbed into his car and started the engine. His hand trembled as he put the car into first gear. With his foot still braced on the clutch pedal, Calque reached across for the crocodile-skin cigarette case his wife had given him when they were first married. Miraculously, it had somehow evaded the divorce settlement. He scattered its contents like chaff onto the passenger seat. Palming the nearest cigarette, he speared it between his lips. For some reason he had considerable difficulty matching the tip of the cigarette to the glow of the cigar lighter.
No one followed him out of the courtyard. No one followed him to the junction with the main road. Mystified, Calque turned right, towards Ramatuelle. No. There was definitely no one on his tail.
He pulled over into the first available lay-by and got out. First he lay on the ground and checked the underside of the car. Nothing. No sign of tampering. Then he looked in the engine compartment. Clean as a whistle. He felt around beneath the seats. Then he went around to the back of the car and checked there, paying particular attention to the exhaust pipe. Finally, he eased up the spare wheel cover. If the Corpus had bugged him or booby-trapped him, they’d certainly concealed their work well.
Calque got back in the car, readjusted his seat, and set off again. Twenty yards into the journey his body gave a convulsive shudder, like a horse shucking off rainwater. Calque hammered the steering wheel in sheer frustration at his lack of physical self-control. He simply must pull himself together. He daren’t fritter any more time away appeasing his unfounded fears. He had to retrieve his cell phone at all costs. Adam Sabir’s home number in America was concealed somewhere within its maw, and Calque’s first priority must be to warn the man that the Corpus was still on his case.
For Joris Calque had learned one valuable thing from his conversations with the Countess and with Lamia – and it had come to him more or less by default. The Countess had spoken about everything under the sun during their discussion – everything but Sabir. The man’s name hadn’t even figured. And yet Sabir was the very first person Lamia had asked him about when she’d regained consciousness after her doping.
Calque hadn’t spent the better part of his life interrogating people for nothing. He knew for a fact that the questions people left hanging – and the obvious names that they omitted during formal police interviews – were invariably of more significance than the ones they voluntarily allowed to surface.
The one thing he wouldn’t be doing when he got his cell phone back would be to try to interest any old friends in the Police Nationale about the curious disappearance of Philippe Lemelle – the Countess had figured it right. Jean Picaro had put his neck on the line to help the girl, and later to warn Calque that the Corpus was on to him – and Calque knew a multitude of so-called law-abiding people who wouldn’t have done half so much for a man they hardly knew, or for an unknown woman who had nothing whatsoever to do with the job they were being paid for.
Picaro had asked him to go easy as a personal favour on behalf of his wife and son. And Picaro was a two-time loser – meaning that the next occasion he was sent to prison, he would stay there for good. No parole. No time off for good behaviour.
Though it pained Calque’s soul to let the Countess wriggle off the hook, it was better, sometimes, to let sleeping dogs lie.
Calque sat in his car, watching the entrance to the Hotel de la Place at Cogolin. It was twelve o’clock. The lunchtime traffic was just building up. He’d tried to contact Sabir three times on the way back from Ramatuelle, but the phone at Sabir’s Massachusetts’ home simply rang in an endless, useless litany.
What would he have said to Sabir, anyway? Watch your back, man? How would Sabir go about doing that? Hire himself a bodyguard? Call in the FBI? Or he could have advised Sabir to take off on an extended holiday. Which was even more pointless. Calque had the Countess’s measure now – the woman was implacable. When and if she ever decided to revenge herself on the man who had killed her son, mere geography wouldn’t act as a deterrent.
In the event Calque didn’t have a single shred of evidence to place in front of Sabir – just a hunch that Sabir felt the same way as he did about the Corpus. That Sabir, of all men, wouldn’t believe that the Corpus’s ambitions had died down there in that cesspit alongside Achor Bale. No. Calque was convinced that they still wanted what Sabir had. They still wanted the prophecies.
Now, with the benefit of hindsight, he realized what a fool he’d been not to trust the girl from the outset. He might at least have got something concrete out of her – some clue as to the Corpus’s true intentions to compensate for his fiasco with the tape recorder. Instead, he’d held back, like the obstinate policeman he still was, and more or less gifted her back to her family. He could feel the frustration eating away at his guts like arsenic.
All Calque’s case notes were up in that hotel room, together with Sabir’s private address, and his detailed annotations about the last conversation they’d had together, including the tantalizing clues Sabir had given him about the 52 lost prophecies – out of Nostradamus’s original 58 – which specifically dealt with the run-up to what may, or may not, prove to be planet earth’s final Armageddon. It had never occurred to Calque to conceal them. He’d been running the show – not the Corpus. Or at least that’s what he’d thought. Now it looked very much as if the hound had become the quarry.
Calque stepped out of the car. His eyes raked the surrounding area. Across the way, a small queue of people was steadily making its way into the adjoining restaurant section of the hotel. Calque felt his stomach turn over with hunger.
He strode across to the hotel entrance and sidestepped through the revolving doors. The concierge wasn’t at his post. Perhaps he, too, was having his lunch? Like any normal person at midday.
Calque scanned the hotel message board. His room key was no longer in place. He had been half expecting that, of course, after the Countess’s hints, but still he found himself having to fight off a strong desire to break into a trot and head straight back out into the street.
Some deep-seated part of Calque’s make-up was still resisting the thought that the prophecies might have any value whatsoever beyond the purely commercial. How could a man born half a millennium ago be expected to predict an accurate series of events 450 years in the future? No rational person could entertain such an idea. Adam Sabir had been in a post-traumatic state, and still recuperating in hospital, when he had told Calque of Nostradamus’s prediction of the 52-year run-up to the Great Change in 2012. Third Antichrists? Second Comings? The whole thing was insane. Calque wondered whether he wasn’t suffering from the early onset of senile dementia. That would explain why he had temporarily suspended all rational judgement and allowed Sabir and the Gypsies to get so deeply under his skin.
But belief or non-belief was no longer the point. Crimes had been committed. People had been killed and injured. Incipient dementia or not, Calque’s sole remaining purpose in life must be to stop the commission of yet more crimes. He owed his late assistant that much, surely? He owed Paul Macron the courtesy of a significant death.
Calque ignored the box elevator and made his way laboriously up the stairs. He hesitated for a moment at the threshold to his room. Then he reached down, twisted the handle, and threw the door open in one fluid movement. What was the Corpus going to do? Bushwhack him? Shoot him in a public place? They’d already had their chance at him, and passed on it. He obviously wasn’t that important to them.
The room was immaculate.
With a burgeoning sense of hope, Calque hurried across to his suitcase and threw open the lid. All his notes were gone.
‘ Merde! Putain de merde!’
Calque slammed the lid of the case. He had grown up under the tutelage of a Protestant mother and a Catholic father, both of whom had instilled in him their very own – although occasionally contradictory – versions of correct behaviour. As a result he rarely swore. What was the point in shutting the stable door after the horse had bolted? But today was something of an exception.
What terminal lunacy had encouraged him to leave his notes in his hotel room? And why had it never occurred to him to use the hotel safe? Too darned inconvenient, that’s why. If Calque had ever bothered to subscribe to something as mundane as the concept of low self-esteem, he would have been forced to admit to feeling gutted. As it was, his brain simply jerked up another gear and into overdrive. And the first thing on his sparkling new agenda would be to find out all he could about what had happened to the woman.
Leaving his door wide open – after all, what did he have left for anyone to steal? – Calque retraced his steps down to the lobby. The concierge was back in his usual place, no doubt digesting after his lunch break. Calque cut straight to the chase.
‘Did my assistant, Madame Mercier, register with you this morning? She was due to arrive here around breakfast time.’ He allowed the man a brief flash of his illegal badge to further drive home his point.
The clerk looked about him in so secretive a manner that even if Calque had not been watching out for it, he would have been hard-pressed not to suspect that the man had some hidden agenda. ‘Madame Mercier, you say?’
‘You heard me.’
The clerk swallowed. He looked as if he were fighting some internal battle with himself, and losing. ‘I have to ask you something first. It’s very important.’
Calque felt like giving the man an open-handed clout around the head. Instead, he nodded encouragingly, his lips fixed in the rictus of an artificial grin. ‘Go on then.’
‘How many croissants did you eat for breakfast this morning?’
Calque’s mouth fell open. He was briefly tempted to reach across and grab the clerk by the scruff of his neck and shake him like a terrier does a rat – but in the present circumstances that might have proved counterproductive. Instead, Calque fixed his eyes on the clerk, leaving the man in little doubt that he would not take kindly if his question masked some vague attempt at a practical joke. ‘You’re serious? The important question you have to ask me is how many croissants I ate for breakfast this morning?’
The clerk nodded. ‘Yes, Sir. That’s the question the lady told me to put to you.’
Calque rolled his eyes. He willed himself to cast his mind back to earlier that morning, and not to throttle the clerk. ‘Let’s be surgically precise here. I ate three. Or rather, two and three-quarters. Two of my own, and one of Madame Mercier’s that she inadvertently abandoned, unfinished, on her plate. Does that satisfy you?’
The clerk scrabbled underneath his counter and came up with an envelope. ‘Then I’ve been told to give you this, Captain.’
Calque lunged for the envelope.
The clerk clutched it against his chest, a canine expression on his face.
Calque grunted. He rummaged around in his pockets and handed the man a ten-Euro note.
The clerk hesitated, as if he were briefly considering holding out for more. Then he handed Calque the envelope.
‘Did anyone else ask for Madame Mercier?’
The clerk shrugged. ‘If they had, I would have asked them the same question I asked you. And if they had answered correctly, I would have given them the envelope. Madame Mercier gave me the strictest possible instructions.’
Yes. And a fifty-Euro tip with my money, you snivelling little bastard, thought Calque.
Calque retreated to the lift, just as if he were contemplating an imminent return to his room. Once out of sight of the front desk, however, he tore open the envelope. All it contained was a single line of writing and an initial.
8, 7, 11, 13, 12, of where we sat this morning. Your jacket. L
Calque leaned back against the wall. What now? Another trap for him to stumble into? Perhaps the Corpus was having difficulty reading the handwriting on his case notes? Perhaps they wanted to invite him back to the Domaine to make sense of all the material they’d pilfered from his hotel room? It would be a simple enough thing for anyone with a semi-normal IQ to work out where he and Lamia had been sitting that morning. After all, the Corpus had staked out the place with cold-blooded efficiency, had it not? And the road to the beach was a cul-de-sac – meaning it led to a single, specific destination. The whole thing was scarcely nuclear physics.
Calque shrugged, and began to work out the riddle in his head. He decided that he had little choice, in the circumstances, but to follow where it led him.
PAMPELONNE PLAGE. Eighth letter N. Seventh letter O. Eleventh letter P. Thirteenth letter A. Twelfth letter L. NOPAL. What was that? Some kind of Mexican cactus, no? Or was it a seaweed? Definitely Mexican, anyway. So what was there likely to be that was Mexican in a town like Cogolin? A restaurant? That was the most likely answer. Or maybe a shop that sold Mexican goods? But more likely a restaurant. Lamia wouldn’t have had a long time to think up her plan, and she would have been under considerable pressure. She would have made the answer as obvious as possible in the time left to her.
The concierge was obviously for sale to the highest bidder, so no point asking him if there was a Mexican restaurant in town. Calque might as well take out an ad with Radio Free Europe.
Calque made up his mind. He headed towards the rear of the hotel. This time he expected to be followed. If the Corpus had truly failed to get their hands on Lamia, then he was the obvious person to lead them to her.
Calque breezed out of the hotel’s rear exit. He accosted the first passer-by he saw and asked the man the way to the nearest police station. Disinformation. That was the name of the game.
With the address of the gendarmerie safely to hand, Calque walked briskly up the street, looking neither to his right nor left. Let the bastards stew in their own juice. They’d obviously let him go for a reason, and that reason was that they’d failed to get Lamia back. Now they were expecting him to lead them to her. Well, he’d soon show them that they weren’t about to have everything their own way.
Calque walked boldly up the gendarmerie steps and straight to the main desk in the lobby. ‘Good morning, Sergeant. My name is Captain Joris Calque, Police Nationale, retired.’ He proffered his entirely legal and above-board retirement warrant card – it wouldn’t do to flash the illegal one by mistake.
The pandore behind the counter stood up and saluted. ‘It’s a pleasure, Captain.’
Calque returned the salute. So I’ve still got what it takes, he thought to himself. You can take the policeman out of the service, but you can’t take the service out of the policeman. ‘I’m staying up the road, at the Hotel de la Place. I just thought I’d drop by and leave you my card. I have a feeling your Commandant and I know each other from way back.’
‘Shall I call him, Captain? I’m sure he’d be pleased to come out and see you.’
‘No. Please don’t do that. I’m already running late. And I’m sure the Commandant is very busy. I was just passing by on my way to lunch. I’m going to eat at the Nopal. I’m right, aren’t I? It’s just up the road?’
‘A Mexican restaurant, yes. Chillies. Enchiladas. Things like that.’
The desk sergeant grinned. ‘No, Captain. That’s the Esposito. It’s the only foreign restaurant in town. But it’s got a bar attached to it that’s called the Nopal. You’ll find it just off the Place de la Liberte. But I wouldn’t recommend either of them. The Largesse is much better. Proper French food. Try their pot-au-feu. Madame Adelaide has been using the same recipe for thirty years. And none of us regulars have complained yet. Tell her Sergeant Marestaing recommended you.’
‘Ah. That’s it. The Esposito. But we are to meet in the bar first. I knew I would get the name wrong.’ Calque allowed a wistful smile to invest his features. ‘I have no choice in the matter of where I eat today, Sergeant, as I’m invited. But I shall try the Largesse for certain tomorrow, on your personal recommendation. But tell me. Could I possibly use your toilet while I’m here? I have prostate troubles. Need to go every couple of hours. You know how it is?’
The pandore nodded, as if he did, indeed, know how it was. He directed Calque up the corridor.
‘Can I go out the back way when I’m finished? Save myself a walk?’
A telephone rang on the pandore ’s desk, conveniently redirecting the man’s attention away from Calque. ‘There is a rear exit, yes, Captain. Please feel free to use it.’
‘Thank you, Sergeant. I will.’ Calque felt curiously satisfied following their exchange, as if he had proved to himself that he could still take the initiative. Still cut the mustard.
Once out in the daylight again, Calque’s demeanour underwent a subtle transformation. He stopped three times before he reached the corner of the street to make sure that no one was following him. He wasn’t about to make the same mistake twice in one day. He wasn’t about to lead the Corpus back to Lamia.
With any luck, whoever had been tailing him would be fully taken up with communicating to the Countess that Calque was still tucked cosily away inside the gendarmerie – no doubt spilling the beans about the dead footman. Disinformation. Disingenuousness. Deceit. The three D’s. His late lamented mentor, Maurice Edard – an old-school policeman who had cut his milk teeth in the good old pre-1966 days when the Police Nationale was still the Surete – would have been proud of him.
Calque grinned as he imagined the bedlam back at the Domaine. The Countess would be ordering the decks cleared pretty fast if she thought the police might be about to pay her an unexpected visit.
By the time he arrived at the Esposito, Calque was 99 per cent certain that he hadn’t been followed. He had doubled back on himself twice more since his first flurry of activity, confined himself to side streets only, and he had even done a Humphrey Bogart – minus Dorothy Malone, unfortunately – in a second-hand bookshop.
When Calque reached the restaurant he didn’t linger by the menu board, but plunged straight in. He didn’t really expect Lamia to be waiting for him. In fact it was far more likely that the message was a false trail laid by the Corpus in an attempt to provide themselves with a fallback position – in case he eluded them the first time, say, or in case he had been professional enough to actually bother hiding his notes, rather than simply to leave them in plain view, like the very worst sort of greenhorn. But what else could he do but take the note at face value? It was the only way he could think of to remain in the game.
Lamia was sitting with her back to him, in one of the private booths. Calque’s heart gave a lurch as he saw her. It astonished him to realize that he had been genuinely concerned for her safety. I must be getting soft in my old age, he thought to himself. First I go into mourning for my racist worm of an assistant, and now I’m acting like a bleeding heart for the sister of the very man who killed him.
He sat down in front of her, facing the door, his expression studiously immobile.
Lamia looked up at him. She held his eyes for ten seconds, and when he didn’t respond, she quietly slid a packet of papers across the table towards him.
‘I didn’t dare to hope.’ Calque’s features relaxed, like those of a Chinese shar-pei dog. ‘How in God’s name did you do it?’
Lamia shrugged. ‘I knew, the moment you gave the taxi driver the name of your hotel, and mentioned the fictitious Madame Mercier in front of him, that my mother would know all about it within twenty minutes – that we would both be fatally compromised. She owns half of St Tropez, Captain. She has feelers everywhere.’
‘I know. I spoke to her.’
Lamia’s eyes widened. ‘You…’
Calque reached across and squeezed her hand. ‘The notes, Lamia. How did you manage to get the notes? I can explain all the rest of it later.’
Lamia’s expression lightened momentarily. ‘The taxi journey gave me time to think things through – to work out where we were most vulnerable. When I got to the hotel I pretended to the concierge that I was your mistress. He didn’t bite at first – I mean, who in his right mind would want someone like me as his mistress?’ She thrust herself back in her chair, as though she were challenging Calque to contradict her – to negate the reality of her face. ‘But then I gave him the rest of your money as a sweetener, and he handed over your key. It’s curious how easily men believe us women when we talk of sex.’
Calque inclined his head politely. In reality he was desperately embarrassed at the sudden vulnerability she had shown about her birthmark. But he found it impossible, in the present circumstances, to summon up a suitably gallant riposte. ‘And my notes? You read them?’
Lamia turned quickly away.
‘Listen. That was not an accusation. I want you to read them – in fact I desperately need your help.’
Lamia turned back. ‘So you believe me?’
‘Yes. I believe you. I lied when I told you about the tape recorder this morning. I got nothing, absolutely nothing, from that idiotic stunt I pulled – apart from the drone of a vacuum cleaner, and the occasional crash of moving furniture.’
Lamia snatched one hand to her face, as if she were about to stifle an outburst of the giggles.
Calque pretended not to notice. ‘In point of fact I’m no further forward with anything. I might as well have spent the past five weeks windsurfing in Hawaii for all I’ve managed to achieve.’
‘You? Windsurfing? Surely not?’ Lamia allowed her hand to drop slowly back towards the table. It was a strange movement, akin to the shucking of a veil. Almost as if she were voluntarily revealing herself to him for the very first time. She tilted her head fractionally to one side to indicate that she was no longer jesting. ‘Why should I help you, Captain? Why should I betray my family to someone I only met a few hours ago?’
Calque sat back in his seat. ‘No reason. No reason whatsoever. You’ve already helped me way beyond any capacity I may have to repay you, simply by keeping my notes from the Corpus. If you were to get up and leave now, I would still be infinitely grateful to you. There would be no blame attached to anything you’ve done.’
Lamia’s eyes scanned Calque’s face, as though searching for clues to a long-standing and elusive mystery. ‘What are you expecting of me?’
‘I want you to tell me what you can of the Corpus’s plans.’
‘So you do want me to betray my family?’
‘Just as they’ve betrayed you. Yes. I won’t lie to you, Lamia. I believe the Corpus to be evil. And furthermore I believe your mother to be a person with no moral scruples whatsoever. Someone who would not hesitate to use any means necessary, including murder, to get her own way.’
Lamia watched him, one hand splayed across her chest, as if she had temporarily lost control of her heart rate. ‘How much do you already know? About my mother, I mean. About her role in the Corpus Maleficus. ’
‘Assume I know nothing.’
‘What particular question do you want to ask me?’
‘A simple one. What went on in that room when you all met?’
Lamia still seemed to be weighing him up. ‘The people you saw. Entering the house. You know they are all my brothers and sisters?’
‘I deduced that much, yes. And your mother as good as confirmed it to me.’
Lamia shook her head. ‘I still don’t understand why she let you go. You say you saw her? It seems impossible to me.’
Calque waved away the waiter. He hunched towards her across the table. ‘I’m a senior ex-policeman, Lamia. Riverbanks collapse when unexpected things happen to senior ex-policemen – islands are washed away. Your mother was convinced she already had you back under her control. She thought she had my notes. Why muddy the waters further? I don’t think she rates me very highly.’
‘Then she’s a fool.’
‘It’s nice of you to think so – but I don’t believe it for an instant. But if she has made a mistake about me, then she has made exactly the same mistake about you.’
Lamia turned her face away from him again. It was obviously a well-rehearsed, if entirely unconscious, movement. Almost as if she wished to give her interlocutor a rest from having to look at her blemish – or to give herself a rest from having to bear the weight of other people’s disenchantment. Just for a moment it was possible for Calque to imagine that she was merely a beautiful young woman – that she didn’t have a monstrous birthmark splayed, like a palm print, across the intimate confines of her cheek.
Then she turned back to him, her eyes challenging him for a reaction. ‘You guessed right about me, Captain. Some time ago I decided that I wanted nothing more to do with my mother’s machinations. The other night it all came to a head. I’d spent weeks building up enough courage to tell her the truth about my feelings. Stupidly, I decided to do it in front of my entire family. At a moment when they were all expecting me to formally renew my allegiance to the cause the de Bales have been single-mindedly dedicating themselves to for nearly eight hundred years. It wasn’t what you might call good timing.’
‘And what is your mother machinating? What is this cause that unites different generations of the same family over centuries of time?’
Lamia hesitated. ‘The man. Sabir. He’s your friend, is he not?’
Calque shook his head. ‘I swore I’d be honest with you, Lamia. I’d be lying if I said Adam Sabir was my friend. We connected, briefly, at a low point in both our lives. He took pity on me, after the death of my assistant, and shared some information with me that he is probably now regretting he let slip – probably because he was doped up with morphine at the time. That’s the full extent of our relationship. That’s as far as it goes.’
‘Then why are you still interested in him?’
‘Because I think he holds the key to something your mother, and through her, the Corpus, wants.’
‘And you believe in this Corpus?’
‘I think your mother does. And I believe her to be a very rich, very powerful, and very evil, woman. I also believe that it was she who was directly responsible for my assistant’s death. And if she was, I intend to make her pay for it. I owe that much to his family.’ He hesitated, then allowed his gaze to drop. ‘And to myself.’
Lamia followed him with her eyes. She hesitated for a moment, still watching him. Then she took in a quick breath, which was almost a gasp. ‘You’re right, Captain. You’ve been right all along. My mother was directly responsible for your assistant’s death. She admitted as much to us the other night.’
Calque lurched forwards, his face alive. ‘I knew it. So I haven’t been wasting my time?’
Lamia shook her head. ‘Far from it, Captain. But the information won’t help you. And it certainly won’t save Sabir.’
‘What do you mean “save Sabir”? What are you talking about?’
Lamia held Calque’s eyes with her own. ‘My twin brothers left yesterday for the United States. Under my mother’s direct orders.’ She glanced down at her watch. ‘By now, Adam Sabir will be dead.’
At first you thought it was simply another earthquake. There had been three in the past few days, and you had become used to them by now.
It always went the same way. First, your stomach unexpectedly turned over. For a second or two, you were frozen to the spot, wondering what had happened. Then, if you were unlucky enough to be caught inside your hut, you might have the presence of mind to look upwards. If the oil lamps were swinging, you knew it was an earthquake, and you hurried outside, the ground swelling and bloating underneath you, until you could find somewhere safe to sit that wasn’t directly under a tree, a telegraph pole, or any masonry. Then you watched your hut to see if it would fall down.
When the earthquake was over, you would walk back towards your hut, the aftershocks making you feel ever so slightly nauseous. Then you would remember to thank God that the earthquake was only a small one, and that the epicentre was a few hundred miles away on the other side of the country, and you would force yourself back to work.
But this was no earthquake. When you concentrated, you realized that the shaking and trembling of the floor of your hut was also accompanied by a deep rumbling sound. You ran outside and you looked across the hills. One hundred and ten kilometres away from where you lived, the great volcano, 5675 metres high, pierced the sky. You had looked at it every day of your life. All through the year, snow coated its pinnacle, despite the near-tropical climate in which you lived. You had heard that it was still active, but everyone knew that it had not erupted for more than a century and a half. The two great volcanoes four and a half hours further west from you regularly smoked, polluting the atmosphere, or so you had heard, with the smell of sulphur, shit, and rotten eggs. But your volcano had always seemed dormant by comparison. Resting. Unhurried.
Now a massive cloud encircled the familiar peak, blotting out the sun. Even from one hundred kilometres away, you began to catch the smell of sulphur on the air. Soon, you sensed, it would be all pervasive, like the smell of a rotting animal in the underbrush.
You followed the course of the eruption in bewildered wonderment. And as you stood there watching, volcanic ash and tiny balls of mud, about a quarter of an inch in diameter, began to patter around you like hailstones. In the distance, thick clouds of black, white, and blue roiled up from the vent, shot through with eerily silent bolts of lightning, as if someone had inadvertently switched off the sound on the village television set.
You had never thought that this would happen in your lifetime. As guardian of the codex – just as your father, and your grandfather, and your great-grandfather had been guardians of the codex before you – you had been preparing for this event for 163 years. Ever since the last eruption. Your family’s only task during that period had been to make sure that no one discovered the location of the cave that housed the codex, or tampered with its contents. That task was completed. Now, your second, and greater, task would begin.
And that task involved a journey to the south. A journey for which you were terminally unprepared.
The Tanyard, Stockbridge,
For some months, now, Adam Sabir had been unable to complete a full night’s sleep inside his own house.
As soon as he began to drift off, the nightmares would return, and with them the claustrophobia that had tormented him since early childhood, when some schoolmates, as part of a Halloween prank, had bound and gagged and then locked him inside the trunk of his professor’s car, in imitation, or so he later learned, of a scene from a horror flick that was currently doing the rounds at the local drive-in movie houses.
The professor had discovered Sabir three hours later, his gag chewed to a pulp, moaning, hallucinating, and half out of his head with fear. Sabir had spent the rest of that semester at home and in bed, alternately chain-reading for comfort, and then throwing up as a result of the tranquillizers his psychiatrist was forced to prescribe him for whenever the street doors of his parent’s house needed to be shut and bolted.
In true prep school tradition, Sabir had found it impossible to squeal on his tormentors. But years later, as a journalist, he had taken his revenge on them in a manner reminiscent of Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo – he had built them up, in other words, each man in his turn, and had then proceeded to tear them down again in an avalanche of failed vainglory.
But the fear of enclosed spaces still lurked in his psyche like a recurring nightmare – only a thousand times exacerbated by what he had experienced earlier that summer, in France, in the cellar of an abandoned house in the French Camargue.
Over the past few months, Sabir’s cycle of disrupted sleep had always followed the exact same pattern. First would come the hyper-realist dreams, in which he was back in the cesspit again, deep in the cellar below the Gypsy safe-house in the French Camargue. In these dreams he was up to his neck in raw sewage, his head bent backwards to protect his mouth, his forehead tight up against the lid of the cesspit, which Achor Bale was sliding shut across his face.
Then came the dreams of dreams, in which Sabir revisited the hallucinations he had experienced whilst sealed inside the cesspit. Hallucinations in which his arms and legs were torn off, his torso shredded, his intestines, lights, bowels, and bladder dragged out of his body like offal from a butchered horse. Later in the dream a snake would come towards him – a thick uncoiling python of a snake, with the scales of a fish, and staring eyes, and a hinged skull like that of an anaconda. The snake would swallow Sabir’s head, forcing it down the entire length of its body with convulsive movements of its myosin-fuelled muscles, like a reverse birth.
Later, Sabir would become the snake, its head his head, its eyes his eyes. It was at this exact point in the dream that he always awoke, his body drenched in sweat, his eyes bulging from his face like those of a startled cat. He would throw on his dressing-gown and hurry out into the garden, where he would stand, gulping in fresh air, and cursing Achor Bale and the perniciousness of posthumous effect.
The rest of the night would be spent in his father’s old Hatteras hammock, in the garden house, with the veranda doors thrown open to the elements, a single blanket draped over his quasi-foetal shape. He had tried switching to a sleeping bag, but the bag’s innate constriction had seen him thrashing around like an emergent chrysalis, desperate to disentangle its body from the pupal shell before serving as some passing bird’s hors d’oeuvre.
On this particular evening the dream had come to him with more than its usual vigour and destructive force. Sabir was perilously close to hyperventilating by the time he made his way across the lawn and into the garden house.
Rationally, he knew that it made no earthly sense for him to persist in trying to sleep in the main building. What was the point, when he would simply come rushing out again, three hours later, gasping for air? But some obstinate part of himself refused to give up on the attempt to live an ordinary life.
He privately feared that once he abandoned all pretence at living inside – once he gave up fighting, in other words – his claustrophobia would enter the obsessive-compulsive stage, dooming him to a downward spiral of psychoanalysis and soporifics.
For that was the way his mother had gone. A steady, inexorable descent towards drug dependence and enforced hospitalization. It had destroyed his father’s life, and it had come close to destroying his own.
Recently, Sabir had begun wondering if he wasn’t hellbent on repeating the family pattern?
‘I like small town Americans,’ said Abiger de Bale. ‘They’re so fucking trusting.’
The twins were sitting in their rental car, watching the outside of Adam Sabir’s house. They had been in the United States for a little less than twelve hours, and already they had identified their mark.
‘What do you mean, trusting?’
Abi wound his seat back to the prone position, so that his silhouette would no longer be outlined against the street lights. He glanced over at his brother. ‘I’m pretending to be a tourist, right? I ask them things, right? In the American idiom. Things like “you got any celebrities in this town?” Then they give me a list. Including Norman Rockwell, and Daniel Chester French, and Owen Johnson, and Mum Bett – oh, and that guy who wrote the bestselling book on Nostradamus’s private life. And because the writer is the only one on the list who isn’t dead yet, they tell me about his private life. That he can’t keep a woman. That he lives alone. That his mother went mad. Stuff like that. And all without me, the tourist, needing to ask anything at all. Try the same thing in France, and it’d be like attempting to crack a stone wall with the tip of your nose. How did you do?’
‘Pretty much the same.’
‘You see? I like these Americans.’
Vau cast a quizzical look at his brother. ‘You don’t think they’ll remember us?’
‘Lighten up, Vau. Nobody ever saw us together. So they’ll just assume we’re one and the same person. And the Amis can’t recognize accents, anyway. They never travel abroad. They’ll think we’re Canadians.’
‘I still think we ought to take him away somewhere. Not do him here.’
‘Don’t worry about that. I’ve got a better idea. Sabir’s been behaving strangely lately. People around here are starting to think he’s taking after his mother. We’ll play on that.’
‘Wait and see.’
Adam Sabir’s ‘Berkshire Cottage’ style home was set well back from the Stockbridge Main Street, in grounds totalling a little more than an acre and a half – or roughly the size of a baseball field.
The ultra-discreet street lights cut a fragile arc across the front lawn, but they fell just short of the main part of the house, which was consequently shrouded in darkness. The back garden, in which Sabir’s summer-house-cum-writing-hut was situated, stretched for a further fifty feet towards a thick stand of trees, which marked the extreme boundary between Sabir’s property and next-door’s smallholding. The rear of his demesne was bounded by a small white picket fence, whilst the front of the house lay directly open onto the street, as if its original nineteenth-century occupants had not wished to mar the vista of its rolling lawns with anything as common as an enclosure.
At a little after two o’clock in the morning, Abi and Vau emerged from their car, checked up and down the street, and then moved swiftly across the floodlit lawn until they were swallowed up by the darkness surrounding the main house.
Once at the rear of the house, Abi made his way cautiously up the veranda steps and tested the back door. It was open. He grinned at his brother. ‘Jesus Christ, Vau-Vau. This idiot doesn’t even lock his door at night. Do you think he knew we were coming?’
‘I don’t like this, Abi. No one in the United States leaves their house door open at night.’
‘Well Mr Sabir does. And I, for one, am most grateful to him for the courtesy.’
The twins edged their way through the door. They stood in the back hall, staring up at the main stairs.
Abi covered his mouth with his hand. ‘You saw him earlier, didn’t you? You’re sure of that?’
Vau echoed the movement. ‘Clear as a bell. His bedroom is the last room on the right, below the gable window.’
‘And no one else here?’
‘No. He was alone. And behaving like a lone man. You know. Pottering around. Tinkering with stuff.’
Abi shrugged. ‘Crazy. Crazy to leave your door open. What is the man thinking of?’
The brothers made their way to the base of the stairs. Halfway up the staircase they stopped and listened once again, but the house was silent as the grave.
‘The bastard doesn’t even snore.’
‘Perhaps he’s not asleep?’
‘At 2.30 in the morning? So why are his lights off?’
‘Okay. Okay.’ Vau stopped outside Sabir’s bedroom door, one hand on the handle.
Abi stood a little away from him. Without a sound, he unhitched the telescopic fighting baton from his sleeve. Then he nodded.
Vau threw open the door.
Abi sprinted towards the bed, landing with his legs splayed, the full weight of his body concentrated on where he expected the sleeping man to be. ‘Christ, Vau. There’s nobody in here.’
Abi disentangled himself from the bed covers and cracked on his torch. ‘This bed’s been slept in, though. It’s still fucking warm. Go and check the bathroom. Then we’ll do the rest of the house.’ Already, without knowing why, Abi was getting the sense that the house was deserted.
‘He’s not in the bathroom either.’
‘Are you sure you didn’t see a car leave while I was sleeping? Are you sure he didn’t see us?’
‘Hell, Abi. Of course he didn’t. I would have told you. His car is still in the garage.’
‘Maybe he went for a walk? Maybe he creeps across the boundary fence every night and porks the next-door-neighbour’s wife?’
Vau shook his head. ‘No. I watched him prepare for bed. I even used the binoculars to make sure it was him. The curtains were wide open all the time. The man doesn’t seem to give a damn that anyone who wants to can look in on him.’
‘Let’s check downstairs, then. Perhaps he’s got a study? Or maybe a dressing room with a spare bed in it?’
Vau made a face. ‘Dressing rooms like that are for men who want a break from their wives. Like Monsieur, our father, remember? Sabir hasn’t got a wife. He lives alone.’
Ten minutes of frenetic searching convinced the brothers that Sabir wasn’t anywhere in the house.
Abi threw his head back and exhaled through his cheeks. ‘Right. Let’s do something constructive. Let’s find if he’s written anything down. At least that way we won’t leave empty-handed.’
‘What are we going to do then?’
‘Burn the place down. That’ll bring him running.’
Sabir had almost succeeded in dozing off when he saw the study lights go on in the main house. For a split second he refused to believe his eyes. Then he eased himself out of the hammock and stood, still rocking with tiredness, on the extreme edge of the lawn and just beyond the arc thrown by the lights.
His house was being burgled. That much was clear. At first the thought caused him some bemusement. What was he going to do? Who was he going to call? His cell phone was up in his bedroom, and he was standing in his back garden, in pyjamas and bare feet, on a chill and windy October night. I mean, how dumb can you get?
Weapons? He didn’t have any. What an idiot. He didn’t even have a pair of carpet slippers to hit the burglars with. And he couldn’t see himself bearding potentially armed men with a garden rake.
He was just beginning to move away from the house and towards Main Street when some instinct stopped him in his tracks. Perhaps it was the memory of another night, five months before, when he had huddled down behind a sand dune in the Camargue and watched a similar house, once again in total darkness save for the opalescent glow from a fragile circle of candles.
That time, the candlelight had been outlining the hooded figure of his blood sister, Yola Samana, as she teetered precariously on a three-legged stool with a noose around her neck, whilst a dispassionate Achor Bale sat in the invisible shadows and watched her as he might have watched a staked-out lamb during a midnight tiger hunt.
Either way, the sudden unwanted echo of the recent past was enough to make Sabir pause in his flight and rethink his position. He edged back towards the summer house wall, hissing nervously through his teeth. He could clearly see the shadows of two men reflected off the ceiling of his study. Burglars? The heck with that. Burglars didn’t walk around their victim’s house switching on the electric lights. CIA? FBI? IRS? Who the hell else gave themselves the right to come visiting honest citizens in the middle of the night?
With a sudden, intense conviction, Sabir knew exactly who the men were, what they were looking for, and why they were looking for it.
It was at this point that he remembered his father’s old shotgun. Ever since his childhood it had been kept in the understairs wine cellar, hanging upside down by its trigger guard on a meat hook. Sabir hadn’t moved a thing in the house since his father’s death three years before – there had never seemed any point. So if the trigger guard hadn’t rusted away in the interim, the shotgun would presumably still be there.
Sabir’s sudden focus on the shotgun and on the sanctity of his family home served to pull him together and renew his courage. If these men came from the Countess, as he suspected they did, he had no choice but to confront them. They were his problem and his problem alone. He was damned if he would scuttle off down Main Street in his pyjamas at three o’clock in the morning and go wake up his neighbours.
Sabir had one ace up his sleeve, however. He knew from his time as a journalist on the New England Courier that Massachusetts had draconian burglary laws – armed burglary carried a minimum fifteen-year jail term, and even unarmed breaking and entering could fetch you five. And he was willing to bet that whoever the Countess had sent would have come armed.
As he headed for the cellar he began to rehearse in his mind just how the thing might conceivably play out.
Vau straightened up from his perusal of Sabir’s study and turned towards his elder brother. ‘Sabir must keep everything locked away in his head. There’s nothing of any interest in here.’
‘Did you really think there would be?’
Vau shrugged. ‘To tell you the truth, I didn’t think anything. As far as I’m concerned, we just came here to revenge ourselves on Rocha’s killer.’
‘Ever the foot soldier, never the captain, right?’
‘You can laugh at me all you want, Abi. But I know where I stand in the general scheme of things. I’m grateful to Madame, our mother, and to Monsieur, our father, for adopting me. I’m grateful for the title I’ve inherited, and even more grateful for the money that goes with it. Cleverer people than me can work out strategies and interpret prophecies and delay the coming of Armageddon – or whatever the hell it is we’re meant to be doing. Me, I just obey orders.’
Abi sprawled back against Sabir’s desk, his arms spread to support his weight. He looked his brother up and down, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth. ‘I suppose you’re going to tell me now that you’re a happy and contented man?’
‘Happy? Contented? I don’t know about that. But there’s one thing I do know.’ Vau hesitated briefly, as if gathering his thoughts together after a long hiatus. ‘I’m going to confess something to you, Abi. Something that you may not give a damn about. But I’m going to tell you nonetheless.’
Abi cocked his head to one side encouragingly. He was clearly enjoying himself.
Vau snorted in a lungful of air, as if he was readying himself for a hundred-metre free-dive. ‘You are the only person I truly care about in this world, Abi. The only one. And that’s not because you’re anything special – don’t ever think that. But because we’re viscerally linked. You’re my twin. We were even connected together, or so they tell me, when we were born. Plus you’re brighter than me, Abi, I give you that. And quicker. But you won’t ever find anyone else truer to you than me, if you were to search for a thousand years.’
‘The master of the nonsequitur strikes again.’ Abi mimicked being squashed up against a wall by an unwanted admirer. Then his face became more serious. ‘Why are you telling me this, Vau? And why here?’
‘Because I worry about you, Abi. I think you’re beginning to like all this too much. I think you’re really beginning to believe that you’re something special – something over and above the norm. That moral laws don’t apply to you any longer. You’re becoming like Rocha, in other words. You’re becoming a freak. I mean look at us. We’re standing here in a foreign country, in someone else’s house – a house that we’re on the verge of torching, for pity’s sake – lit up like fucking Christmas trees. And you seem to think it’s all fine. That there’s something normal about this.’
Abi made a full circle on the spot – widdershins – his hands flapping in mock veneration like a cartoon guru. ‘But it is normal, Vau. Can’t you see the beauty of it?’
‘Yes, beauty. Let me lay it out for you, pendejo. Let me read you a lesson from the Good News Bible.’ Abi mimicked flicking open the pages of a book. ‘Monsieur, our father’s, distant ancestors were given a holy gage by France’s greatest and most venerated king – a king the Vatican later turned into a saint by popular acclamation. This gage was to protect the French realm from the Devil. So far so simple, no? But the gage wasn’t designed to stop with the king’s death. No. It continues on to this day.’
‘According to who?’
Abi sighed condescendingly. ‘According to you and me. The fact that the rest of society is out of step with us – that France is no longer a monarchy – that none of these atheistical idiots believe in the Devil any more – all that is entirely irrelevant.’ Abi was grinning. ‘It’s the others that are the freaks. The people who refuse to act. The walking fucking victims. The sorts of people who have never moved across into no-man’s-land and plundered somebody else’s herd.’ Abi pointed at his brother. ‘We’re the hunters, Vau – you and I. And they are our prey. We’ve been set free thanks to St Louis’s edict. That’s all the moral justification we’ll ever need. Now bust that chair up and stack it over here. We need to get a blaze going.’
Sabir had heard enough. Ammo or no ammo, he wasn’t about to allow these maniacs to set fire to his father’s house.
He had scrabbled in vain through the wine cellar for the remotest sign of a box of cartridges. The shotgun had been in place, though, just as he remembered it. If he wanted to save his family home from destruction, he would simply have to use the empty weapon as a deterrent. The two of them couldn’t exactly stare down the barrels and check to see if they were loaded, now, could they?
He kicked open the study door and brought the shotgun up to bear. He had understood the men to be twins from their conversation, but he was still unprepared for the uncanny resemblance between the two of them. It was like staring into the shards of a shattered mirror.
The one called Vau was already in the process of levering off the semi-circular back of his father’s favourite library chair.
‘Drop that chair. You’re not setting fire to anything.’ Sabir kept his back firmly against the door. He had privately decided that if either of the men made an aggressive move towards him, he would simply throw the shotgun at them, turn on his heels, and leg it as fast as possible out of the house.
Both men froze in place. The one called Abi was the first to relax and acknowledge him.
‘I suppose you expect us to put our hands up? To go and stand over by the wall, like they do in the movies?’
‘I want you to lie down on the ground. Then I want you to unhitch your belts, and push your trousers down around your ankles.’
‘Christ, Vau. The guy’s gay.’
‘Just do it. From this range, I can cut you both in half without even needing to switch barrels.’ Adam Sabir raised the shotgun and aimed it directly at Abi’s head. It was becoming increasingly obvious which of the two was in charge.
The twins dropped slowly to their knees. Making a show of their reluctance, they unbuckled their belts, pushed their trousers down, and stretched out on the floor. ‘What are you going to do now, Sabir? Rape us?’
‘The cons at Cedar Junction can do that. In fifteen years’ time you’ll be able to write a book about your experiences. It’ll be a sure-fire bestseller. You can call it Shafted By The Penal System.’
‘You hear that, Vau? This guy’s got a sense of humour. I suppose this means you’re going to call in the cops?’
‘What do you think?’
‘Look. We only came here for information. We’re not even armed. If you give us what we want, we’ll leave you in peace.’
‘You’ve got to be joking.’
‘At least tell us who warned you we were coming? Because somebody warned you. There’s no way you just happened to be out of your room and in possession of a shotgun the exact moment we came by.’
Sabir hesitated. Now that the twins were safely down on the ground, he wasn’t sure how best to finagle himself out of the situation he found himself in. ‘Nobody warned me.’ He edged further into the room and sidestepped towards the telephone.
‘Bullshit. We saw you go to bed. We’ve been watching this place for the past twelve hours. Somebody warned you.’ Abi turned towards his brother. ‘Hey, Vau. I know who it was. It was that pig of an ex-policeman. The one who kidnapped Lamia. The one Madame, our mother, says tried to bug our meeting and failed. But how did he know we were coming over here?’
Vau met his brother’s gaze. Then he looked away.
‘It was that bitch of a sister of ours, wasn’t it? I should have killed her when I had the chance.’ Abi got up off the floor. He pulled his trousers up and tightened his belt as though Sabir were no longer in the room. ‘Get up, Vau. I’ve got all the information I need. This bastard’s not going to shoot us in a month of Sundays. He hasn’t got the balls for it. And I’m not waiting patiently here with my trousers around my ankles while he summons up enough courage to call the cops.’
‘Don’t move another step, de Bale.’
‘Go fuck yourself, Sabir.’ Abi sidestepped towards the door. ‘You saved your house. Be satisfied with that. Shame, though. I enjoy a good blaze. But it’ll have to wait for another day. We’ll take a rain check on this one.’
Sabir stood with the gun still trained on Abi. He couldn’t think what else to do.
Vau went to join his brother at the door.
‘Look. Now you can get both of us again with just one barrel. But you’d have a hard time explaining it away, wouldn’t you? And you’d have an unpleasant bit of rearranging to do before the cops got here. That sort of thing takes a cooler head than yours.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘What do you think? The back door was open. You even let us in yourself. No sign of breaking and entering anywhere. And as you can see, we aren’t armed.’ Abi had slipped the fighting baton back inside his sleeve ten minutes before, after finding the bedroom empty. ‘No. What really happened was we travelled all the way out here to the United States just in order to forgive you for our brother’s death. To reach closure on it for our family. The Yanks love all that psycho stuff. But you turned crazy, like your mother, and threatened us with a shotgun. Just think how that would play out in a court of law – especially as it’s common knowledge that you were suspected of murder, and on the run from the French police, just five short months ago. Cops have long memories, Sabir. Shit sticks. And there’s no stink without shit.’
Sabir snatched at the telephone. What else was there to do? Pull the trigger on an empty chamber? If there’d been any slugs in his shotgun he might have let them have it, if only for the crack about his mother. But as things stood, he could only watch them back out of the door while his finger tapped out three random numbers on the telephone keypad.
As soon as the twins were downstairs and he heard the back door safely slam, Sabir pressed down on the receiver button, cancelling the call.
He wouldn’t be calling any cops on this particular watch.
Sabir stood at his bedroom window and watched the twins get into their car, fire up the engine, and roar away from the kerbside with predictably screaming tyres.
He turned around and tossed the useless shotgun onto his bed. Then he lay down beside it and closed his eyes. God, if he could only sleep. Instead he lay awake, the adrenalin rush triggered by the implicit violence of the last fifteen minutes slowly leaching out of his system.
One thing he knew for certain. From now on his house would be as good as dead to him. That much was obvious even to an imbecile. Maintaining a fixed station like this, with Achor Bale’s twin brothers on his trail, would make him more than merely vulnerable. It would confirm him as suicidal.
No. The only thing for it was to get on the road and keep moving, taking any information he needed with him in his head. Curiously, the thought of going on the run again didn’t worry Sabir overmuch. In his mind he was a thousand miles away from Stockbridge already.
Much to his surprise, his investigation of the 52 lost Nostradamus quatrains had moved on by leaps and bounds in the past few weeks, to the extent that he was becoming increasingly eager to test out his new theories in the field. Maybe, just maybe, he could squeeze a book’s worth of material out of the thing without giving anything crucial away.
Sabir realized that only by publishing a rigorously expurgated version of the prophecies – with his own tentative suggestions as to their significance – could he protect both himself and the future of Alexi and Yola’s unborn child. He would, in effect, be conducting a damage limitation exercise in expedient disinformation.
When Captain Joris Calque of France’s Police Nationale had visited him in hospital all those months ago, the man had not come bearing a punnet of grapes. He had come on a fishing expedition for reasons as to why the Countess’s eldest son, Achor Bale, had been pursuing Sabir and his two Gypsy friends, Alexi Dufontaine and Yola Samana, halfway across France with such a murderous and single-minded intensity.
At first, Sabir had refused to enlighten him. Then Calque had reminded him of the sacrifices made by his late assistant, Paul Macron, and by the seriously injured Sergeant Spola in an effort to keep Sabir and his friends alive. Sabir had been forced to acknowledge that Calque had played fair by both him and by Yola and Alexi. At least according to his lights.
Reluctantly, he had taken pity on the man. He had begun by explaining how he believed that Nostradamus’s 52 lost quatrains constituted a 52-year rundown towards the date of a possible Armageddon. And that in his opinion the 52-year cycle had begun in 1960, leading to a possible end date circa 2012. And that this end date corresponded as near as dammit to the Mayan Great Change, which was predicted, according to the Maya Long Count Calendar, to occur on 21 December of that same year.
He had gone on to explain how each quatrain in the cycle appeared to point towards the events in just one specific run-up year. The list, in its entirety, covered the first French nuclear test in Algeria, the serial end of the French and British Empires, the Berlin Wall, Yuri Gagarin’s trip into space, the Kennedy brothers’ assassinations, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the Arab/Israeli Six Day War, the US Defeat in Vietnam, the Cambodian Genocide, the Mexico City earthquake, the First and Second Gulf Wars, the 9/11 Twin Towers Disaster, the New Orleans Floods and the Indian Ocean Tsunami.
According to Sabir’s theory of Nostradamus’s intentions, as each event unfolded just as the seer had predicted, the exact End date of the cycle would, in consequence, became ever more firmly fixed in people’s minds. This would then enable the world’s population to come to terms with what awaited them and – if at all possible – do something about it. This part of Nostradamus’s master plan had not worked out quite as the seer intended.
Instead of being one amongst millions in on the secret, Sabir was now the only man on earth who knew that the prophecy earmarked for the present year purported to describe the location of a new visionary who would either confirm or deny the end date – a person capable, like Nostradamus, of seeing into the future and channelling the information found there. Only this person could tell the world what awaited it – regeneration or apocalypse.
The final-but-one prophecy in the 52-year cycle went on to describe the birth and identity of the Second Coming and his symbolic role against the Antichrist. It described how the knowledge of the birth of the Second Coming would dilute the Antichrist’s power, and make him vulnerable. And how this knowledge would gather together both believers and non-believers in a tidal wave of righteousness combating the forces of evil.
This information Sabir kept rigorously to himself. There clearly had to be a reason why Nostradamus had given his prophecies to the Gypsies for safekeeping, and that reason was that the Second Coming, ergo the Parousia, was due to be born of the direct line of the guardians of the prophecies.
This child was now on the way, and Yola, Sabir’s blood sister, was to be its mother. She had conceived the child on the beach at Cargese, in Corsica, after her notional – although entirely voluntary – kidnap by her long-time sweetheart, Alexi Dufontaine. Yola had confided to Sabir that she had conceived the child at the exact moment she lost her virginity, just as a flight of ducks had cast their shadow over the mating couple. Later, after Alexi had symbolically plucked out her eyes – Yola had used the Gypsy euphemism for female sexual ecstasy when describing the event – a male dog had run up to her on the beach and had licked her hand. This was how she knew their child would be a son.
More than four centuries before, Nostradamus had given the Samana family the location and safekeeping of the prophecies precisely in order to protect them from the prophecies’ unintended consequences. The fact that the Parousia was to emerge from the most hated, reviled, and discriminated-against portion of the world population – people with no clear land of their own, and no clear identity beyond that which they carried with them – would form a necessary part of the supranational healing process. The Gypsies were a nomadic people, shunned and sidelined by virtually all established cultures. Always the optimist, Nostradamus must have reckoned that if the world were ever to accept a saviour from amongst such a company, it must first – almost by definition – have learned the virtues of tolerance and inclusiveness.
Sabir shook his head in despair. It was clear that the world simply hadn’t come that far yet. Forbearance and inclusiveness were as far off the agenda as they had been in Nostradamus’s time. People paid lip service to ideas of colour-blindness, religious tolerance, and fair play, but if ever their own little bailiwicks were threatened, they very swiftly reverted to racial protectionism and national isolationism – ‘strangers out’ still seemed to be the motto in extremis. As a result of this, nothing on earth would ever get Sabir to divulge Yola’s true identity and whereabouts, and through her, the identity of her unborn son. Not to Calque. Not to anybody.
The penultimate prophecy in the cycle went on to describe the Third Antichrist – a being who would, if nothing was done to prevent him, trigger 2012’s final holocaust. That, too, needed to be kept secret.
But Sabir had to have something to sell to his publishers and the public at large. A suitable hook on which to hang his story. Or what old-time comedians would have called a shtick.
The safest bet seemed to consist of the narrative of his search for the unique visionary Nostradamus had spoken of in that year’s prophecy. A person apparently so in tune with the matted web of time that they could disentangle its threads and read the future from them.
If this person existed then Sabir would find him. And to heck with the Countess, the Corpus Maleficus, and the de Bale twins.
Sabir straightened up from checking underneath his three-year-old Grand Cherokee. The garage had been locked tight. He didn’t think there had been any way that the twins could have gained access to his vehicle.
Still, forewarned is forearmed. Both Achor Bale and the French police had used electronic tracker systems during their pursuit of Sabir and his friends in France. Sabir had never encountered such systems before that time, but he would certainly not overlook them again. He needed his car to get to the airport, and he needed that car to be clean. The last thing he wanted was for the twins to dog his trail all the way to Saudi Arabia.
He locked and alarmed the garage door behind him and trudged back towards the house. Since the events of the night before he had taken to carrying the shotgun with him wherever he went, trusting that his neighbours wouldn’t think he was partly off his trolley, and call the cops. He’d worked out a possible cover story to deal with that eventuality – something about a rogue opossum that had been eating through his telephone wires – but he hadn’t had cause to try it out on anyone yet, as none of the neighbouring householders appeared to have noticed his new, military-style incarnation.
Once inside the house he flung a few articles of clothing into a carryall, and gathered up his emergency reserve of travellers’ cheques, his credit cards, his passport, and his cell phone charger. Then he stowed the shotgun back on its meat hook in the wine cellar, sealed the house as tightly as he was able, and started back towards the garage.
Halfway there he slowed down, ready to run again. A car was parked outside the garage door, completely blocking the entrance. There was no way on earth the gate could be swung up and over, as it was designed to be.
Sabir looked swiftly behind him. Surely they wouldn’t come at him here, out in the open?
The driver’s door of the car opened, and a familiar face appeared over the lip of the roof-rack.
Sabir dropped his carryall. ‘Captain Calque. Jesus H. Christ. You almost gave me a heart attack. I thought it was the twins again. What the heck are you doing here?’
‘The twins?’ Calque stepped away from the car, his facial expression taking on a new urgency. ‘The twins have been here already? And you are still alive?’
Sabir flashed Calque a look. ‘As luck would have it.’ He picked up his carryall and continued walking. He glanced inside Calque’s car. It was empty. ‘This an official visit of some sort? Tidying up loose ends?’ Sabir was trying hard to make his voice casual. He didn’t want Calque interfering in his plans. Muddying the waters. Queering his pitch for the new book.
Calque allowed his gaze to play up and down the road. He, too, was now busy playing a part. ‘No. I took early retirement. I was invalided out of the service. I’m working on my own time now.’
‘You? Invalided out? That surprises me. I’d have thought they’d have had to tie you to a stretcher and wheel you out of your office in a straitjacket before that ever happened.’ Sabir cocked his head to one side. ‘What are you doing here, anyway? Are you on vacation? Come to see the fall colours, perhaps? And so you just dropped by to see me for old times’ sake?’ He hesitated, frowning. ‘Christ, Calque, you’re not really a leaf peeper, are you?’
Calque shook his head. The sarcastic undertones in Sabir’s voice were unmistakable. He realized he’d have to cut straight to the chase or risk losing him. ‘No. I’m not a leaf peeper, as you so charmingly put it. I came out here to warn you, Sabir. About the twins. And there didn’t seem to be any other way to do it except in person. I assumed, you see, that you would prefer I didn’t contact you through the local constabulary.’ Despite his best efforts, Calque had shifted back into police mode again. ‘Why don’t you leave your damned telephone switched on, man? And why don’t you answer your messages? You must have a death wish.’
Sabir gave a non-committal shrug. Privately, he was more than a little taken aback by Calque’s tone. ‘It’s a long story. Basically, I can’t sleep at night. So during the day I leave everything switched off so that if I do manage to drop off to sleep, the fucking telephone won’t fucking wake me up.’ He hesitated. ‘If this isn’t an official visit, Captain, what is it? And how come you already know about the twins?’
Calque chucked his chin in the direction of his car. ‘Get in and I’ll tell you.’
‘The White Horse Inn? You’re staying at the White Horse inn?’
‘Why is that so strange?’ Calque was concentrating on his driving – he was clearly unused to a manual gear change.
‘Don’t you realize you’ll be paying fall rates?’
‘Fall rates? What are those?’
‘Christ, Calque. Didn’t you hear anything I said to you back there in front of the garage? It’s when the inns and guest houses pump up their prices for the leaf peepers coming in to see the fall colours. You pay maybe 75 per cent over the usual odds.’
Calque shrugged. ‘It was not my idea. It was that of my companion.’
‘Your companion? You’ve come out here with a girlfriend?’
‘In a manner of speaking. Yes.’
Sabir shook his head. He screwed himself nervously around in his seat.
‘It’s all right, Sabir. We aren’t being followed.’
‘You’re sure of that?’
‘I’m a professional. I’ve been watching all the way. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. We’ll stick to the public rooms. We just need to talk, that’s all.’
The two men got out of Calque’s car. The ride to the inn hadn’t taken them more than eight minutes in toto.
Sabir nodded to the desk clerk as they walked through the lobby.
‘They know you here, then?’
‘Calque, I’ve lived here all my life. I was born maybe three miles down the road.’
‘It’s nice to belong someplace.’ Calque’s attention was somewhere else, however. He had seen Lamia seated on one of the lobby sofas, near to an open fire. ‘Come with me. I want you to meet someone.’
When he first caught sight of Lamia’s face Sabir flinched backwards, as though he’d inadvertently stumbled into an electric fence.
Calque turned towards him, shocked. ‘You two already know each other?’
Lamia was staring down at the floor. She was clearly mortified by Sabir’s reaction to her.
Sabir took a deep breath. ‘No. No. We’ve never met. I’m sorry. It was a bit of a shock.’
Lamia looked up. The undamaged part of her face was still flushed from the effect of Sabir’s reaction. ‘I know I’m not pretty to look at, Mr Sabir. But few people respond to me in quite the way you did.’
Sabir could feel Calque’s critical gaze eating through the small of his back. ‘It’s not your face. Please don’t think that.’
‘Then what is it?’
Sabir shook his head. ‘I’ve seen you in a dream. I know it sounds crazy. But it’s true.’
Sabir turned entreatingly towards Calque. ‘Maybe the Captain hasn’t explained to you what happened to me earlier this summer? There’s no reason why, I suppose.’
With a downward thrust of his arm, Calque indicated that Sabir should sit. He was glaring at Sabir as though, given half the chance, he would gladly have smashed one of the hotel chairs over his head. ‘May I introduce Lamia de Bale? Adam Sabir.’
Sabir didn’t sit down. He simply stood and stared down at Calque. ‘De Bale? She’s one of the de Bales? Jesus Christ, Calque. Are you out of your mind?’
Calque made another sharp movement with his hand. ‘Do I look as though I am out of my mind? Do I look as though I am subject to sudden sharp rushes of blood to my brain? Mademoiselle de Bale has been of extraordinary service to me in recent days. She has, as it were, fallen foul of the rest of her family. Her life, like yours, is in imminent danger. So please sit down and make a pretence, at least, of being civilized.’
Sabir dropped onto the chair behind him. He couldn’t take his eyes off Lamia’s face. ‘I’m sorry. I’ve heard of you. Heard your name mentioned. I know who you are now.’
Lamia let an embarrassed hand flutter in front of her cheek. ‘Well that’s all right then. Would you like me to veil myself, perhaps? Like a Muslim woman? Then you wouldn’t have to stare at me quite so hard.’
Sabir shook his head violently. ‘I’m sorry. Desperately sorry. But it’s not what you’re thinking. Ever since early this summer – ever since I was involved with your brother…’
‘Ever since you killed my brother, you mean?’
Sabir glanced away. To a third party it might have looked as though he were searching for an elusive waiter. But Sabir was merely trying to regain his sang-froid. To stop the sudden rush of panic that threatened to overwhelm him. To regain some measure of control over the still visceral memories of what Bale had done to him.
He turned back and met Lamia’s gaze full on. ‘Ever since I killed your brother, yes. That’s technically true. I did kill him. If I hadn’t killed him, he would have killed me. Where I come from that’s called justifiable homicide, Mademoiselle de Bale.’
‘My name is Lamia, not Mademoiselle de Bale. And believe me, Mr Sabir, I don’t blame you in any way at all for killing my stepbrother. He was a rabid dog. And I hated him for it.’
Sabir felt as if he were floundering in an unfamiliar ocean, far out of his depth, in a rapidly encroaching riptide. ‘I’m sorry. Really sorry that it had to end that way.’
‘I am not.’
Sabir stared desperately at Calque. He no longer had the remotest idea what was expected of him. Or why Calque had brought him into this mess.
‘Your dream. You were telling us of your dream, Sabir.’
Sabir tried to gather himself together. ‘Yes. Yes I was.’ The words came out explosively, like a sneeze. ‘Ever since I was in the cellar. Or in the cesspit rather. Ever since I thought that I would suffocate to death, in other words, I have been having these dreams. Well, they’re nightmares, really. In which I’m quite literally torn apart.’ Sabir’s voice trailed off. He was making no sense and he knew it. ‘And then my head is eaten by a snake. Then I become the snake.’ He had begun to sweat. ‘It’s crazy. I really can’t describe it. But I have them pretty much every night. They’re so bad I can’t sleep. That’s how come your twin brothers didn’t get me when they broke into my house last night. I get claustrophobic – so most every night I check out of the main house and go over to sleep in the summer house. It’s open out there. I can see the sky. I can breathe.’
‘You mean they entered the house when you were already outside? In the garden hut?’
‘Yes. Crazy, isn’t it? I even left the back door unlocked. Later, when they switched on a light, thinking I wasn’t anywhere about, I managed to get the drop on them with my father’s empty shotgun.’
‘You managed to get the drop on them? With an empty shotgun?’ Calque seemed to be having difficulty conjuring up a sufficiently lurid image of the event. ‘You held up the de Bale twins with an empty shotgun?’
‘You see, no one can tell whether a shotgun is empty or not. It’s not like a revolver, where you can see the shells. Or lack of them.’
‘I understand the constitution of a shotgun, Sabir.’
‘Well, anyway, as part of this dream I see a woman. She has her back to me. You’ve got to imagine that I’m the snake by now, and I’m approaching her. My mouth is hanging open. I’m going to take this woman’s head in my mouth, just like the snake did with me. Then at the very last moment the woman turns around. And she has your face, Mademoiselle de Bale.’
‘You mean exactly? With my birthmark? With my blemish?’
‘Yes. She has a blemish, if that’s what you want to call it, just like yours. At first I thought it was blood. All along, really, I’ve thought it was blood.’
‘And now you realize it isn’t?’
‘Yes. Now I realize it isn’t.’ Sabir looked down. He understood only too well how badly he had hurt the woman. That he had damaged her in some invisible way. In his head, though, he was still torn between his horror that she was Achor Bale’s sister, and his fascination that she seemed to have rejected the de Bale camp and joined the side of the angels – e.g. him and Calque.
‘And what happens to this woman who looks so much like me? In your dream, I mean.’
Sabir closed his eyes. Then he opened them again and stared directly at Lamia. ‘She opens her mouth – wider even than the snake was able to open its mouth – and she swallows me whole.’
‘Saudi Arabia? You can’t be serious?’
Sabir threw himself back in his chair. ‘You bet I’m serious. I’ve looked into this every which way there is to look, and the quatrain seems to point directly there.’
‘Would you be prepared to share your logic with us?’ Twice, now, Calque had reached for his cigarettes, and then replaced them in his pocket after reproving glances from the inn staff.
Sabir glanced at Lamia.
She caught the glance, and made as if to stand up. ‘Would you rather I left the room? I can fully understand if you still don’t feel, despite Captain Calque’s assurances, that I am an entirely trustworthy companion.’
Sabir waved her back down again. ‘Stay right where you are.’ He caught Calque’s eye and shrugged. ‘There’s no way you could possibly know this, but before I got the drop on your brothers, I listened in on their private conversation. A full couple of minutes of it. And together with what they told me later, it soon became clear to me that they think you betrayed them, Mademoiselle de Bale. In fact they think that – via our friend Calque here – you warned me directly about their coming. And that, to put it mildly, they don’t like you for it.’
‘But she did.’ Calque squirmed forward in his seat. ‘That’s exactly what she did do. She told me of her brothers’ mission. In good time for me to warn you. If ever you’d bothered to pick up your phone, that is, or taken an interest in your messages.’
‘ Touche, Captain.’
‘And I’ve not told you how I found her yet. What her family were about to do to her.’
‘You don’t need to. Her brothers’ words were good enough for me. You can’t fake attitudes like that. Mademoiselle de Bale is welcome to sit in on our conversation if she wants to.’ Sabir was aware that part of him was endeavouring, via a studied politeness, to compensate the woman for his blundering faux pas about her face and the disturbing content of his dream. Another part of him recognized that Calque had obviously committed himself to her in some way – heck, didn’t he have an errant daughter hidden away somewhere? Maybe she reminded him of her? – and that he still owed Calque.
‘Why did you let the twins get away? They were in your house illegally. Why didn’t you simply call the police?’
Sabir shook his head. ‘They were playing with me. They knew I wouldn’t shoot. They brazened it out, making it clear there’d been no breaking and entering of any sort. That I didn’t have a leg to stand on in terms of the cops. Then, when they’d worked out to their satisfaction how I’d managed to avoid their little trap, they left.’
‘You let them leave? Just like that?’
‘What was I going to do, Calque? Toss the shotgun at them? If you ask me, they’re holding fire until they can corner me somewhere private and wring out everything I know. When I haven’t got a shotgun in my hand, maybe.’ Sabir shrugged. ‘Things might pan out a little differently that time.’
‘Sabir was warned, Madame. I’m certain of it. The American knew we were coming. He was hiding outside the house with a shotgun. When we switched on the lights, thinking he was no longer there, he knew exactly where to find us.’
‘You think Lamia warned him? Through Calque?’
‘I’m convinced of it.’
‘Why didn’t he involve the police, then?’
‘He was scared to, Madame. We had entered his house through an open door – he slipped up on that one. Given that fact, and the existing relationship between our two families, he would have been hard put to accuse us of robbery. I think we can call this first round something of a stalemate.’
‘What are you going to do now, Abiger?’
‘We’ve flushed him out, Madame. He will go on the run now. We must follow him.’
‘Have you tagged his car?’
‘Impossible, Madame. He has it sealed up tight. And the garage is alarmed. When he leaves, he will leave fast.’
‘She is here with the policeman. They are all three sitting in the public rooms of the White Horse Inn. We can’t even get close.’
‘Will you be able to follow him?’
‘Of course, Madame.’
‘Abiger, you are talking arrant nonsense. Two men cannot follow a man twenty-four hours by twenty-four. It’s an impossibility. And once you’ve lost him, he is lost for good. I am sending your brothers and sisters over to help you.’
‘But, Madame ‘Be quiet, Abiger. I want to know exactly what he does, and why he is doing it. It’s not enough simply to deal with him any more in the way we discussed previously. There’s more involved. We’ve got Calque to deal with too. So all eleven of you will conduct a full surveillance on the three of them – if they split up, all well and good. If they stay together, even better. I want to know everything they do – everywhere they go. And I shall decide when it is the right moment for you to strike, Abiger, not you. Have I made myself clear?’
There was a brief hesitation.
‘Have I made myself clear, Abiger?’
‘Yes, Madame. But I’m still running this operation, aren’t I? I’m still in charge?’
‘Until I decide otherwise. Yes, Abiger. You are.’
At first, you were lucky. The travelling went well. A man taking chayotes down to Veracruz gave you a lift in his truck. Through Orizaba and Cordoba, as far as La Tinaja. He dropped you off there, and you stood on the Tierra Blanca road for three hours, hoping for another lift. But no one stopped. Everyone was going the other way. Towards the volcano. In order to see the free show, you supposed.
It was then you began walking. You had money for food, but not for buses. But there was no hurry. The volcano had done its worst. No one had been killed. A number of villages close to the summit had been damaged, some by lava, some by dust, but the people had had ample time to evacuate, even when on foot. Now the State had promised to rebuild their homes. All this you had heard on the radio of the truck.
The State was indeed a powerful thing, you said to yourself. When things went badly, it was the State which put things right. You did not fully understand this, nor how the State functioned, but you suspected that its benevolence was, as it were, inbuilt. That things had always been like that.
You clutched the thin cotton bag that held the codex to your chest. You were hungry. In the excitement of the eruption, and of knowing that you had a job to do, you had forgotten to eat. Now you stopped at a roadside shack and bought some tacos. You ate half the tacos immediately, and secured the remaining ones in a piece of rough paper for later. You suspected that you might have to sleep out in the open, and for this you would need energy.
You drank some Coca Cola for your stomach, and because, amongst your people, it was sometimes offered as a gift in the church. Somewhere, far back in your mind, you wondered how you would manage to live when you reached your destination, and the little money you had was exhausted. You had never been outside your own province before. What if there was no one there to welcome you? What if you were not expected? Perhaps, then, you should ask the State for help? But you did not know how to contact the State, or how to communicate with it. Perhaps, being all-powerful, it would try to take the codex away from you? Which would leave you with no function. With no reason to live.
No. You must keep away from the State. Something would arise. Someone would recognize you. The protection of the codex had gone on for far too long, and for far too many generations, to mean nothing at all.
‘Why are you doing this, Sabir? Why are you still sticking your neck out in this way? What’s in it for you?’
Calque had an unlit cigarette dangling out of his mouth. He had come to a grudging understanding with the staff of the inn that he wouldn’t, under any circumstances, actually light it, but simply suck on it for the taste of the tobacco. Lamia had had to do the translating for him, because Calque’s mastery of the English language was marginally inferior to that of the average first-grader.
‘But I thought you knew? I’m in it for the money.’
‘Look, Calque. You’d better get one thing straight. The only reason I responded to Samana’s ad last May was because I thought there was a book’s worth of material in it. I write books. And I live off the money I make from writing them. I’ve put nearly six months of work into this project already. It’s cost me the ability to sleep for more than two hours at a stretch. It’s cost me part of my ear. And it’s turned me into a killer. Beyond that, I’ve been chased and intimidated and shot at, and an attempt has even been made to bury me alive. People have threatened to castrate me. I’ve had knives thrown at me. An effort has been made to burn down my house. The French police, in the guise of your good self, have even had me on their Most Wanted list. I think I’m entitled to some comeback after all that – some sort of a quid pro quo. And I am finally beginning to figure out a way to get it.’
‘Saudi Arabia, you mean?’
‘Listen. The prophecy talks of the eruption of a “Great Volcano”. A man, “Ahau Inchal Kabah”, lives in the country of this volcano. This man is capable of looking into the future. Through him, the world will know whether 21 December 2012 will bring the feared Armageddon, or the beginning of a major new spiritual era.’
‘Why Saudi Arabia?’
‘It sounds simple. But it’s taken me weeks to work out. The key word is “Kabah”. This obviously relates to the Kaaba, or the House of Allah – the most sacred site in Islam. I mean the spelling is pretty much exact, isn’t it, give or take an extra a at the beginning and an h tacked on at the end? The Kaaba building is more than two thousand years old – meaning Nostradamus would certainly have known of it. And every Muslim, wherever they are in the world, turns towards the Kaaba when they pray. Next we have “Inchal”. The Muslims traditionally call the Will of Allah, Insha’Allah – pretty close, wouldn’t you say? With all that in hand, I went to check on what Nostradamus calls the “land of the Great Volcano”. I immediately found another link to Saudi Arabia. I now believe the Great Volcano to be the 5,722-foot-high Harrat Rahat, which last erupted in 1256, its lava flow travelling to within three miles of the holy city of Medina. Many think that this volcano is the actual location of Mount Sinai. Exodus 19:18 describes it as “And Mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly”.’
Calque glanced across at Lamia. Then he turned to Sabir. ‘Has this volcano erupted recently?’
Sabir made a face. ‘Not in the last 950 years, no, it hasn’t. I acknowledge that. But then some scholars think Mount Sinai is actually Mount Bedr – or Hala-’l Badr.’
‘I suppose that one has erupted?’
Sabir was beginning to lose his temper. ‘No. No, it hasn’t. Not yet.’
‘But you’re living in expectation?’
‘Well, Nostradamus can’t be expected to get everything right, can he?’
‘And the word “Ahau”? What about that?’
‘I can’t get a handle on that one. It doesn’t seem to be an Arabic word at all.’
Calque glanced back at Lamia. ‘Shall we tell him? Shall we enlighten our intrepid researcher? Who obviously doesn’t bother to listen to the news, just as he doesn’t bother to answer his telephone?’
Lamia returned Calque’s look. ‘Why tell him? We don’t need him any more. Probably better that we let him swan off to Saudi Arabia, as he intends – that way he can draw my brothers after him, leaving us free to head down to Mexico unmolested.’
Sabir was looking from one to the other of them as if he suspected that he was the victim of some elaborate practical joke. ‘Mexico? What are you people talking about?’
‘Seriously, Sabir. Are you a complete technophobe? Have you really not listened to the news for the past few days?’ Calque had chewed his existing cigarette into a pulpy mash. He snatched the opportunity to replace it with a fresh coffin nail.
The clerk behind the front desk did a quick double take, and then studiously avoided looking in Calque’s direction, through fear, Sabir supposed, of triggering an embarrassing confrontation with his only non-English-speaking guest.
Sabir sensed that he was being set up for a fall – he remembered Calque’s intellectual vanity from their last meeting, and did not relish a return performance. ‘Who the heck are you calling a technophobe, Captain? I seem to recall your refusing to use a cell phone on more than one occasion, much to the frustration of your second-in-command.’
‘My question remains the same.’
Sabir drew himself up. ‘Okay. You’re right. I haven’t been following the news these past few days. I’ve been in a bad place in my head. And I’ve been working way too hard on my Saudi Arabia theory. I really don’t see why you guys are so fired up about Mexico, though, just because “Ahau” is a Maya sun god. Anyway, that’s Ahau-kin. Or Kinich Ahau, depending on context. You see. I’ve done my homework there too.’
Calque settled back in his chair, unlit cigarette dangling, a Cheshire Cat grin on his face. ‘If you’d bothered to turn on your television set for just two minutes in the past twenty-four hours, you couldn’t have avoided seeing that the Pico de Orizaba, otherwise known as the Volcan Citlaltepetl, has just erupted. We saw the news report on the plane coming over. I would say that that is your Great Volcano, not the Harrat Rahat or the Hala-’l Badr. Wouldn’t you?’
‘Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl are the two great volcanoes of Mexico. Everybody knows that. Why should this Orizaba hill transmogrify into the Great Volcano just because it’s picked this particular moment in history to erupt?’
‘Why?’ Calque raised an eyebrow. ‘Because it dwarfs the other two volcanoes, that’s why. Orizaba is over 5,600 metres high – that’s nearly 18,500 feet to you Yankees. That makes it seven hundred feet higher than its nearest rival. And it looks like a volcano, man. It sits there, just like Mount Fuji, looking exactly like a great volcano should – I mean with a caldera, and snow on its peak, and a sneer on its face. Except that it’s more than 6,000 feet higher than Mount Fuji, and it’s a stratovolcano, just like Mount Mahon, Mount Vesuvius, and Stromboli. And it knocks your two Saudi Arabian volcanoes into a cocked hat.’
‘All right, Calque. I’m impressed. You’ve earned your kewpie doll.’
‘Forget it. It was just a turn of phrase. But you got one detail wrong, Calque. Mount Fuji’s a stratovolcano too.’ Sabir became aware that Lamia was glaring at him, as if the grilling he was undergoing constituted some sort of indefinable test. He instantly regretted the stratovolcano jibe. He’d been trying to score cheap points off Calque in an effort to cover up his embarrassment at being so spectacularly wrong-footed. And now Lamia knew about his insecurities as well. Well, there was nothing like a critical female audience to cement a man’s public humiliation. ‘What about Inchal and Kabah, then? What of them?’
Lamia stood up. ‘Give me five minutes.’ She walked across to the desk.
Sabir raised an eyebrow. ‘What’s that all about?’
Calque shrugged. ‘Search me.’ He mashed his latest unsmoked cigarette onto the tabletop in front of him and reached for another.
Lamia sat down beside the men. During her absence, Sabir had ordered coffee, and now she busied herself ‘being mother’, an elusive smile hovering about her face.
‘Well who’s going to be the first to ask, then?’ Sabir was still feeling slightly sick that he might, at this very moment, have been jetting off towards Saudi Arabia, if Calque and Lamia hadn’t happened by.
There was silence. Calque and Lamia sipped their coffee.
‘Okay. I’ll admit it. I ballsed-up. I was on the total wrong track. But I still don’t get the “Inchal” bit. Or why “Kabah” doesn’t apply to the Kaaba.’
Lamia glanced up. ‘I’ve just been using the hotel’s internet connection. I typed in “Kabah”. With an h. Just as you tell us it’s written in Nostradamus’s prophecy. Number two on the list of Google hits, after the Kaaba, takes you straight to Kabah, a Maya site down in the Yucatan. Kabah means “strong hand”, or, in its original form, Kabahaucan, a “royal snake in the hand”. The place is famous for the Codz Poop – the Palace of the Masks – in which hundreds of stone masks dedicated to the long-nosed rain god, Chaac, stretch along a massive stone facade. Chaac, if you don’t know it, is also the god of thunder, lightning, and rain, and he is considered capable of causing volcanic eruptions with his lightning axe.’
‘Jesus.’ Sabir had always known he possessed a single-track mind. But his recent inability to think laterally constituted something of a record, even for him.
‘The word “Inchal” was harder. At first, I only came up with a place in India, with no link at all to the Maya. In the end I decided to play around with it a little, and came up with “Chilan”.’
‘And what the heck is a Chilan when it’s at home?’
‘It’s a Maya priest. The word actually means an “interpreter”, a “mouthpiece”, or a “soothsayer”. The Chilans were responsible for teaching the sciences, appointing holy days, treating the sick, offering sacrifices, and acting as the oracles of the gods.’
‘And Chilans traditionally wore the “Ahau”, which is the Maya sun belt. The word also means “Lord” in Maya. So Nostradamus’s phrase “Ahau Inchal Kabah”, and his insistence that this person, blessed with the ultimate gift of prophecy, lives in the land of the “Great Volcano”, is so far from implying a place in Saudi Arabia, that it almost beggars belief how you could ever have allowed yourself to be so disastrously sidetracked, Mr Sabir.’
Sabir leaned forward and placed his head in his hands.
Calque squirmed deliriously in his seat. ‘Don’t tell me, Sabir. You haven’t been sleeping recently. Your brain is not functioning to quite its usual standard.’ The ex-policeman was enjoying himself. He was behaving as if he had somehow magicked Lamia out of his jacket pocket and presented her, in triumph, to a wildly applauding gallery.
‘Don’t rub it in, Calque. You’re beginning to sound like Svengali.’
Calque glanced towards Lamia. ‘What do you think? Shall we let him travel with us? Or shall we go it alone? We have all the material we need.’
‘Oh really?’ Sabir sat up straighter. ‘You’ve got everything you need?’
Calque hesitated for a moment. ‘Yes. I think we have.’
Lamia rolled her eyes.
‘You’ve got the full text of Nostradamus’s quatrain, have you? Including the key indicator of where to look for this man once you get to Kabah?’
Calque fiddled with his unlit cigarette.
‘Well you don’t need me any more, then, do you?’ Sabir stood up. ‘But if you should happen to change your minds, you can probably catch me any time within the next half hour. My house. A silver Grand Cherokee. After that I’m gone. Out of here. Capeesh, wiseasses?’
Sabir didn’t pull off his ‘leaving in a snit’ stunt. He was dealing, after all, with two companions to whom – due to either familial or professional habit – compromise was a sine qua non.
Whilst he refused point blank to cough up the key part of the quatrain that referred to the actual whereabouts of Nostradamus’s Ahau Inchal Kabah, he did agree that the three of them might, at the very least, pool their resources and travel together. It had become blindingly clear to him, over the past few hours, that three minds were a heck of a lot better than one.
‘I vote we fly down to Cancun, and then hire a car from there. That way we can be there in less than a day.’
Lamia and Calque exchanged glances.
‘What is it? What am I missing this time?’
‘You’re missing my twin brothers.’ Lamia glanced across at Calque.
Calque nodded his head in agreement. ‘Airports are our worst bet. They’re too easy to monitor. Flight plans and passenger lists are easily obtainable, if one has either the money or the connections. And Lamia’s brothers have both. Plus these days most hire cars come with either satellite navigation systems or inbuilt trackers. Meaning that they can be followed, and their exact whereabouts pinpointed. Hire companies do it to protect their investments.’
‘So what are you saying?’
‘That we ought to go in your car. And that we ought to drive down.’
‘Drive down? Jesus. Do you know how long that would take? It’s better than three thousand miles. And I’m probably underestimating.’
‘Are we in any hurry? Is there a deadline for this thing?’
Sabir shrugged. ‘No. I suppose not.’
‘And we will be three. To share the driving.’
Sabir nodded. ‘There is that. But it sticks in my craw to base our plans on the probable antics of a couple of high-class hoodlums. Sorry, Lamia. But you know what I’m getting at, don’t you?’
Calque intervened before Lamia had time to answer. ‘Ever since I’ve known you, Sabir, you’ve manifested one fatal, but nevertheless entirely consistent, flaw. You’ve always underestimated your opponents. It’s almost a sickness with you.’ Sabir tried to break in, but Calque overrode him. ‘I don’t know anything about these boys beyond what Lamia has told me, but that’s enough to give me pause. They are Achor Bale’s brothers, in the name of God. They come from the same nursery. They’ve suckled at the same diabolical teat.’ Calque was getting into his stride. ‘Unlike Lamia, they have never had doubts about their vocation. They know what they want, and they are prepared to do whatever it takes to get it. I spoke to the Countess two days ago. I was in her presence, Sabir. She is without doubt the most terrifying human being it has ever been my misfortune to meet. She’s worse than any politician, in that she knows she’s right – she doesn’t just act out the role, she is the role. You killed her son, man. You alone have the information that she and the Corpus Maleficus seek. Take my word for it – the Countess is going to allow nothing, Sabir, but nothing, to get between her people and you.’
‘Madame Mastigou has arranged the flight plans, Abiger. Your brothers and sisters will be arriving at New York’s JFK airport in eight hours’ time. They will each have a rental car at their individual disposal. You will keep in touch by cell phone. I will suggest to the others that they buy pay-as-you-go, to avoid any public record of their calls. They can contact you from the airport and you can exchange numbers. Then you and Vau must dump your old phones and buy new ones too.’
‘What if our trio head north?’
‘Then you will head north after them, and your brothers and sisters can catch up with you later.’
‘You’re assuming they are going to travel by car.’
‘No I’m not. But if they’re taking a plane, they won’t leave from a local airport. Calque’s no fool. He knows that airports have gaping holes in them in terms of security. Sabir will try to shake you first. Then he’ll aim for a hub airport with a lot of traffic. Somewhere like O’Hare, Baltimore, or Boston. Trusting that he can lose himself in the crowd.’
‘Wouldn’t it be better for us just to take them all here? Ambush them nearby? I can’t see Sabir carrying his shotgun with him in the vehicle. Too risky. We could bundle them off to a deserted barn somewhere and sweat them for the information we need.’
‘No. Sabir’s been forewarned, thanks to your and Vau’s mistake. He’ll have covered his tracks already. Destroyed all written documentation. The man has a memory like an elephant, or so I understand from certain sources in America that I’ve paid for information about him.’
‘Ah. I see.’ His mother had wrong-footed him again. Abiger could feel the resentment eating away at his guts.
‘In addition, I think it extremely unlikely that he will have told Lamia and Calque any more than he feels they need to know. So he’s still our primary link to the whereabouts of the Second Coming. And to the possible identity of the Third Antichrist. The man carries it all about with him in his head. If he’s backed into a corner he’s perfectly capable of sacrificing himself for some perceived greater good – he’s just that sort of bleeding heart. Remember what he did to my darling Rocha? The man’s morbidly claustrophobic, but still he managed to figure out a way to get back at Rocha and kill him. He looks soft, but he has a core of steel. No, I’d rather he leads us inadvertently to wherever he is going. It’s better like that.’
‘If you say so, Madame.’
‘I say so, Abiger.’
‘Are they still behind us?’
‘They’re still behind us. And making no attempt whatsoever to hide themselves.’
The trio had just passed through Scranton, and were now on the thruway towards Harrisburg, heading south.
‘What if we head towards Miami, and not towards Texas, as we decided? There must be a ferry of some sort from Florida to Campeche? Or to Veracruz? Or even to Cancun?’ Calque was feeling irritable. He had come to a grudging understanding with Lamia and Sabir that every hour, on the hour, he could crack open a widow and smoke a cigarette. But he needed more than one cigarette an hour to feel like a human being. He glanced surreptitiously at his watch to see if his hour was up. ‘It would save us three days’ driving.’
‘And it would set us up as sitting targets. While we move, we’re safe.’ Sabir glanced over his shoulder. ‘Smoke your damned cigarette, Calque. You may not realize it, but you’re kicking the back of my seat about eighty times a minute.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry.’ Calque speared the window button with his finger. ‘I do get nervous when I’m thinking things through.’ He lit his cigarette and inhaled deeply. ‘And I’m thinking things through now.’ He allowed the cigarette smoke to trickle luxuriously through his nostrils. ‘So what are we going to do tonight?’
Sabir turned to Lamia. ‘You tell me your brothers won’t give up without a fight?’
‘That’s an understatement.’
‘Then what do you think they are waiting for? Why are they holding back?’
‘Just as you said. While we’re moving, we’re safe. But the minute we stop, we’re vulnerable. And we’re particularly vulnerable at night. I assume you don’t intend to sleep in the car?’
‘No. Of course not.’
‘Then it seems we have only one choice.’
‘And what is that?’
‘We have to lose them before we bed down for the night.’
‘It’s three in the afternoon. By nine o’clock this evening we’ll be well beyond Harrisburg. If we don’t intend to drive all night, we’ll have to come up with a plan before that.’
‘Great. Any ideas anyone?’
Calque had finished his cigarette. He threw the used butt out of the window. His face wore a placid expression, as if he had just taken a hit of raw opium, and not a toke or two of flue-cured Virginia tobacco. ‘I have a plan.’
Sabir glanced in the rear-view mirror. The twins’ car was keeping station a steady third of a mile behind them. ‘Okay. Give.’
‘Ah. Your elegant American expressions. How poorly they translate into French.’
Sabir understood what Calque meant. Translate most American expressions into French and they sounded abrupt – lacking in politeness. French was a language in which requests, and even orders, were customarily couched in velvet. Sabir decided to wind Calque up a bit. ‘Esteemed Captain Calque. Mademoiselle Lamia and I would very much appreciate hearing your proposal to rid us of the unwanted attentions of Mademoiselle Lamia’s mortiferous twin brothers. In addition, any light that you may be able to shed on their possible future plans would be very welcome indeed. Suffice it to say…’
There was an amused silence in the car while Calque gathered his wits about him. ‘All right. I have my plan. I am ready to give it to you.’
‘Excellent. What is it?’
‘It involves taking three separate motel rooms. One for you. One for me. And one for Lamia.’
‘And to heck with budgetary constraints?’
‘Sabir, you are not endearing yourself to me by this levity.’
‘We take three motel rooms. We enter them, leaving the car out front. But not for long. Soon I exit from my room and get into the car. I drive off. Now, because I am not important to them, the twins will continue watching the two remaining motel rooms. Sabir must then go and knock on Lamia’s door. She must let him in. Her brothers will draw the obvious conclusions. Am I correct?’
‘No. You are not correct.’ Lamia was curled up on the front seat, her stockinged feet tucked beneath her. ‘My brothers are fully aware that my love life is close to non-existent. They tease me endlessly about it, in that endearing way they have. The idea of my having an affair with Monsieur Sabir within a day of meeting him would strike them as so preposterous that they would probably come barging straight in simply out of curiosity.’
‘Oh.’ Calque seemed just a little nonplussed, as if one of his fondest illusions had just been shattered. ‘You really have no love life to speak of? That is outrageous for such a beautiful woman as yourself. I cannot understand it. The men you encounter must be blind.’
Lamia reached behind herself and felt for his hand. Calque brought her fingers lightly to his lips.
‘So what were you imagining for after Lamia came to my room? Beyond the fake sex, that is?’
‘I was going to suggest that you both exit via a back window, leaving the lights still on and the door locked. With a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on the door handle. Then you both make your way to a pre-arranged rendezvous – a certain number of streets down, say – where I pick you up. Leaving the twins watching a series of empty motel rooms. We drive on for another hundred miles – on minor roads, of course – and only then do we stop for the night.’
Sabir looked at Lamia. ‘Apart from the sex idea, it isn’t bad. I like the bit about Calque taking off in the car, leaving both of us back at the motel. That makes sense. Why don’t we both just climb out of our rooms independently, and forget Calque’s Gallic notions of romance?’
‘We’ll have to find an old-school motel with through rooms.’
Sabir glanced across at Lamia. ‘What do you mean, “through rooms”?’
‘Rooms with back windows. Most modern motels aren’t built like that any more. And they have central parking, anyway. We need an old-style motel, where you park right outside your room.’
Calque leaned forwards. ‘We could do a tour around before we register? Check the layout of the grounds? That’s not so strange, is it? No one would guess what we were looking for.’
‘You know, I think it’s worth a try.’ Sabir glanced at Lamia. ‘What do you think?’
‘I think Captain Calque is what they used to call “a born gentleman”.’
Abiger de Bale glanced at his watch. ‘It’s getting late. How far are the others away?’
Vaulderie consulted his cell phone. ‘I have text messages from Athame, Berith, and Oni, saying they are heading in our direction. Our paths should cross within the next hour. The six others can’t be far behind.’
‘Good. Three is ample.’
‘Why is that?’
‘Because Sabir is going to try to slip the net before nightfall.’
‘How do you work that one out, Abi?’
Abi shrugged. ‘I should have thought it was obvious. Put yourself in their position. They can’t reasonably bed down in security knowing that we are outside watching them. They will fear that we will damage their car. Or set a tracker on it. Maybe even break in on them. That’s their weak spot.’
‘They won’t all be sleeping in the same room?’
‘They’ll be fools if they don’t. And barricade the door to boot. Once they split themselves up and go independent, they are inevitably weaker. They can be picked off one by one.’
‘So what do we do?’
‘Nothing. We let them give us the slip.’
Vau sighed. ‘I don’t get it.’
Abi glanced across at his brother. ‘By the time they settle in for the night, we will have at least four cars following them – three of which they won’t recognize. So we two stay close up front. Make ourselves even more obvious than we have been doing. When they try whatever trick they eventually decide on to give us the slip, we let them think that they have got away with it. Athame, Berith, and Oni can position themselves on every road leading away from the motel. When Sabir drives past them in his beautifully visible Grand Cherokee, they will follow him, not us. They then tell us where they are going, and we join them. Only we’ll have changed our car by then. With any luck, all nine of us will have met up by that point. We then take it in turns to follow them, jockeying positions every twenty minutes or so, so that they never get to see the same car twice. Madame, our mother, has made it clear that we are not to interfere with them in any way whatsoever until they have reached their final destination. If they take a plane, we follow them. If they continue by road, we follow them.’
‘And what about Lamia? What if she recognizes us?’
‘From now on everyone will wear baseball caps. Baseball caps and sunglasses. That way we’ll look really American. Oni can pin his hair back under his cap and use some tanning cream – he’ll look strange, but from a distance, he won’t look like an albino.’
‘We tag along behind. Way back. So that the three of them never have a chance to see us again. And we keep in touch with the others by cell phone.’
‘Are you sure they’re going to try and make a break for it, Abi? Are you certain?’
Calque climbed back inside Sabir’s Grand Cherokee. He spent a little time adjusting the driver’s seat forwards and upwards to meet his requirements. Then he stared at the gear shift. It was manual. Putain de merde. He had a feel around to work out what trick Chrysler had engineered to protect their reverse gear from inadvertent triggering. When he was satisfied that he had mastered it, he backed the car carefully out of the parking lot.
Next time, he thought to himself, we must think ahead – place the car facing out. For a possible quick escape.
No sooner had he formulated the thought than he shook his head wildly to and fro. What am I thinking of? What am I doing? I could be in France now, having dinner at La Reine Margot – cassoulet, followed by cheese and a tarte tatin. Washed down with half a litre of Brouilly and a cafe – calva to follow. Instead, here I am sitting in a strange car, in the northern part of the United States, and all I have inside me is the distant memory of a Wendy’s hamburger and so-called French fries, bought on the trot at a drive-thru so that we wouldn’t be vulnerable for more than six static minutes to the attentions of Lamia’s twin brothers.
Calque drifted onto the main drag. He looked neither to his right nor his left, counting on his peripheral vision to mark the twins’ car and to warn him of the lights of any oncoming vehicles. Yes. There they were. Parked right across the road from the motel, where they could cover the way out and all three motel rooms from the same tactical spot. Calque told himself that the very next time that he and his friends stopped for the night they must Definitely split themselves up in different geographical locations. That was the obvious answer.
He slapped the steering wheel in irritation. No. That wasn’t the answer. That wasn’t a clever idea at all. What they should really do is share a room. There was security in numbers. He wondered what Lamia and Sabir would think of that? Calque was aware that he was lamentably prone to snoring. His late assistant, Paul Macron, used to nudge him awake when they were in the car together, solving the problem like that. Maybe, now that no one was looking over his shoulder, he could buy himself a mask? Surely the Americans would have something on the market to deal with his problem? The last thing he wanted to do was to keep on reminding Lamia that he was in late middle-age, and more than a little out of condition. A man could rely on his wit and intelligence to captivate a woman during the day, but a little more finesse – not to mention realpolitik – was required, unfortunately, at night.
Not that Calque wished to seduce Lamia – far from it. She was thirty years his junior, and very nearly the same age as his daughter – the whole idea was grotesque. But it was clear that she needed protecting from Sabir’s continual litany of gaffes. The man was as unaware of the effect of some of his statements as a six-year-old child. Take that nonsense at the White Horse Inn. No Frenchman would have blundered in like that and drawn attention to the catastrophic blemish on a woman’s face in the first few moments of their acquaintance. No. It would take an American to promote such a faux pas.
Calque knew that Sabir had had a French mother, but he privately decided that she must have become Americanized very quickly indeed for a rustre such as Sabir to be the end product of her childhood educative influence. When it came down to it the man was as American as apple pie. His maternal French blood was clearly little more than an accident of history.
When Calque finally emerged from his daydream, it was to the realization that the twins were not following him. They had remained on station at the motel, just as he had anticipated.
Calque consulted his watch. Yes, the time was right. He made a left, and then another, until he was on the road parallel to that on which the motel was situated. Then he counted four blocks off in his head, following which he hung another left. Yes. This was it. This was the road they had agreed on after consulting the town map kindly provided by the motel management. Lamia and Sabir would be leaving their motel rooms by the back window about now. He was to give them twenty minutes to make their way the four blocks that separated them from the car.
He let the engine run. Best be prepared. There was always the chance that the twins would intervene early. In that case he must be prepared to hurry back to the motel and do what he could to save the situation. Call the police if necessary. Interpose himself between the twins and their victims. He laid the cell phone he had borrowed from Lamia carefully on the seat beside him.
Then he shook his head. What was he thinking of? He had never been a scrapper or a scrimmager – he simply wasn’t cut out for the rough stuff. In fact he found all physical exertion antipathetical in the extreme. Throughout the entire extent of his police career, Calque had never needed to unsheathe his pistol, far less use physical force on anybody. He had always had a plethora of willing – and more or less able – assistants for that.
Lancelot du Lac he was not.
‘Whatever’s going down is going down.’ Vau touched Abi on the shoulder.
Abi, as usual, was taking his sleep where he could. Ever since they were children he had mastered the art of dozing off in the most extreme of circumstances. Once, even, he had fallen asleep in the midst of a burglary. It had been a test run, engineered by their mentor, Joly Arthault, at the instigation of Madame, their mother. Vau had looked around for his brother, only to find him curled up on a sofa in the corner of the living room of the house they were robbing. He had protected his brother’s back on that occasion, too, just as he had done on a thousand other occasions during the course of their childhood and early adolescence.
The twins watched Calque get into the Grand Cherokee, adjust his seat, then back out towards them.
‘Look at him, Vau. The bastard’s pretending we don’t even exist. His head’s frozen in place. He didn’t even check if there was any traffic coming. If we didn’t know he was planning something, we’d sure as hell know now. Doesn’t he realize that people who are plotting stuff should behave and act normally? Not like robots. You’d think a policeman would have a little more sense.’
‘What would we have done? If we hadn’t had back-up?’
‘I’d have got out of the car and stayed here, and you’d have followed him.’
Vau nodded. ‘Oh, I see. That way we could keep them all under surveillance.’
‘That’s it. But now we merely stay here and let him think his little plan is working. I’ve just heard from Rudra and Aldinach. So that means we now have five people in place to shepherd them through when they try to make their break for it.’
‘What will they do? Climb out of the window?’
‘Yes. You saw them checking the place out when they first arrived. They were making sure there was a potential rear exit. As we speak, they are probably bundling their belongings out the back, and dodging and ducking their way out of the rear car park. If I had a warped sense of humour, I’d be tempted to take a turn around the periphery of the motel, just out of spite. See two trails snaking out from underneath a car, and you’d know for certain they’d pissed themselves.’
Sabir dropped his carryall out of the window, and eased himself through after it. Then he waited for Lamia to do the same thing. He was tempted to reach forward and help her as she struggled out of the window, but something prevented him. He still felt raw about his initial blunder about her face, and he sensed that she was, unsurprisingly, not entirely comfortable with him yet.
‘Please. Can you help me?’
Sabir hurried forward. He put one hand on the small of Lamia’s back to steady her, and then half lifted, half carried her, away from the window. She touched the ground very lightly, almost as if she had flown out of his arms.
He glanced down at the ground, disturbed at the effect the close physical proximity to a woman was having on him. For the split second that he been carrying her, he had become more than a little aware of the swell of Lamia’s hips, and the ultra-feminine contour of her buttocks beneath her thin cotton slacks. Now his eyes made their automatic tomcat journey back to her breasts. He could feel himself beginning to salivate. Jesus Christ. Who’d be a man? It was like being harnessed to an out-of-control lawnmower.
Lamia straightened up and smiled at him.
He felt the smile somewhere in the region of his back pocket. Women, he thought to himself. They always know just how to turn it on. It’s a sort of inbuilt instinct. A ‘look at me, I’m here’ sort of instinct. He smiled back despite himself, more susceptible to the feminine than he cared to admit. ‘Come on, we’d better get out of here before they cotton on to what we are doing.’
Sabir grabbed Lamia’s bag alongside his own, and started to edge around the parked cars. Now I’m even carrying her bag, he said to himself. Fantastic. Like an on-the-make schoolboy carrying his girlfriend’s schoolbooks.
They made their way to the outskirts of a nearby motor court, and ducked in between the parked cars.
‘We’ll cut through here, and then down a block, so that there’s no chance at all of them seeing us. Then we cross three blocks over and up a block – Calque ought to be waiting for us.’
‘My brothers aren’t as stupid as you seem to think they are, Monsieur Sabir.’
‘I’m sure they’re not, Lamia. But what are they going to do? If they haven’t followed Calque, it means they’re stuck waiting in front of the motel. If they’ve followed Calque, we aren’t any the worse off than we were before. It’s six of one and half a dozen of the other.’
‘I suppose so.’
‘I know so.’
The hermaphrodite, Aldinach de Bale, was the first one to see the Grand Cherokee.
‘I’ve got them. They’re heading north out of town.’
‘Then follow them.’
‘It’s already in process.’
Aldinach pulled into the stream of late-night traffic heading out of Carlisle, Pennsylvania. At the very last moment, the Grand Cherokee swung across the oncoming traffic flow, and switched its heading to south.
‘They’re heading south now. They’ve switched lanes on the highway.’
‘For Christ’s sake don’t follow them. Oni’s facing in the right direction. They can’t help but come past him. He can pick them up from there. We must let them believe they’ve given us the slip. We want them relaxed and at ease.’
Aldinach continued on the way he was going. Only when he was a mile or so down the road, and well out of sight of the Grand Cherokee, did he switch lanes and head south too. He had a sudden, amusing picture in his head of one of those cable-channel helicopter camera shots of an endless trail of cars following the as yet unaware silver Grand Cherokee.
He wondered idly what sort of journey Sabir had in store for them. It looked like south. And Aldinach liked south. He liked the heat, and the opportunity to dress as a woman. In the north, he stuck to his masculine identity, because it seemed more appropriate. But in the south, he was very definitely a girl.
‘That’s it. We’ve lost them.’ Calque was rather keen to pass the driving over to Sabir, but didn’t quite know how to engineer it. He desperately needed a cigarette, and didn’t fancy driving a monster like the Cherokee with only one hand on the steering wheel.
‘Do you want me to take over the driving?’
Calque grinned. ‘That would be excellent. Excellent. And do you think, now that we’re finally clear of the twins, that we could stop somewhere for some real dinner? I don’t know about you, but my stomach is reminding me every instant that it has not eaten since approximately two o’clock this afternoon.’
‘Great. We’ll stop at a Wendy’s.’
‘No!’ It was almost a scream. A cold sweat had broken out on Calque’s face. ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to shout. But surely, if we park around the back, we could find a nice little family restaurant, serving local, homemade food.’
Sabir looked at Calque as if he had taken leave of his senses. ‘It’s eleven o’clock in the evening, Captain. And we’re in the United States. People eat at seven o’clock here. You’ll be lucky to find even a diner open at this hour of the night.’
‘A diner. A diner, then.’ Calque had a sudden mental image of a whole series of 1940s Hollywood films in which either Robert Mitchum or Humphrey Bogart sat in one of these so-called diners, eating homemade pie with coffee.
‘Okay. A diner. But it’ll still mean a burger and fries. You realize that?’ Sabir understood Calque’s recalcitrance only too well, but he had decided to enjoy himself a little at the Frenchman’s expense. He hadn’t entirely forgiven Calque for humiliating him in front of Lamia over the matter of her birthmark, and for being so damned cute with his theories on the land of the great volcano.
‘A burger and fries? You cannot be serious? This is grotesque.’
‘Don’t worry, Calque. Things will pick up when we get to Mexico. You’ll be able to last another three days or so on a typical US diet, won’t you?’
Calque gave him a sickly grin. ‘Three days? On burgers and fries? I might last, but my liver will not.’
At first you had a good run of it. Two lifts in as many hours. The first to Loma Bonita, in a feed truck, and the second as far as Isla Juan. Then the lifts dried up.
You slept that night in a roadside coffee plantation, under a banana tree. You wrapped yourself in your mother’s rebozo, which you had brought along in the absence of any other form of portable sleeping cover. You kept your machete clasped tightly to your side, in case you encountered a rabid dog, a snake, a rat, or a black widow spider.
You slept well, despite the cold. In the early morning, when you woke up, you had no idea where you were, nor exactly how far it was to the Palace of the Masks. Someone you asked had told you six days. But then when you had asked them if that was by bus, or by car, or by horse, they were unable to answer you. All you knew was that you must head south – south all the time – keeping the coast always on your left. When you were near Campeche, then that would be the time to ask. Someone would doubtless point you in the right direction then.
You had grown up believing in a greater power – a power which you served, and which you therefore obeyed, as any servant should. This power would protect you if it chose, and it would allow you to die if that was its will. Asi es la vida. ‘That is how life is.’ Pointless to fight against it. Pointless to argue.
What you were doing now was at the behest of this power. Your family had been chosen to guard the codex. Your grandfather told you how the original guardians – the ones who had saved the codex from the vengeful ignorance of the Spanish priests – had ultimately paid the price with their lives. He had told you, too, of how his father had come by the codex from the hands of a dying man. How he had been forced to promise this man, upon pain of damnation, that he would protect the codex, and not give it up to the Spanish. Or else they would burn it, as they had with all the other great books of the Maya priests.
‘But I am not Maya,’ your great grandfather had said. ‘I am part Totonaca and part Spanish. I understand nothing of this. We do not even believe in the same God as you.’
‘There is only one God,’ said the dying man. ‘And everyone believes in Him. It is only the names that differ, and that cause strife.’
‘But when must I take it? And to whom?’
‘You, or your son, or your grandson, or even his son, must wait until the great volcano blooms once again with fire. That will be your signal. Then you must take the codex from this cave and travel south, to the Palace of the Masks. A sign will be given to you there.’
‘But where is this palace?’
‘In Kabah. Near Campeche. I will draw you a map in my blood. This you will pass down alongside the codex. There is a sign on it. See? I have drawn it here. It will be recognized.’
Now you took out the map and laid it carefully on the earth in front of you. You had finished your remaining tacos long ago, and your stomach felt empty, as if a worm was gnawing away at it.
Sucking on a stone to conserve your saliva, you followed the line of dried blood with your finger. How far were you down the line now? One thumb? Two thumbs? If you were two thumbs down the line, as seemed most likely, then you had eight thumbs left to go. That meant another four nights on the road.
You reached inside your pocket and retrieved your small bag of pesos. You had many coins, but they were almost worthless. Some scrumpled notes. You straightened them out on the map. Three hundred pesos. Five 50s, two 20s, and a 10. It would simply have to be enough.
You leaned forwards and looked at the sign. It was a snake – yes – it had to be a snake. Its mouth was wide open, and it seemed to be swallowing the head of a man.
What sort of person would recognize such a thing?
For the very first time since you had begun your journey, you began to feel fear.
Sabir couldn’t sleep. He glanced over towards Lamia’s bed. Then towards Calque’s. No sound. They were both fast asleep.
The three of them had finally decided that it was better not to split up and make themselves more vulnerable than absolutely necessary. Despite being the one to make the initial suggestion, Calque, for reasons best known to himself, had finished up looking the most uncomfortable with the arrangement, whilst Lamia, who might reasonably have objected to the idea of bundling with two grown men, appeared to have taken the whole thing in her stride.
Sabir had seen the sense of it too, but he had soon become worried that if he underwent another of his nightmares, as he did most nights, he might cry out, or throw himself off his portable camp bed, and thus wake everybody else up. He had allowed this thought to niggle at him for so long now, that he couldn’t manage to doze off at all.
Eventually he got up and padded outside. He sat on the ledge of the walkway outside their room and leaned back against a pillar. The night was cold, but not oppressively so. He breathed in deeply, and then sat looking up at the night sky.
They’d been incredibly lucky to give the twins the slip back in Carlisle. Almost miraculously so. Sabir could imagine the twins at this very moment, checking out every motel within a fifty-mile radius of the town in the vain hope of picking them up again. But the trio had travelled more than a hundred miles further south this time, and had slipped off the main expressway toward Harper’s Ferry in a further bid to muddy the waters.
They had then found themselves a down-at-heel motel run by a Punjabi family, who seemingly hadn’t minded registering them at two o’clock in the morning, and neither had they objected to the fact that two mature men and a considerably younger woman wanted to share a room together. Perhaps such a thing was normal down here in West Virginia? The Punjabis had simply searched out an extra child’s bed and had set it up for Sabir underneath the window.
The door behind him opened, and Lamia emerged, clutching a blanket around her shoulders.
Sabir straightened up. ‘Hi. Can’t you sleep either? Join the club.’
Lamia waved him back down again. She sat down beside him, and snuggled herself further inside her blanket. ‘Calque has started snoring.’
‘It’s really quite loud. Is he married, do you think?’
Sabir burst out laughing. ‘Divorced, as far as I know. Maybe that’s why?’
She made a face. ‘I thought about nudging him, but then I realized I was so wide awake that it would simply guarantee that two of us would be deprived of sleep, and not just one. Then I saw that your bed was empty too.’
‘Well you know all about me. I was scared I would wake up screaming, and start a riot.’
She laughed. ‘Well. We’re not doing too well so far, are we? As a team?’
‘Oh, I don’t know. We’ve lost your brothers. We’re a few hundred miles closer to where we want to be, and we’re amongst friends. Things could be a whole lot worse.’
Lamia glanced across at him. ‘We’ve only lost my brothers for the time being. You realize that?’
Sabir nodded. ‘Yes. I do realize that.’
‘Somehow they’ll find us.’
‘At this particular moment I can’t quite work out how. But I’m more than happy to work on that assumption. At least it will serve to keep us on our toes.’
Lamia began to relax, as if she had abruptly decided to disengage herself from an unwanted weight. ‘Not much worries you, does it, Adam?’
Sabir shrugged. ‘Not sleeping worries me. These nightmares worry me. Offending you worries me. But not much else.’
‘What do you mean, offending me?’
Sabir turned towards her. ‘When we met. What I said. How I said it. My drawing attention to your face. I didn’t mean to do that. That was just dumb of me. Calque was right to call me a hick.’
‘You’re not a hick. I understood what had happened. Why you did it.’
‘Then you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.’
‘What? What is that? What is Gunga Din?’ Lamia was cocking her head to one side, like a bird dog, a half-smile on her face.
Sabir noticed, once again, just what a beautiful woman she was. Despite the blemish. Despite her awareness of it. There were moments, and this was one of them, when she seemed to forget all about her face and relate to him person to person, rather than as a wounded woman to a damaged man.
‘It’s a movie. Well, it’s a poem, really, but everyone remembers the Hollywood movie they based on it. Cary Grant is an English colonial soldier, alongside Douglas Fairbanks Junior and Victor McLaglen. They’re on the Indian Frontier, and they get involved in all sorts of shenanigans. Then, at the end, they are all going to die, and their water boy, the lowest of the low, who’s called Gunga Din, saves them, at the cost of his own life. As Gunga din lies dying, Cary Grant says this to him: “You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.” That bit comes straight from the Kipling poem.’
‘You’re a strange man. Do you love movies so much?’
Sabir shook his head. ‘It’s more than that. They’re a passion with me. I guess I had what you might call a lonely childhood. No brothers and sisters. Intellectual father. Crazy mother. Movies and books were what I had in lieu of normal family affection. They defined my life. I could escape into them whenever I wanted. The only thing my father ever did with me was take me to the movies. He wasn’t into baseball, or team sports, or anything like that. But every week, without fail, he would take me along to the Lenox Club for their movie matinee. The old guys that ran the matinee would wheel out a screen. Then they’d set up the old projector, with the giant 16mm reels. We’d watch Henry V, The Charge of the Light Brigade, Captain Blood, Robin Hood, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer. Heck, those old guys were more English than the English. If you looked closely enough, you could see their Harris Tweed coats steaming gently in the afternoon heat.’
‘You’re crazy. You know that, Adam?’
‘What? Crazy for talking to you like this?’
She turned abruptly away. ‘I didn’t mean that.’ Then she accorded him a compensatory glance. ‘But crazy for doing what you are doing. For risking your life this way. You could be happily roosting back at your father’s house, writing obscure books about the cinema. All you’d need to do would be to publicize what you found out in France. That way you would be safe.’
‘Would I? Do you really think your family would believe me? Believe that I had published everything I know?’
‘Why ever not?’
‘Because they know I know things, Lamia. Things I can’t tell anybody. Things that I can’t publicize.’ He suspected for a moment that she was going to ask him to dot the i’s and cross the t’s – use the unexpected intimacy that had sprung up between them to wheedle information out of him. A woman’s curiosity, and all that twaddle. But she didn’t.
Instead she stared him straight in the eyes. ‘You want to take this all the way through to the end, don’t you?’
He pretended to consider her question, but he already knew the answer. ‘I’ve got no choice in the matter. These nightmares. They’re something to do with it. But it’s not only that. I’m changing, Lamia. Changing inside. I can’t really describe it. But something happened to me down there in that cellar in the Camargue. Something that I still don’t understand. I find myself drawn to things. Almost as if I had experienced them before, and now need to revisit them to fully understand their significance.’ He shook his head. ‘No wonder you think I’m crazy.’
‘You’re making no sense. Yes. But I don’t think you’re crazy. I was wrong to say that.’
‘And you? Why are you tagging along with us? It can’t be for protection. For Captain Calque and I are probably of less potential use to anybody in that department than, well, than Laurel and Hardy.’
Lamia burst out laughing. ‘Laurel and Hardy. That’s it. That’s who you are. The two of you. Laurel and Hardy.
‘Thanks. Thanks a bunch.’
Lamia’s face became serious again. ‘Why don’t you have a woman of your own, Adam? What are you? Mid-thirties? You’re even quite handsome in an off hand, dean Martin kind of a way.’
‘A Dean Martin kind of a way? I look like Dean Martin?’
‘Yes. A little. And someone else. Some 1930s film actor I can’t remember. But it will come to me later. I’m certain of that.’
‘W. C. Fields?’
She punched him lightly on the arm. ‘But I’m serious, Adam. Most men have settled down by this time. Started a family. Yet you are living in a far bigger house than you can ever use. With a beautiful garden. In an exquisite part of America. Why aren’t you married? What’s wrong with you, Monsieur Sabir?’
‘I suppose you’re going to ask me now if I’m gay?’
‘No. I know you’re not gay.’
‘Oh yeah? And how do you figure that?’
‘By the way you responded earlier this evening when you helped me climb out of the window.’
Sabir could feel himself flushing. ‘Oh come on. I just hefted you for a split second. You might as well have been a sack of grain.’
‘I don’t think so. French women understand such things. I’m not saying you’re attracted to me. Don’t think that. But a woman knows when a man responds to her as a woman. Gay men don’t respond that way. You’re way straight, as the Americans say. So answer my question.’
Sabir laughed. But he was actually caught mid-way between embarrassment and awkwardness. He wasn’t used to women speaking to him in this way. Part of him liked it, and part of him wanted to be a million miles away. ‘It’s about my mother, I suppose.’
‘With men it usually is.’
Sabir rocked back against the pillar, surprised, once again, at Lamia’s directness. ‘It’s not what you think. Not the usual, I mean. During the better part of my adolescence and through into my twenties, my mother was always ill. I mean mentally ill, not physically. It got so bad sometimes that she had to be taken off to a clinic and tranquillized for weeks at a time to prevent her from committing suicide. It destroyed my father’s life. And I suppose it destroyed part of mine, too. I couldn’t bring anyone home, you see. And somehow it felt like a betrayal if I went with girls my mother would never get to meet. She wanted to be normal, Lamia. Desperately so. But there was something – some short circuit in her brain – that didn’t allow her to be. I went to college like everybody else. Had a few short-term affairs. Minor things, that didn’t mean anything. But I could never hold a woman. There was something detached in me – something damaged. When my father died three years ago, I was a 32-year-old man still living for the better part of the year at home.’
‘And your mother?’
‘Oh, she finally succeeded in what she’d been trying to do for half her lifetime. I was twenty-five, maybe twenty-six, when she took the Nembutal and slit her wrists. I was the one that found her. She did it like Seneca the Younger – in the bath. Only she left the taps running. The blood-stained water came cascading down the stairs like a waterfall. A heck of a way to go. As always, she involved everybody.’
‘But you loved her?’
‘I loved her and I hated her. Does that answer your question?’
Lamia put out a hand and squeezed his arm, but Sabir jerked unconsciously away from her, as if there was something he feared in her touch.
The trio drove all of the next day, right along the line of the Appalachian Mountains and down into Alabama. They each took it in turns to share the driving, and both Lamia and Sabir managed to doze a little when it was their turn to take a break.
Calque had attempted to persuade Sabir that civilized people didn’t stuff themselves full of eggs, bacon, and waffles at breakfast time, and then snack their way through the day until they ran up against the stone wall of a gargantuan, seven-o’clock dinner. Instead, they started off in the continental fashion, on the strict understanding that they had a good lunch to look forward to, with a light supper to bring things to a satisfactory conclusion.
‘This time I shall choose the restaurant. We are not being followed. We don’t need to use a drive-thru. It is not required that we sit in the car and stink it up with inadequately fried food.’
Neither Lamia nor Sabir felt it appropriate to draw attention to Calque stinking up the car with his cigarettes – something which he was doing on an ever more regular basis. Neither did Lamia mention Calque’s snoring. She was aware of a certain unexpected fragility in him – a fragility that verged on narcissism – and she was also aware of his susceptibility both to her and to the opinions of her sex.
During lunch – for which Calque had unexpectedly found a family-run restaurant near Knoxville which specialized in hickory-smoked baby back ribs, served with corn bread and pinto beans, but, lamentably, no wine – she questioned him about his wife and daughter.
Calque sighed, and stared down at his plate, as if it held within its purview some symbolical key to the human condition. ‘My wife wished, from the very first moment that she met me, that I had been a businessman and not a policeman. She managed to convince herself – without, I should add, any encouragement on my part – that I would eventually subscribe to her wishes and switch professions. We would then be able to live a comfortable, bourgeois existence, in a respectable Paris suburb, and take our holidays on the Ile de Re, just as she and her family had done for the past two generations. I let her down in this, just as I let her down in everything else. We had a daughter. At first this daughter seemed fond of me. I would take her to the flower market, and to the Jardin du Luxembourg to float her sailing boat. When my wife realized how fond I was of this little girl, she understood that her opportunity for revenge had finally arrived. She spent the better part of twenty years alienating my daughter from me in every way she could contrive. I fought back, of course, but a man who works full time, and long hours, in a sometimes brutalizing profession, has a weakened armoury. Eventually, my daughter married, and left home. Now, when I telephone, her husband speaks to me, but not her. Without the presence of my daughter, my marriage seemed even more of a sham than I had originally suspected. I therefore divorced my wife, effectively ruining myself in the process. This is only justice. If a man is a fool, he deserves to be treated like a fool. I was, and am, a fool. But now that I am older, I can look back on my folly and smile. Before, I could only weep.’
Sabir and Lamia stared speechlessly across the table at Calque. Never, in the time that either one of them had known him, had he opened up even remotely about his private life. He might have been a lay monk for all they knew. Now he had spread out all his dirty linen for them to witness, and they didn’t know quite how to respond.
‘It’s a shame they don’t serve wine here,’ said Sabir. ‘I could do with a glass or two myself.’
Lamia glared at him as if he had just overset a saucepot on her dress.
Sabir swallowed, and tried to redeem himself. ‘Calque, that’s terrible. You mean your daughter won’t even speak to you any more?’
This time Lamia aimed a kick at his shin under the table.
Calque, however, appeared not to have heard him. ‘Everything is fine now, though. I have taken early retirement from the police force. I have become obsessed with the after-effects of my final case. I have spent the past five weeks sitting in a camouflaged hideout on a hillside in southern France. I have ruined myself afresh by bribing a criminal to break into Lamia’s mother’s house and retrieve a tape recorder with nothing on it. I have come to America – a land of which I know nothing, and care to know even less – a land where people seem to subsist on fried food and takeaways – and I have made it my own. I have been pursued by madmen, and I have evaded them. I am surrounded by my friends.’ Calque dipped his corn bread into the baby rib sauce and ate it with every impression of relish. ‘Life is treating me well, in other words. Far better than I deserve.’
Sabir had a quizzical expression on his face. He glanced across at Lamia. ‘Is he joking? Or is he being serious?’
Lamia smiled. ‘He is being serious. Only he has a very French way of making his serious point.’
‘What? A sort of zigzaggy kind of a way? A down-hill-and-over-dale kind of a way? An up and down a few lurching by-ways and around a few blind corners kind of a way?’
‘Yes. That is it. That is it exactly.’
Calque had gone back to eating, seemingly unmoved by the remainder of the conversation.
It was as if he had laid his cards on the table, just as pre-arranged, and now it was up to everybody else to decide just what they were going to do with them.
All had been going well for the Corpus until their extended caravan arrived in the small town of Wakulhatchee, just south of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, at around nine p.m. on an unseasonably hot Friday night.
It had been a long day’s driving for the ten-car, eleven-person ersatz surveillance team. A day whose effects were exacerbated both by the continual need for caution, and by the inevitable wear and tear caused by the obsessive twenty-minute rotas that Abi had insisted upon despite the fact that the trio they were following in the Grand Cherokee appeared to have not the remotest idea that they were still being watched.
Even during the trio’s lunch break – when it might have appeared reasonable for the team to stand down and take it easy – Abi had refused permission for any of his brothers and sisters to take time off for anything more than a snack. ‘You can relax this evening. When they’re static. We’ll only need two people at any one time to watch them then. So the rest of you can go off and get some R amp; R.’
‘Which two are going to watch them?’
Abi could see storm clouds looming. He put on his most placatory voice. ‘Vau and I will take the first four-hour shift. We’re the freshest. And the pressure’s been off us all day. The rest of you can draw lots for who’s next in line. Those four hours ought to give you all the time you need to get some food and drink inside you and lighten up a little. If our trio decide on a late outing we’ll call you and tell you whereabouts they’re headed. We don’t want you all to crash into each other like ninepins. If Lamia catches sight of any of us, we’re done for. They’ll bolt again, and this time they’ll make damned sure they’re not followed. No. We need to keep them sweet and unaware.’
For their part Calque, Lamia, and Sabir had found another of their Olde Worlde – read terminally rundown – motels, on the very edge of town. This one was managed by a Polish family – and they, too, barely raised an eyebrow at their guests’ unconventional sleeping arrangements.
After watching the trio check in, Abi and Vau settled down to watch the entrance to the motel from 150 yards down the street. They were driving a different rental from the one they had been using in Massachusetts – a vehicle that had not been within sight of the Cherokee all day.
‘How do you think it’s going?’ Vau asked his brother.
‘In a word? Shit.’
Vau sat silently for a while. ‘I don’t get you, Abi. We’ve still got them under surveillance. The whole family are here to support us. What is there to complain about?’
‘Inactivity. That’s to complain about.’
Vau raised his eyebrows in disbelief.
‘Oh, come on, Vau. You know very well who you’re dealing with here. Our bunch of siblings are used to getting everything they want whenever they want it. They either buy it or they grab it off someone else. That sort of freedom acts like an inbuilt dynamo. Now we’re asking that same bunch of anarchists to rein themselves in and conduct a sort of interminable holding operation. Heck, Sabir could be intending to drive as far as Brazil for all we know. Which is fine for him – he owns his damned vehicle. But what do we do? Somehow, at every border, we’re going to have to dump the rentals and fetch ourselves new ones. Without losing our marks.’
‘But why should we be crossing borders? They might be heading down to Florida.’
‘Florida? Haven’t you looked at your map recently? We’ve just driven along the fucking Appalachian Mountains – we’re heading for Texas.’
‘Well. Texas, then.’
‘What’s beyond Texas?’
Vau thought for a moment. ‘Mexico, I suppose.’
‘Don’t you think they might be heading for there?’
‘Anything happen there in the past few days? Anything out of the ordinary?’
Vau thought again. Then he shook his head. ‘No. Not that I heard of.’
Abi settled himself further down in his seat and closed his eyes. ‘Jesus.’
The place was called Alabama Mama’s, and it was situated on the far opposite edge of Wakulhatchee to the trio’s motel. It was basically a parking lot with a corrugated iron building pitched into the middle of it. The corrugated iron had originally been painted rust red, but over the years the patina had changed until it had now come to resemble a sort of inverted, badly limed-up, coffee pot.
At ten o’clock on a Friday evening the car park was still mostly empty, so the sudden arrival of a phalanx of New York registered rentals didn’t do more than flurry the waters. A few odd looks were cast in the Corpus’s direction – they were, after all, quite noticeable – but nothing untoward either occurred or suggested itself.
Of the nine siblings who entered Alabama Mama’s that night, Athame was a virtual dwarf, with tiny hands and feet, Berith had a harelip, Rudra limped in an extrovert manner on account of his untreated club foot, Alastor was spectre thin from the effects of cachexia, Asson was enormously fat, Dakini had hair which grew down below her buttocks framing a face frozen into a sort of malevolent rictus, Nawal suffered from hirsutism, Oni was a seven-foot-tall albino, and Aldinach was a true hermaphrodite.
Of these, Aldinach was the most ordinary looking, as he/she had decided to be a she tonight, given the heat and the sub-tropical climate that ensured that even at nine o’clock in the evening – and freakishly, even in October – the ambient temperature was well above thirty degrees. Inside the club it was hotter still, with the slowly churning ceiling fans barely ruffling the overheated air.
Aldinach had therefore chosen to wear a thin seersucker cotton dress, cut low to show off her small, but perfectly formed, breasts. She was wearing red patent leather ‘fuck-me’ shoes with five-inch heels, and the sheerest stockings she could find. She had her hair down – when she lived as a man she commonly wore it in a pigtail – and her fringe now curled inwards to flatter and give weight to her heavily lashed eyes. Aldinach refused to enter the club alongside her brothers and sisters, but came in separately, by a side entrance, and took her place alone, at the corner of the bar.
The barman did a double take, and then shook his head in amazement. Despite twenty years spent working in clubs and bars and dives of all persuasions, it still astonished him what women were capable of contriving when they were ‘in open season’. He stood for a moment admiring the sight, and speculating which of his regular clients would be the lucky man tonight. Because someone was going to be the lucky man. That much was darned certain.
‘I’ll have a margarita.’
‘Frozen? Or on the rocks?’
‘Wise choice. Do you want salt around the rim?’
The barman busied himself with the makings. ‘You from Louisiana?’
‘I knew it. I picked up your accent straight away. Lafayette?’
‘Well I’ll be damned. I got close, didn’t I?’
‘You’ve got an ear. I’ll give you that.’
The barman placed a paper mat in front of Aldinach, and set the margarita on top of it. ‘Now you try that. Then tell me if it isn’t the best damned margarita this side of the Sierra Madre.’
Aldinach sipped the margarita. Then she cocked her head and smiled.
‘I told you. I used to work down in Cancun around the Easter break. At the Hotel Esmeralda.’ His expression changed abruptly. ‘Look. Tell me if I’m out of line here. But you do realize what sort of a place this is?’
Aldinach shrugged. ‘I have a vague idea.’
The barman glanced towards the main door. ‘Well it ain’t what you’d call genteel, if you take my meaning.’ He hesitated. ‘Look, lady. I like you. Strikes me you’re a cut above the usual sort of moppet props up this bar. Plus you’ve got good taste in booze. If I were you, I’d drink up and head on out again. Try the Hummingbird up the road about two miles. I dearly hate to drive away custom, but you don’t deserve the sort of riff-raff we get in here. Now take a look at that table of freaks over there.’ He nodded towards the far edge of the dance floor, where Aldinach’s brothers and sisters had pushed together three separate tables to make one. ‘There’s trouble if ever I’ve seen it. Like waving a red flag in front of a bull. The sort of rednecks we get in here on a Friday night will take the mere existence of that bunch as an insult to their manhood. Our clientele ain’t much into “special needs”. I don’t know who they are – an idiot’s works outing, maybe, or escapees from the funny farm – but I wouldn’t want to be in here when the Skunks get through with them.’
‘You don’t want to know. Believe me, lady. You don’t want to know.’
Skip Dearborn had been grand master of the Skunks chapter of the Birmingham Hells Angels for nearly twenty years now. In that time he had raped, killed, tortured, stolen, grafted, skimmed, blackmailed, and kidnapped his way through the better part of Southern Alabama, without ever having done any prison time to speak of. Others had suffered in his place. As far as Skip was concerned, that was only just.
He was the smartest and the meanest looking sonofabitch on the block – why shouldn’t he benefit from his smartness and his meanness? There would come a time when someone else stole his crown, but that time wasn’t looming anytime soon. And in the meanwhile Skip exercised droit de seigneur over any women stupid enough to want to associate themselves with his chapter, and had pick of the crop as far as loot, drug money, and any passing pussy was concerned.
Heck, he was like a lion in charge of his pride. He had the shiniest bike, the most patches (he sported Red Wings, Black Wings, the Dequiallo, and even an ultra-rare Filthy Few shoulder blaze), the smoothest leathers, and the foulest body odour of any of the males in his war party. What did he care? Who was going to argue with him? Who was going to cause him any grief? He had a steel plate in his skull, a rivet in one arm, a punctured lung, scars on his back, shoulder, and neck, a perforated eardrum, and occasional tinnitus, which made him very irritable indeed.
Tonight, the tinnitus was real bad. And the only thing that made the tinnitus halfway bearable was either a fight, or pussy, or both. That way, he was able to forget about the hissing in his ears for a pleasurable hour or two.
This particular Friday night he was surrounded by an assorted mob of what the Hells Angels termed hang-arounds, associates, and prospects. Wannabes, in other words, amenable to just about whatever Skip chose to throw at them. A lot of the main chapter members had taken to avoiding Skip’s company on a Friday night, either because they were getting too old, or too comfortable, or didn’t want their women outraged by anyone other than themselves. This pissed Skip off, and he was prone to take his revenge in unexpected and inventive ways.
Running the hang-arounds was one of his neatest tricks. Most of them were so desperate to join the One Percenters (the 99 per cent of remaining bikers being considered law-abiding – what the Angels sarcastically called ‘Citizens’), that Skip could just about do what he wanted with them. Aim a hang-around at a bunch of Citizens and let him loose – that was Skip’s motto. Then he’d stand back and watch the mayhem. Get in a lick here or there with a sawn-off pool cue. Smash a few knife-hands. All good fun and games. No one got killed. No one got seriously hurt – unless you called a few lost teeth, a broken nose or two, and maybe a cracked rib, pain.
Skip’s newest trick consisted of spraying people with triple-action pepper spray when they least expected it. One shot in the eyes, and you could do what the hell you wanted without any danger of a comeback. Tonight, Skip had a can of pepper spray, a sawn-off pool cue, a Kau Sin Ke Chinese fighting chain, and a switchblade in his armoury. The tinnitus was getting so bad that he had to grind his teeth together to counteract the sound – it was like being tied underneath a damned waterfall in Yellowstone Park. He desperately needed an outlet – some way of switching his attention to outside his head.
He flung Alabama Mama’s main door wide open, and strode in, followed by his little coterie of hangers-on. It was early yet. Far too early for any real fun. So Skip intended to hit the mescal for an hour or two, and then take whatever happened in through the door. What he wasn’t expecting was that his evening’s entertainment would already be in situ.
Skip allowed his eyes to trail lazily across the dance floor. Sweet Jesus. Who were the bunch of freaks huddling together around a far-off table? He was so surprised at the sight of them that he even stopped for a moment to stare as if in wonder. As if he’d witnessed some minor sort of miracle. Then he saw Aldinach at the bar.
‘She’s mine,’ he said to the hang-around nearest him. ‘Go fetch.’
The barman came hurrying over towards the assembled Angels. ‘Skip, no trouble tonight. You hear me? Last time around you almost got me canned. Drinks on the house, huh? Tequilas all round. How’s about that?’
‘Mescal. And beer chasers.’
‘Sure, Skip. Anything you say.’
The Angels sat down. Skip watched the hang-around angling towards the woman at the bar. Asshole. What was he doing? Fishing for cut-throats?
‘You. Miss. Care to have a drink with us?’ Skip’s voice was loud – stentorian even. As if he was shouting orders down a communications tube.
Aldinach stood up. She looked around with her head canted to one side, as if she wasn’t quite sure the yell had really come from Skip’s table. ‘That would be very nice.’
The hang-around had only just reached her. Now he drew back in horror. What was the slit thinking of? Was she blind? He had anticipated a little local difficulty in persuading her to come across to the Angels’ table. A straight no, maybe, followed by a ‘fuck off’. He had then intended to try a little wheedling, upon which he would have headed disconsolately back and left the whole thing up to Skip. Let the motherfucker harvest his own pussy.
Instead, the woman gathered up her drink from the bar and accompanied the hang-around voluntarily across the floor.
The barman met them halfway. He raised his eyebrows dramatically when he caught Aldinach’s eye, and then shook his head, as though abrogating all further responsibility for his former client. He didn’t say anything, because he didn’t have a death wish.
Skip got up and offered Aldinach a chair. His manner was studiously polite. Rather like a man who intends to lull a companion into a false sense of security, before snatching the chair away just as they sit down.
He could scarcely believe his luck. What was the slit thinking of? Did she like rough trade, maybe? Was she out for a Friday night she would never forget? And what did he care?
‘You want a shot of mescal?’
‘No. I’d like another margarita.’
‘Coming up.’ Skip yelled across at the barman, who waved a hand in weary acknowledgement.
Aldinach looked around at the table of Angels. ‘You’re all dressed alike. Are you members of some club, perhaps?’
Skip grinned. ‘You could call it that. The “share and share alike” club.’
‘Oh, really? I have never heard of that.’
‘My name’s Skip. What your name, sweetheart?’
‘You can call me Desiree.’
‘You French or something?’
‘I’m from Louisiana. Lake Charles.’
‘Should have guessed.’ Skip hesitated. ‘By the way you dress.’
‘Do you like the way I dress?’
‘Jesus Christ. Do you get this dame?’ Skip glanced around at his hangers-on. He was beginning to look ever so slightly nonplussed.
‘You haven’t answered my question.’
‘Sure. I like the way you dress. I like it fine.’
Aldinach stood up. ‘I must go to the powder room. You’ll wait for me, won’t you? You won’t go away?’
Skip nearly let his chair tilt all the way over. He could hardly feel his tinnitus any more. There was no way on earth he was going to pass up on this broad. ‘You go right ahead, honey. We’ll all be here when you get back.’
Aldinach weaved her way amongst the tables. As she passed close to her brothers and sisters she smiled, and raised one questioning eyebrow. Oni glanced quickly across to the Angels’ table and shrugged.
‘Those freaks bothering you, sister?’ Skip was standing up now. He could feel a sudden knot in the pit of his stomach.
‘Yes.’ Aldinach turned around. ‘They have said a disgusting thing to me. And that you Angels are pussies.’
Oni sighed. He looked across at his brothers and sisters. ‘Abi will be angry with us if we do this.’
Berith shrugged. ‘Who cares?’
Oni glanced across at Rudra, Alastor, and Asson. ‘You three on?’
Nawal nudged him. ‘What about us girls?’
Oni smiled. ‘You can mop up after us.’ He stood up and turned towards the Angels.
‘Hey boys,’ Skip said. ‘The fucking circus just came to town.’
It was an uneven fight. The hang-arounds didn’t really have their hearts in it. The main problem was that no one had tanked up yet on beer and mescal and crank. The Skunks weren’t honed. They had no edge to them.
The fat guy, and the thin guy, and the harelip guy, and the guy that limped, all moved one way, and the albino giant just came straight at them through the tables. Drinkers scattered in every direction. The female freaks circled around the outside of the fight like barracuda, watching for an opening.
Each of the freaks drew fighting batons from their sleeves. Seeing this, a few of the hang-arounds began to lose heart.
The albino reached them first. Christ, but he was fucking enormous.
Two of the hang-arounds drew knives, to sort of puncture his morale, but he just swept over them with his fighting baton, cracking the head of one, and smashing in the other man’s teeth.
By this time the four other male freaks had hit the ground running. Batons were swirling and swishing through the air. Bones were cracking – hang-arounds were screaming.
Skip ducked under a table, hoping to get a chance to cut someone’s hamstring, but two of the female freaks caught sight of what he was doing and piled chairs and tables on top of him, until he was completely covered by a fretwork of steel tubing.
Aldinach stood by the bar, one eye on the barman, the other on the fight.
‘You with these people?’ the barman said.
‘Never met them before in my life.’ Aldinach glanced towards the main door. Customers were exiting through it in droves. ‘Do you think anyone will call the police?’
The barman shrugged. ‘Your guess is as good as mine. But I figure not. Sort of clients we get don’t find cops copacetic.’
‘Are you going to call the police?’
‘What for? How often do I get to see the Skunks getting their hides furrowed?’
Things were quieting down now. Most of the hang-arounds had either fled or were stretched out on the floor or across the bar furniture.
Aldinach minced across the floor towards the mayhem. The eight Corpus members turned towards her as one.
‘Skip,’ she said, in a high, girlie little voice. ‘You under there?’
Oni cleared the tables and chairs that were piled up above Skip Dearborn’s huddled form. He had adopted the foetal position, same as you do when you are attacked by wild dogs.
Skip emerged from beneath the wreckage and stood up. He was holding his switchblade and the can of pepper spray out in front of him as if they were some sort of lucky charm – a string of garlic designed to ward off vampires. He looked around at what remained of his merry band of men. ‘Shit.’
‘You going to use that?’ Aldinach approached closer.
‘This was some kind of set-up, wasn’t it? You’re all in this together? You knew this was going to happen before we even came in. You people suckered us. You ain’t no fucking Desiree.’ Skip raised the pepper spray.
Aldinach snatched a fighting baton from Nawal’s hand. Before Skip was able to respond, she brought the baton down across his knife hand, smashing the bone. Then, as he bent down to grab his wrist, she smashed him across the back of the neck, snatched the can of pepper spray, and blasted him full in the face.
Skip pole-axed to the ground like a discarded shirt.
‘Heck of a date,’ said Aldinach, as she and her siblings started out of the building.
Calque, who was driving, and not relishing his silent passengers, turned up the volume on the radio. ‘Listen to this.’
An announcer was describing the previous night’s mayhem at Alabama Mama’s.
Sabir, who was trying to get some sleep after yet another disturbed night, groaned. Lamia, who had somehow managed to curl up and fall asleep on the back seat, didn’t respond.
‘Look what we’ve been missing. We’ve been staying in the wrong part of town, apparently. A gang attack. Two groups of Hells Angels tearing into each other. Fourteen people taken to hospital. Redneck heaven.’
Sabir straightened up. He knew he wasn’t going to get any sleep from here on in. ‘What do you know about rednecks, Calque?’
Calque hitched his chin. ‘I know a lot about rednecks. The Polish man at the motel even told me two redneck jokes.’
Sabir pretended to reel backwards. ‘But you can’t even speak English. How could you possibly communicate with him?’
‘It is simple. He is a Pole. A civilized man. A European. He speaks French.’
Sabir sighed. ‘Can you remember them? The jokes, I mean.’
Calque appeared to be deep in thought. ‘Yes. I think so.’
‘Well tell me them, then. If I can’t sleep, I might as well be entertained.’
Calque pursed his lips, his eyes furrowed against the morning sunlight. ‘The first one goes like this. A redneck from Alabama dies. But fortunately he has left a will. In it he leaves his entire estate in trust for his widow. The only snag is, she can only inherit when she reaches the age of fourteen.’
Sabir stared at him. ‘That’s it?’
Calque shrugged. ‘I thought it was very funny. I laughed when the Polish man told it to me. The other one is better, though. Much better.’
‘There you go again with this silly expression. Why should I shoot? It simply doesn’t translate into French. When you speak French, you should use the French idiom. Not an American one.’
Sabir turned down the radio, which was still blaring the local news at them. ‘I would very much like to hear the second joke, Captain Calque.’
Calque nodded. ‘Very well. I shall give it to you. This is even funnier than the first one.’
Sabir squeezed shut his eyes.
‘Two rednecks from Alabama are approaching each other on the road. One has a sackful of chickens in his hand. The second redneck says, “If I can tell you how many chickens you have in your sack, will you give them to me?” The first redneck thinks things over. “If you can guess how many chickens are in this sack, I will give you both of them.” The second redneck stares down at the sack. “Five?”’
Lamia gave a hoot from the back of the car. Even Sabir had the grace to laugh.
‘You see,’ said Calque. ‘I told you the second joke was better. In France we tell such jokes about you Yankees.’
‘Yeah, well, that doesn’t surprise me in the least,’ said Sabir. ‘We Yankees tell such jokes against you French. I learned dozens of them when I was in the National Guard.’
Calque pointed his finger in Sabir’s direction. ‘You are half French. Don’t forget that, Sabir. You owe a duty to your maternal homeland.’ He was beginning to look slightly nervous.
‘How can I ever forget it? That’s why I was the butt of the damned Frenchy jokes in the first place. However, I figure that any man who can’t tell a good joke against himself doesn’t deserve the claim to a sense of humour. Don’t you agree?’
‘Go on,’ said Lamia from the back of the car. ‘Tell us an anti-French joke.’
‘Okay. How many Frenchmen does it take to screw in a light bulb?’
There was silence in the car.
‘One. He holds it, and the rest of Europe simply revolves around him.’
Calque took both hands off the wheel and made a disparaging motion. ‘That is not very funny at all.’
‘Okay. Try this then.’ Sabir took a preparatory breath. He was beginning to feel a sense of impending doom. Still, for some reason he couldn’t quite figure, he felt unable to stop himself. ‘How do you confuse a French soldier?’
‘You give him a rifle and ask him to fire it.’
Calque slammed the steering wheel with the flat of his hand. ‘That is outrageous. Did they really tell such jokes as this against you when you were in the army?’
‘I wasn’t in the army. I was in the National Guard.’
‘The National Guard, then. Pah.’
Sabir’s jaw was beginning to freeze with the tension of his unwanted position. ‘Yes. All the time. Comes from having a foreign-sounding name. The true joke was really on them, because my father was pretty near 100 per cent pure American – it was my mother who was French.’
‘Tell me another joke. One about women this time.’ Lamia was sitting up straighter in the back of the car.
‘It’ll be about soldiers. Those are the only ones I know.’
‘That’s all right.’
‘What do female snipers in France use as camouflage?’
‘Their armpits.’ Sabir knew for certain that he’d gone too far this time.
‘What does that mean?’ Lamia was leaning towards him from the back of the car. ‘I don’t understand that joke. How can a woman use her armpits for camouflage? And anyway, we don’t have female snipers in the French army. Women are not allowed to engage in combat.’
‘It’s a joke. It’s not meant to be taken seriously. Like the movies, jokes rely on a willing suspension of disbelief.’
Calque turned towards Lamia. ‘Sabir is trying to tell us that the Yankees think French women never shave their armpits.’
Lamia’s mouth dropped open in horror. ‘Where did you see this, Adam? Where did you see French women not shaving themselves?’
Sabir was tempted to say ‘Oh boy’, but didn’t. ‘It’s not me who’s saying this, Lamia. It’s the joke. It’s an archetype. Yanks during the war simply found that French women didn’t shave.’
‘How could one shave during the war? There were no razors.’
‘Good point. Great point. That answers it then.’
‘But that is unfair. How can you blame French women for what happened during the war, when there were shortages, and when it was impossible to shave themselves?’
‘Jesus Christ, people. We’re meant to be having fun here. Cracking a few jokes. Having a laugh.’
‘But you are not being serious, Sabir. For a joke to be funny, it should be based on truth.’
Sabir grabbed the collar of his shirt and pulled it over his head like a cowl. ‘If the Corpus comes to get us, don’t bother to call me. I’m fine just as I am.’
‘Are you still behind them?’
‘Do you know where they are going?’
‘I think it is to Mexico, Madame.’
‘How do you work that out?’
‘We are near to Houston, in Texas. Draw a straight line between Stockbridge and Houston and it leads you to Mexico. To the Brownsville-Matamoros border crossing in particular. I believe that that is where they are going to enter. If you ask my opinion, I think the eruption of the Mexican volcano triggered this decision of Sabir’s.’
‘I think you are right. But that doesn’t take us much further, does it? Thanks to your failure to force information out of Sabir when you were offered the chance, we have no idea what they are doing, nor why they are doing it. Have you had any trouble along the way?’
Abi flared his eyes. He had been dreading the arrival of this question ever since the start of the conversation with his mother.
‘Don’t lie to me. I can always tell if you are lying. I have been able to do this ever since you were a little boy.’
Abi glanced across at Vau, who was resolutely concentrating on his driving, and pretending that he was not privy to the conversation emerging loud and clear through the rental’s hands-free speakers.
‘Yes, we have had some trouble.’
‘Who caused it?’
‘Aldinach. She got the wind under her tail a little.’
‘It’s what happens with mares. When they come into season. It’s called “getting the wind under their tail”. They charge around the paddock with their tails cocked to one side, causing trouble.’
‘And this is what Aldinach did?’
‘And the outcome?’
‘Fourteen people in hospital. Hells Angels, mostly.’
‘Any of our people?’
‘Of course not. The opposition over-faced itself. They did not possess the will to win. They did not realize who they were up against.’
‘So there will be no problems with the police?’
‘No. I guarantee it.’
‘Did you join in this fracas?’
Ah. Here was the trick question. Abi had known it was coming, but still it turned his blood to ice. Answer wrongly, and he would be hung out to dry like a strip of biltong. ‘Of course not, Madame. I followed your orders to the letter. Vau and I were watching Sabir’s motel. I had given the others time off to eat and to relax. I had not anticipated Aldinach’s bout of brain fever. She went into that place determined to start a fight involving everybody.’
‘Have you punished her?’
‘What’s the point? Everything turned out well in the end. We didn’t spook Sabir. The police weren’t involved until afterwards, by which time we had all dispersed to different locations. No harm was done. And it allowed everybody to let off a little steam.’
‘I think you need to place a tracker in Sabir’s car.’
Abi mouthed a swearword. ‘Is that wise, Madame? We have Sabir and Lamia and the policeman sewn up. They can’t so much as whistle without one of us hearing them.’
‘How much further do you have to go, Abiger?’
‘I have no idea.’
‘Exactly. And how long until the next “wind under the tail” moment?’
Abi swallowed. ‘I can’t say, Madame. It could be any time. It could be never.’
‘Mexico is a country where things happen, Abiger. The police are endemically corrupt. There are drug wars going on all along the border. I don’t want Sabir lost because a maniac like Aldinach gets ants in her pants.’
Abi slapped Vau on the arm to catch his attention and then mouthed ‘ants in her pants’ and ‘maniac’ and raised his eyes heavenwards. ‘No, Madame. Of course not, Madame.’
‘Can Vau get inside their car without triggering the alarm?’
‘Vau can get inside any car. You know that, Madame. You were responsible for having him taught by the best car thief in the business. But it will be tricky. If something goes wrong, we risk stampeding them.’
The Countess sighed melodramatically. ‘Then we must risk a stampede, don’t you think, in view of the greater benefits involved in having a fallback position? But kindly do not tell your brothers and sisters that you have done this thing at my request. I don’t want them thinking that I don’t trust them. Do you understand what I am saying, Abiger?’
‘This one time I will not hold you personally responsible for what has happened.’
‘Thank you, Madame. You are very kind.’ Abi terminated the connection with one slow-motion finger. ‘Fucking old cow.’
Vau turned towards him. ‘You must not speak of Madame, our mother, that way.’
‘Oh really? Well what is she then? She sits in that spider’s web of hers, with that bastard Milouins and the fragrant Madame Mastigou always on hand to protect her from the real world, and she still thinks she can pull all the strings. Why doesn’t she come out here if she’s so eager to run everything?’
‘Because she’s an old woman. And because she’s rich.’
Abi turned to his brother. ‘Truly, Vau? Is that so? Well you could have fooled me.’
During your next two days on the road, you had achieved three lifts. Firstly to Minatitlan, in a brewery truck, then, after a long wait, to Agua Dulce, with a gringo, in his private car.
Agua Dulce was partially off your road, but you accepted the lift nevertheless, on the assumption that anywhere south was good and, on the whole, productive. It was better to keep moving than to remain static, with all the dangers that inactivity entailed, such as losing heart, or spending money that you could ill afford.
But the trip to Agua Dulce proved fortunate in more ways than one, because the same gringo saw you waiting on the road again the very next morning, and gave you a further lift, this time all the way to Villahermosa. The only thing you did not understand was that the gringo asked you, many times, if you had ever dug things up in your garden. Stone carvings. Pottery. Old necklaces. Obsidian knives. You tried to tell him that you did not have a garden – that you worked for your boss, the cacique, in his garden, and that therefore anything that you dug up legally belonged to him. That even in the cacique ’s garden you had never dug such things up in the entirety of your life.
The gringo had seemed very disappointed when you told him this. But still he had taken you on to Villahermosa, and had offered to buy you lunch from a roadside stall, which you had refused, on account of the gringo’s strange attitude. Were all gringos like this? Plunderers? Like the Spanish? You had only met two gringos in the entire course of your life, but they had not impressed you. A man should always speak directly of what was in his heart. Not come at a subject from the side. Or from on top.
From now on, you decided, you would avoid gringos, and stick to your own people. Peasants. Indios. Mestizos. People who made their living from the land, and not from thievery.
Vau waited until 2.30 in the morning before making his move on the Grand Cherokee.
He’d brought his bunch of skeleton keys, with a wedge and a flexible car antenna for back-up in case he couldn’t get inside in the conventional way and needed to break in through a side window. Either way would leave no traces. Sabir’s Cherokee was a few years old, fortunately, so didn’t have the most up-to-date remote keyless entry and remote start and alarm. That made things a lot easier.
Still, it stuck in Vau’s craw that he was expected to go to all the trouble of breaking into the car when it would be just as easy to attach the tracker to a protected piece of the underbody – he could have been in and out in two minutes, with no one any the wiser. Instead, here he was having to risk himself, in a well-lighted place, where anybody could decide to exit their motel room in search of the ice dispenser or a bag of potato chips from the vending machine.
He hunched down by the driver’s door, with the car between him and the trio’s motel room, and set to work. As he was inserting the fifth key out of a total of fourteen possible keys, the door to Sabir’s room opened, and the man himself came out.
Cursing, Vau ducked down beside the Grand Cherokee and stretched himself flat on the ground. Then he eased himself underneath the chassis skirt, using his back and buttocks as leverage.
I wished this on myself, Vau muttered under his breath – bloody wished it on myself. It’s not even the fucking crack of dawn yet. Please God the bastard doesn’t go for an early morning spin. Those sixteen-inch whitewalls will squish me like a rotten tomato.
Sabir sat down on the motel walkway. He hunched forwards like a man with stomach cramp and rested his head on his knees. Would he never again manage to sleep a night straight through? The constant waking up and drifting off was draining him of his strength. And yet he feared pills and their effects – he had seen what they had done to his mother.
The temperature on the outskirts of Corpus Christi at 2.30 that morning was a balmy twenty degrees, and Sabir could clearly pick up the scent of the sea on the incoming breeze. When he straightened up he could hear the surf pounding against Padre Island, and the shriek of distant seabirds as they fought over a school of sardines.
He sat for a long time listening to the murmurings of the night, secretly hoping that Lamia would come out and join him, just as she had done two nights before. He regretted having drawn away from her when she had reached out to comfort him, and he was looking for an opportunity – any opportunity – of putting things right with her again.
If only Calque would begin snoring. Or sleepwalking. Or throwing himself around in his bed. But when Sabir had tiptoed out of their communal bedroom, the former policeman had been sleeping like a well-fed baby
As far as the trip was concerned, the three of them appeared to have settled into a comforting routine, sharing jokes and playing car games. Somewhat to Sabir’s surprise, Calque was wildly competitive in anything that involved intellectual exercise, to the extent that he would even bend the rules a little when it suited him. Sabir had decided that this might have something to do with Calque’s previous profession as a policeman, but he kept the thought firmly to himself. One consequence, though, was that there had been no opportunity for any private conversation with Lamia.
Sabir was just about to head back inside and try for a little sleep when the door behind him opened. Lamia edged through it, one hand held up to shade her eyes against the glare of the safety light.
Sabir did his best to mask his delight at her miraculous reappearance. ‘Don’t tell me. Calque has started snoring again?’
‘Then why are we whispering? Nothing will cut through that racket of his and wake him up.’
Lamia laughed. She had brought a blanket out with her, as before, but this time she settled herself on it, with her legs drawn up and to the side, and then folded it across her like a four-leaf-clover. She was wearing an old-fashioned flannel nightdress, and Sabir found himself marvelling anew at her unselficonsciousness. Lamia was unlike any French woman he had ever met in that respect, in that she appeared to have so convinced herself of her fundamental undesirability that, beyond making sure that she was neatly turned out, her fashion sense erred disarmingly on the side of a studied and rather grey neutrality.
‘So what’s new?’ Sabir grinned at her, not really expecting a serious answer to his question.
Lamia shook her head. ‘I haven’t told Calque yet. But this afternoon, as we were driving through Houston, I am convinced that I saw my sister Dakini following us in a car.’
‘You’re kidding me?’
‘I couldn’t be sure, because she was wearing dark glasses and a baseball cap.’
‘Dark glasses and a baseball cap?’
‘Yes. It doesn’t sound much like her, does it? I’ve since managed to convince myself that I was wrong. Which I probably am. But Dakini has a face that, once seen, is never forgotten.’ She blushed and turned away, as though fearing that her own face might reasonably be considered to fall within that category as well.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, in addition to having very long hair – I mean really long, falling to well below her waist – Dakini also has a sort of unfortunate rictus to her features, that gives her a malevolent look, as though she is permanently angry.’ Lamia hesitated, uncertain whether to go on. Then she sighed. ‘Sometimes I wonder about Madame, my mother, endlessly adopting children with disastrous tics or disabilities. Why did she never have us seen to? Surgically, I mean? In Rudra’s case she could have had his club foot treated. And in Berith’s case his harelip. I agree that Athame’s near dwarfism is incurable, as is Alastor’s cachexia, and Aldinach’s hermaphroditism. But she could have put Asson on a diet, instead of encouraging and funding his gourmandism – I mean they now say that excess weight is not necessarily genetic, don’t they?’
‘Then why didn’t she? Have you treated, I mean?’
Lamia let out another long sigh. ‘It’s obvious, isn’t it? She must have wanted us this way. We must have suited her.’
Sabir shook his head despairingly. He glanced over at Lamia, but she was avoiding his eyes. ‘Can’t you have your face fixed now? There have been enormous advances in dermatology since you were a child. Surely there’s something that can be done?’
She shook her head. ‘I’m scared to. Haemangiomas like mine need treating early. The longer you leave it, the more danger there is. If they catch you as a baby, they can sometimes use liquid nitrogen on the discoloration. That is not available later, however. Because my haemangioma did not threaten a vital organ, the nuns simply left it – or so I was told – hoping that it would go away of its own accord. But it didn’t, as you can see. Maybe they even thought that as God had made me this way, who were they to change it? Nowadays, to treat it, they would have to use steroids, or interferon, or a pulse-dye laser treatment. In my case, because of the sheer size of it, they might even have to operate, with all the associated risks. I might end up looking even worse than I do now.’
‘You don’t look bad now. In fact I think you’re beautiful.’
‘Thank you, Adam. But I’m too old to believe in fairytales any more. I’m twenty-seven. Not eleven.’
Sabir sensed that it was time to change the subject. ‘What about the twins?’
Lamia shrugged. ‘At least Madame, my mother, had the grace to have them surgically parted. Or maybe, come to think of it, that was the nuns too? Either way, I’ve seen the scars on their torsos. I believe they must have shared a kidney or something when they emerged from their mother. Now they merely share an attitude.’
Sabir laughed, although he didn’t really find the twins in the least amusing. ‘Do you love them? I mean, do you love any of them? Your mother? Or your brothers and sisters?’
Lamia appeared to consider for a moment. ‘There was a time when I was close to Athame. She is the one of my sisters who suffers from dwarfism. I mean she isn’t really a dwarf, she is just very small indeed. She suffers from Ellis-van Creveld Syndrome, like some of your Amish people over here. She’s a polydactyl, too.’
‘She has twelve fingers.’
‘Jesus. And she uses them all?’
‘As well as you or I.’
‘And are you still close to her?’
‘We fell out over my attitude to the Corpus. I’ve been steadily easing back on my commitment for some years now. None of the others suspected, because they were not close to me – but Athame understood. And she couldn’t condone it. She believes the Countess, my mother, to be a sort of goddess figure. She worships her, like the Jews of the Old Testament worshipped graven images – the golden calf, or what have you. She believes the Countess to be a sort of golem. And sometimes I think she’s right. My mother is not entirely human. It is perfectly feasible that some force created her out of primeval clay, and simply gave her the face and body of a normal human being. To trick people.’
‘To trick people? How?’
Lamia met Sabir’s eyes straight on for the first time. ‘Into believing that she was like them.’
Vau could hear every word of their conversation from his prone position on the increasingly hostile concrete surface of the motel parking lot.
He was starting to feel the cold in his back, and imagining all sorts of scenarios, like him sneezing, or him dozing off and then sitting up and bashing his head against the Cherokee’s undercarriage and having to stifle his screams. The total nightmare scenario was the one in which the pair of them decided to go off for a sex assignation in the car together – for Vau was perfectly convinced from the sound of their voices, and the intimate way in which they were talking, that there was something more going on than a mere friendship of convenience – more than merely the random companionship of fellow travellers.
Abi could make fun of Lamia’s face and her near sexless way of dressing all he wanted, but Vau knew that there were men out there who found Lamia attractive. Take that oaf Philippe, for instance. The dead footman. He had been sniffing after Lamia for years, hadn’t he? It was only Madame, his mother’s, complete lack of interest in matters sexual that had allowed the man to continue in his job. And much good it had done him. He was now languishing below six feet of reinforced concrete at a new Catholic girls’ school the Countess was subsidizing at the Couvent des Abbesses de Platilly, near Cavalaire-sur-Mer. Nothing like keeping things cosy and in the family.
Still, Vau had all but decided that there was no way he was going to try breaking into the car again after this recent little contretemps. He would simply lie through his teeth to Abi and pretend he had planted the tracker in the spare tyre well. Instead he would attach it to the underframe of the car, and hope for the best. He had identified the perfect spot whilst lying prone beneath the Cherokee’s skirts. He would do the deed the minute the two lovebirds stopped babbling and went back inside again, and to hell with the consequences.
Abi watched his twin brother climbing back into the rental. ‘You’re filthy. What have you been doing all this time? Rolling around in a midden?’
‘What’s a midden?’
‘A shit heap.’
‘Then why don’t you say it the first time, instead of showing off how clever you are?
‘Answer my question, Vau.’
‘The answer is no. I haven’t been rolling around in a shit heap. If you want to know what I’ve been doing all this time, I’ll tell you. I’ve been lying underneath Sabir’s car, in the parking lot of the motel, listening to his cosy late-night conversation with Lamia.’
‘You’re kidding me? You’re not serious?’
‘Deadly serious. Plus she recognized Dakini earlier on today, while we were transiting Houston.’
‘It’s all right. She’s managed to convince herself that she was seeing things. Your trick with the baseball cap and the dark glasses worked a treat. It was so unlikely a disguise, that Lamia thinks she was simply imagining the vision from hell that Dakini represents, and not really seeing it.’
‘She is plug ugly, isn’t she?’
‘That’s the understatement of the year.’
Abi laughed. ‘Did you plant the tracker?’
Vau shrugged. ‘Of course I did. What do you think?’
‘Where? In the tyre well of course. Where I usually plant them.’
‘Which key did you use to get in?’
‘Why do you want to know?’
‘Because I’m not stupid, Vau. You got surprised on the job and you were forced to hide. Then you were constrained to listen to the pair of them yakking on about Dakini for half an hour. You’re lying under the car, at this point, pissed off to the nines. Don’t tell me it didn’t occur to you to take a shortcut?’
Vau hesitated. He was briefly tempted to try and compound his felony. Then he aimed a frustrated punch at the stowaway compartment. ‘Okay, Abi. Okay. You got me. As you always do. I slipped the fucking thing underneath the chassis, not in the tyre well. Between you and me there was no way in hell that I was going to break into that car with the pair of them wide awake inside their bedroom fantasizing about each other.’
‘What are you talking about? Fantasizing about each other?’
‘I heard Lamia’s voice. She’s my sister, remember. I’ve never heard her speaking like that to a man before.’
‘Like she gives a damn about what he thinks of her.’
‘I’m convinced she’s got the hots for Sabir.’
‘I can’t believe it.’
‘Yes, it does stretch the imagination a little. When you think of all the millions of women with unblemished faces out there. I mean, why take second best when you don’t need to? Anyway, either she’s kidding herself, or Sabir must have detached retinas.’
‘Seriously. Does Sabir have the hots for her?’
Vau made a face. ‘Sabir hides it better, but I wouldn’t be surprised.’ He grinned at his brother, pleased that he was contributing something of value for once. ‘Can you use that knowledge in some way, Abi?’
Abi shrugged reflectively. ‘I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. But I’m sure as hell going to give it some thought.’
That morning saw the trio crossing the Rio Bravo at the Puente Nuevo, and driving through into Matamoros from Brownsville, Texas. They paid their $2.25 toll, and arranged for their temporary vehicle permit from the CIITEV office. Then they headed south down Highway 101 towards San Fernando.
Abi and Vau, who had crossed by foot earlier that morning, and secured a new, Mexican registered rental for themselves, picked up the Grand Cherokee about two miles out of town. The tracker was working fine, so they were able to follow the Jeep at a distance of about three quarters of a mile, with no possibility of a surprise sighting. The nine remaining members of the Corpus had been detailed to hire themselves two people carriers, one for the men and one for the women, and to keep in touch with Abi and Vau via cell phone. They would rendezvous every night near whatever motel the trio had chosen for themselves.
Abi had decided against concealing the existence of the tracker from his brothers and sisters for the simple reason that keeping a close tail on a car you don’t really need to follow is a smart way of asking for trouble. And to hell with Madame, his mother’s, worries about her children feeling she didn’t trust them any more. If the others didn’t tell her and trigger the predictable scene, then he certainly wouldn’t. And who in their right mind trusted anybody anyway?
Any further cock-ups, and Abi knew that the Countess would take him off the case. Christ, she might even give the job to Brain-of-Europe Vau – or, even worse, to the next man down the list in the seniority stakes. Mr Harelip himself. Bullshitter Berith. The world’s greatest Pseudologist.
Abi knew that his best bet with the Countess always lay in seducing her into liking him face to face. Alongside Oni and Athame, he was undoubtedly her favourite. But keeping in touch with her by cell phone was a sheer disaster. The Countess hated using telephones, and was always constrained in what she said. She started in on the offensive and stayed there. And wasn’t it always so much easier to cashier somebody when you didn’t have to look them in the eye?
Abi decided that he would tread very carefully indeed for the next few days. When the perfect moment came to move in on Sabir, he would be ready. He wouldn’t blow things twice in a row.
‘I think it’s time you told us a little more about the Corpus Maleficus.’ Calque was luxuriating across the Grand Cherokee’s rear bench. Sabir was driving, and Lamia was beside him on the passenger seat.
The air conditioning was working at full stretch, and Sabir could feel the deterioration in the car’s power as a result. He was sticking to a steady sixty-eight miles an hour on the assumption that any contact with Mexican traffic cops this close to the border could only lead to tears. This was drug country. Everyone was corrupt in one way or another. It was simply a matter of scale.
‘Why now? Why did you not ask me this before?’ Lamia glanced back at Calque. It wasn’t a suspicious look so much as an old-fashioned one. The sort of look that says ‘You’d better not be trying to spin me a line, matey.’
Calque straightened up. The expression on his face was that of a man who suddenly means business. ‘We are maybe two, or at the most, three days’ driving away from where we need to be. Sabir has chosen not to share with us the key element of his revelatory quatrain – although I should have thought he would have learned to trust us both by now. It has occurred to me that if you showed good faith, Lamia, in opening up the skeletons in your family’s cupboard, then the ever elusive Sabir might prove more amenable to also confiding in his friends.’
Sabir rolled his eyes. ‘Artfully done, Calque. Artfully done. I can’t fault you. You got a dig in at just about everybody with that little speech of yours. Hell, you must have been a policeman in a former life.’
Before Calque could respond, Lamia turned towards both men, fixing first one and then the other with her gaze. ‘I don’t mind you quizzing me. I trust you, even if you don’t trust me. I’m here with you because I’ve got nowhere else to go. And because I don’t want to be alone, now that my family have excommunicated me. It’s as simple as that. To have you both on my side – to be able to share my fears with you – is very precious to me.’
Chalk one up for the distaff team, thought Sabir. He checked out Calque’s face in the rear-view mirror. The man was as pink as a sand shrimp. Unprecedented. That was the only word for it. He had never seen Calque colour up to an even mildly roseate tinge before. The bastard had seemed impermeable to normal feelings of guilt and embarrassment.
Sabir realized that he was feeling pretty guilty, too. It was becoming ludicrously obvious that both he and Calque had been holding out on Lamia through some sort of misplaced survival instinct. Maybe now was the time to bring things out into the open a little?
Sabir cleared his throat. ‘Right. Me first. Cards on the table. I’m sorry I’ve appeared so elusive. The verse you are all feeling hurt and resentful about goes as follows:
“In the land of the great volcano, fire
When the rock cools, the wise one, Ahau Inchal Kabah,
Shall make a hinged skull of the twentieth mask:
The thirteenth crystal will sing for the God of Blood.” ’
There was a stunned silence. Calque was the first to break it. ‘That’s it? That’s the quatrain?’
Sabir nodded. ‘Lock, stock, and barrel. What you see is what you get.’
‘My God. It doesn’t take us very far, does it?’ Despite his words, Calque’s eyes were fervid with speculation.
‘It takes us to the Palace of the Masks at Kabah, doesn’t it?’
‘Does it, Sabir? How do you read that one?’
‘Well. The “of the twentieth mask” bit. That must be the Codz Poop. Or whatever your website called it, Lamia. It ties right in, don’t you see? That’s why I felt such a fool when you sprang the Orizaba eruption on me. Though how Nostradamus came up with this is way beyond me. Perhaps he’s simply sent us all on some sort of posthumous wild goose chase halfway across the world? A final exercise of power from beyond the grave?’
‘It wasn’t a wild goose chase in France. Everything he said in his quatrains was true.’
‘Yes. But that was in France. Nostradamus knew about France. He lived there for more than sixty years. But what the heck did he know about the New World?’
‘Quite a lot I should imagine.’ Calque held up a restraining hand. He was back in his element again, all thoughts of previous blunders forgotten. ‘The man was born in 1503, remember, just three years before the death of Christopher Columbus. And Columbus discovered the New World in 1492. With Hernan Cortes invading Mexico twenty-seven years later, in 1519. That gave Nostradamus, who died in 1566, forty-seven years in which to find out all he wanted about the new Spanish colonies. He would no doubt have been familiar with Cortes’s own Cartas de Relacion, which appeared in print during the 1520s. And with the personally written account of the conquistador, Bernal Diaz de Castillo. Also Friar Bartolome de las Casas’s excoriating description of the Destruction of the Indies. Also Bernardino de Sahagun’s Florentine Codex. For we know for a fact that Nostradamus both spoke and read Spanish, as well as a number of other languages, including Latin, Greek, Italian, and Franco-Provencal.’
‘For pity’s sake, Calque. What were you doing all those years in the police force? You’re a born historian, man.’
Calque managed to look both pleased and peeved at the same time – as though he had just been surprised, in flagrante delicto, albeit with a particularly beautiful woman. ‘I have indeed been doing my homework over the past few months. Those futile weeks I spent spying on Mademoiselle Lamia’s family were not entirely wasted, you see. I read dozens of books both before and during that period – and everything about Nostradamus that I could find.’
‘So there’s no reason why Nostradamus should not have shown a keen interest in the New World – the place and its riches were an object of endless fascination for the whole of literate Europe. Remember the myth of El Dorado? And remember, too, that Nostradamus came from an ancient family of assimilated Jews? Just as with the Gypsies, the forcibly ex-Jewish Nostradamus would have known exactly what kind of a threat the combined forces of Spanish Catholicism, the Inquisition, and the Auto-da-Fe posed to a country and culture that they considered pagan – and, in consequence, damned.’
‘You mean he would have felt a kinship with the Maya?’
‘Exactly. Just as he had previously felt a kinship with the Gypsies. To the extent that he might even have compared the wholesale destruction of Maya culture to similar Inquisitorial threats against the four levels of the Kabbalah. As always, therefore, with Nostradamus, he would have Infibulated his quatrain with hidden codes and meanings to protect it from prying eyes – codes which could only be teased out via the use of gematria.’
‘Jesus Christ, Calque. “infibulated”? “ Gematria ”?’
‘Infibulated means to interleave, or to lard with a knitting needle – I’m using the word in its figurative sense, needless to say, rather than in its explicit sense of sewing up the labia majora. And gematria is the Hebrew system of numerology.’
Sabir flared his eyes in quiet desperation. ‘Are you trying to tell us that you have somehow deduced a whole series of hidden codes in the – what? – five whole minutes since you have had access to the quatrain?’
Calque threw himself back on his seat. ‘No. I am sorry to disappoint you both. But I have deduced no hidden codes as yet. I am merely speculating that they might – no, change that to must – exist.’
It had been a bad day. Probably the worst day that you had ever suffered in your life.
At Villahermosa you had been robbed while you were sleeping in the market square. The thieves had taken the two hundred pesos that you had been keeping as a reserve in a pouch tied to your waist. But, far worse than that, they had taken the bag in which you were keeping the codex. You had been using this bag as a pillow, and the thieves’ act of slipping it from underneath your head had woken you up.
You had identified the thieves and given chase. But you had not been eating well these past few days, and your strength was, in consequence, diminished. But you were still able to shout, and to summon aid from the other Indios who were sleeping in and around the square.
At first the thieves had seemed certain to escape, but, at the very last moment, two Indios entering the square after a night of heavy drinking had managed to stop them. The thieves did not have machetes, but these two Indios who had been drinking were carrying theirs.
Quickly, a crowd gathered around the thieves, and you were called upon to explain exactly what had happened.
You told about the pesos, and about your bag with the book that you were carrying for a friend.
A policeman came to join the crowd and to see what was occurring at this early hour of the morning, before the market had begun.
The thieves pretended to the policeman that they had not been doing as they had done. They were very convincing. You argued against them, but the policeman was not inclined to listen to you, as you were a stranger, coming from Veracruz. At length the policeman took the two thieves aside, and the three of them stood talking together for some time. The two thieves gave the policeman something, the policeman nodded, and the thieves hurried away. Quickly, like mist dispersing on a lake, all the Indios surrounding you also melted away.
Then the policeman came back. He was carrying the bag in which you kept the codex. ‘Is this your property?’
‘This is a valuable property no doubt?’ The policeman took out the codex and began to leaf through the folded pages.
‘No. It is not valuable.’
‘Then you will not mind if I confiscate it?’
You shook your head. Your heart was as ice in your chest. ‘I would very much mind for it to be confiscated. This thing belongs to another. I have promised to take it to him. I have taken an oath.’
‘The thieves gave me two hundred pesos. What will you give me?’
You opened your hands and turned them upwards. ‘The two hundred pesos the thieves gave you belonged to me. It was the money the thieves stole from me.’
‘I am sorry for this. But I can do nothing. If you want your property, you must pay a fine. That is the law.’ The policeman opened the notebook he was carrying at a certain page, and pointed to the text, which you, of course, could not read.
You reached down and slipped off one of your shoes. In it, you had fifty pesos of your one hundred remaining pesos. You took out the fifty-peso note and placed it in the policeman’s book.
The policeman shrugged. ‘Is that all you have?’
‘The thieves…’ You also shrugged. But still, hidden inside your other shoe, was the remaining fifty-peso note. You prayed to the Virgin of Guadalupe that the policeman would not ask you to reveal what was in that shoe as well. If he did this, you would be lost.
The policeman snapped shut his book. ‘Very well then.’ He dropped the bag with the codex onto the ground, as if by error. ‘You have paid your fine. You are free to go now.’
You quickly picked up the codex, bowed to the policeman, and turned away.
Now you knew you would certainly starve. You had just fifty pesos left to your name. And you still had to pass through Ciudad del Carmen, Champoton, and Hopelchen, before you reached your final destination at Kabah, at the Palace of the Masks.
A friendly Indio had told you that there was a chance, if you waited for the ending of the market, that if one of the market traders had done particularly well, they might possibly agree to take you back with them in their empty truck. Many came from Ciudad del Carmen to the market in Villahermosa – almost as many as went to Campeche. If you were lucky, and had the patience to wait without complaining, you might find such a person.
In the meanwhile you knew you would be forced to loiter around the market all day, praying that you would not meet the policeman again, and that one amongst the many market traders might throw some of his rotting fruit away into the gutter. If this was the case, then you would be able to eat a little, and settle your stomach. For the fifty pesos that you had left in your shoe would doubtless be needed at Kabah – as a bribe, maybe, in case the man at the main gate would not let you in to wait.
When you fell to thinking about this waiting, your stomach pained you even more than it had before. It was like the ache of a blow – your belly seemed to expand and contract with the pain at one and the same time. Originally, you had promised yourself eggs – in the form of salsa de huevo – for breakfast that morning, in a bid to keep up your strength. But now, because of the thieves, you dared not waste your remaining money on such luxuries.
Truly, this had been a bad day. Probably the worst day that you had ever suffered in your life.
‘Despite all that you say about her, Madame, my mother, is an honourable woman.’
Sabir checked out Calque’s response to Lamia’s statement in the Cherokee’s rear-view mirror. Calque was clutching his head as if somebody had just struck him a glancing blow on the temple with a meat mallet. Fortunately for Calque, Lamia did not appear to notice the movement.
‘What’s all this “Madame, my mother” bit? I’ve been meaning to ask you that for some time now.’ It wasn’t the smartest question in the world, but Sabir knew he had to do whatever was necessary to divert Lamia’s attention away from Calque, who was behaving as if he wanted to trigger a riot. Where it concerned the Countess, the ex-detective’s mind was unquestionably a no-through-road.
‘It’s a term of respect. All of us children use it. Monsieur, my father, was a very old man when we knew him – more like a grandfather than a father, really – and it seemed only right to show him respect. The usage then carried over to Madame, my mother. And we have never seen any reason to change it.’
‘So you still respect her?’
‘Of course. But I also disagree with her. In the strongest possible terms.’
Sabir pulled into a lay-by and switched off the engine. They were a little way short of Ciudad Madero and Tampico. The trucks and pickups on nearby Highway 80/180 buffeted the Grand Cherokee each time they passed, causing the vehicle to rock on her springs like a spavined old lady. ‘I’m sorry. I can’t possibly drive and concentrate on a conversation like this at the same time.’ He turned to Lamia. ‘Let me get this straight. You still respect the woman who had you drugged and tied up, and who would most probably have had you killed if Calque’s buddy hadn’t ridden in on his white charger and rescued you?’
‘Madame, my mother, would never have had me killed.’
‘Oh, really? Well she sicced Achor Bale, your brother, onto a bunch of entirely innocent Gypsies, two of whom he killed, one of whom he as good as crippled, and the other one of whom he tried to give permanent, screaming nightmares to. And that’s not to mention a security guard, his Alsatian dog, and Calque’s assistant, Paul Macron, each of whom suffered lethally in the fallout.’
‘Rocha thought they had information we needed.’
‘Oh. So that’s okay then?’
‘I don’t believe Madame, my mother, knew quite how out of control Rocha was. I don’t believe she wanted to have anyone killed. Rocha was working to his own agenda.’
Calque chose that moment to wade back into the conversation. ‘Rocha, or whatever you want to call him – I can’t think of him as anything other than Achor Bale myself – was definitely not working off his own bat. He was working at your mother’s instigation, and doing her bidding in everything.’
‘Can you prove that?’
‘Of course not. That has always been my problem. Which is why the Countess got away with her dirty little scheme. In any halfway decent society she would have gone down for at least five years as an accessory before the fact. But she was far too well connected for that, wasn’t she? My Commandant actually admitted as much to my face. Which is one of the reasons why I took early retirement.’
‘Perhaps you were wrong? Perhaps she was innocent all the time? Have you thought of that?’
Calque made a pfaffing sound through his nose, like an irritated horse. ‘I knew it then, and I know it now – she’s guilty as hell.’
Sabir turned to Lamia. He took a deep breath. One part of him felt he needed to pin Lamia down about her family – the other part felt he ought to cut her a little slack. The first part won. ‘And your twin brothers? Were they just out to have a friendly little conversation with me up there in Stockbridge? Just chewing the fat, so to speak? Did I misunderstand their intentions? Maybe they didn’t really intend to burn down my house. Maybe they were just joshing me?’
‘Oh, for God’s sake, Lamia. What’s got into you? Are you regretting coming with us? Would you rather go take your chances back with the Corpus?’
Lamia turned on Sabir. The unmarked side of her face had gone a deathly white. ‘No, of course not. But I don’t want you to demonize my family either. They really believe in what they are doing. They really believe that the de Bales have been tasked with protecting the world from the thousand-year return of the Devil. We have been doing it – not unsuccessfully – for nearly eight hundred years now.’
‘Well thank Christ someone’s been on the job.’ Sabir’s patience was wearing thin. How could an intelligent woman like Lamia act so blindly when it came to her family? He felt like reaching out and shaking her.
‘Just how have you been achieving this?’ This from Calque, who had taken advantage of his companions’ temporary lapse of attention to light a cigarette. As he spoke, he puffed smoke busily out through the open window.
‘All right. I will give you one example. During the French Wars of Religion, the Corpus, being good Catholics, targeted the Huguenots. It was a de Bale who, alongside the de Guises, persuaded King Charles IX to agree to the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre. It was a Corpus member, also, who tried to assassinate Admiral Gaspard de Coligny. This was done specifically to trigger the massacre. In this way, France was spared the greater horrors that would later be visited on the German princely states.’
Sabir shook his head in blank incomprehension. ‘So the Massacre of the Huguenots was a good thing, was it? The way I understand it, out-of-control French Catholics went on to slaughter thirty thousand innocent men, women, and children in the months following the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre. It was a bloodbath, Lamia. But now you’re belatedly claiming that it was actually done to guarantee peace further down the line. Have I got that right?’
‘But these were devil worshippers, Adam. Cultists. People who thought the Pope was the Antichrist. They had to die.’
‘You can’t be serious?’
‘There are times when innocents must be killed in order to protect the majority.’
‘Oh, so they were innocent?’
‘Innocent in the sense of misguided. Yes.’
Sabir turned to Calque. ‘You’re a Catholic, too, I suppose?’
Calque gave an uncertain nod. ‘Yes. But I haven’t massacred anybody yet, so don’t look at me like that, Sabir.’
‘What do you make of what Lamia is saying?’
Calque hesitated. ‘I think the whole thing is a lot more complicated than it looks.’
Sabir pretended to fall backwards on his seat. ‘Oh, so now you’re in agreement with Lamia? The Corpus did do the right thing after all?’
Calque shook his head. ‘No. They didn’t do the right thing. It’s never right to massacre people, whatever you may think of their religion, or ethnicity, or point of view. But the Corpus thought they were doing the right thing. That’s the point that Lamia is trying to make. And that’s the point I realize we haven’t been taking into account about her mother.’
‘God God, Calque. If you carry on like this I may start suspecting that you have an open mind.’
‘An open mind? Perish the thought. But we do need to understand what actually drives the Corpus – the better, eventually, to defeat it. In my view Lamia has just made her own situation perfectly clear. She respects her mother’s viewpoint, but rejects it for herself.’
‘What are you saying? That we ought to share our information with the Corpus? Bring them into the loop?’ Sabir cradled his head on his hands, and gave Calque a sickly smile. ‘Perhaps you could offer the Countess a friendly hug when next you are passing Cap Camarat? I’m sure she would welcome you with open arms, Captain.’
Calque shrugged. ‘I’m not insane, Sabir. I remember only too well what that maniac Achor Bale was capable of. He killed my assistant, remember. A man no better than he should have been, perhaps. But a man, nonetheless, with a family, a fiancee, and a future. Achor Bale snuffed all that out without even pausing to draw breath.’
‘Then what are you suggesting?’
‘I’m saying that we need to understand exactly where the Corpus is coming from. What they are trying to achieve. Look, Lamia. You have to be considerably more open with us if we’re to have any chance at all of combating this thing. First off, does the Corpus still have the same sort of influence it appears to have wielded when France still had a king?’
Lamia hesitated. For a moment Sabir feared that she intended to duck the question. Then she shook her head. ‘No. All that ended with the Second World War.’
‘The Second World War? Explain yourself.’
Lamia took a deep breath. ‘Marechal Petain, the leader of Vichy France, was almost certainly a Corpus member. He attended both the St Cyr Military Academy and the Ecole Superieure de Guerre in Paris, both of which were hotbeds of Corpus activity towards the end of the nineteenth century. Later, Petain became a close friend of the Count, my father. But he and the Count disagreed bitterly on the Marechal’s policy of appeasement towards Germany. My father did not believe, for instance, that Adolf Hitler was the Second Antichrist. He thought, instead, that this particular distinction belonged to Josef Stalin. He disagreed, also, with the Vichy government’s policy towards the Jews. If he hadn’t been seriously injured in one of the early German bombardments, he might have been able to take all of this much further – made his influence felt behind the scenes in some way.’
‘Are you serious?’
‘Very. He was convinced, for instance, that France was a natural ally of Russia, and not of Germany, and that we should never have tacitly allied ourselves with the Nazis against Stalin.’
‘So he was a communist?’
‘No. But he was prepared to use communists for his purposes.’
‘A nice distinction.’
‘My father’s injury put an end to France pursuing that particular line – in a way, you see, his injury paved the way for the eventual disintegration of the Corpus.’ Lamia glanced back at Calque. ‘A bit like the injury suffered by the Fisher King which diluted the power of the Round Table. You understand the parallels, Captain?’
Calque nodded. ‘Succinctly put. I understand you very well.’
‘Before that time we had been strong in the cadet schools, the military academies, and also in the civil service. Like a sort of Freemasonry, really. But the war changed all that. With Monsieur, my father, hors de combat, and taking into account his virulent dislike of the Hitler regime – which he privately believed to be devil-driven – all Corpus influence collapsed. Laval and Petain had their revenge in the end, you see. By the time my father recovered from both the physical and the psychological damage that he had received, France had changed utterly, becoming riddled with retrospective guilt and denial. The Count simply withdrew from public life in order to allow the Corpus a dignified final disintegration. It was only with the advent of Madame, my mother, thirty years later, that the Corpus was to some extent renewed.’
‘In what form?’
‘In the form that you see before you now. The Count only allowed the Countess to adopt their thirteen children on the strict understanding that she, under the aegis of his still influential family name, would actively attempt to reintegrate the Corpus into public life. At his instigation, she would send each of their children out into the world to begin a new strand of the Corpus’s sworn duty. They would, within their ranks, incorporate all of the four great factors which determine aristocratic prestige – l’anciennete, les alliances, les dignites, and les illustrations. They would represent ancient nobility, they would cement new alliances, they would hold high office, and they would perform great and noble actions. But none of this ever occurred. Society had changed too much. Monsieur, my father, had alienated too many right-wing establishment figures with his excoriation of Nazi Germany. We still had a certain degree of influence, but it was based upon nostalgia rather than on any real access to the corridors of power.’
‘So where does that leave the Corpus now?’
‘Working to a different stage of logic. What we cannot steal, we buy. And what we cannot have by right, we seize. With us, it has become a case of the law of the jungle.’ Lamia raised her head defiantly. ‘If you wish to defeat the Corpus, you will only do so by using the law of the jungle against them in return. Otherwise the Corpus will chew you up and spit you out like a piece of rotting meat.’
Sabir scrunched himself back into his seat, his neck against the window frame, his head against the glass, so that he could see both Calque and Lamia at the same time. ‘So now we come to the million-dollar question, Lamia. The one that secures the prize. Why are your people still pursuing us? What can they conceivably hope to gain? What do they figure to get from the lost prophecies of Nostradamus?’
Lamia looked shocked. ‘But it is obvious, Adam. I thought you knew this without my having to tell you? It is all about power. The need to know what the future holds. And for this they require three things.’ She marked the points off on her fingers. ‘They need to know the identity and whereabouts of the Third Antichrist, whom some people call the “Wilful King”. They need to know the identity and whereabouts of the Second Coming. And they need to know whether 21 December 2012 marks the true end of the world, or merely the start of the predicted thousand-year return of the Devil. If it is the latter, then the Corpus will protect the Antichrist and kill the Parousia – in this way they will effectively delay the advent of the Devil because he will no longer feel that he is under-represented on earth. In this manner, also, they will have fulfilled their ancient task. If it is the former, they will commit collective suicide, and be translated into heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.’
Calque let his unlit cigarette flutter from his fingers. ‘Mary, Jesus, Joseph, and all the Saints. What? Like the Rapture?’
‘A little like that.’
‘But the Rapture relies on the Second Coming, Lamia. It relies on the Parousia. It’s not about killing Him, for pity’s sake.’
‘But the Pre-Wrath Rapture is, Captain. This is the moment when we are told the sun turns black and the moon turns red. An era of wars, famines, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis – what the Bible calls the time of the “abomination of desolation”. God’s wrath will fall on the unbelievers when the sixth seal is finally opened. There will be a long period of tribulation before the Second Advent.’ Lamia looked at her two companions. ‘Does any of this sound familiar to you, gentlemen? Does any of this ring a bell with you?’
Sabir felt as if his brain had been run through a clothes’ mangle. ‘You mean the eruption of Orizaba? The earthquake in L’Aquila? Global warming? The Indian ocean tsunami? The melting of the polar ice cap? That sort of thing?’
Lamia made a tired face. ‘Yes. And all the rest of it too.’
Abi was acting as look-out and Vau was driving. At first glance, the tracker had appeared to be misbehaving, which meant that the twins found themselves blundering past the stationary Grand Cherokee when they were least expecting it.
‘Christ. Did you see them? Did you see what they were doing? It was them, Abi, wasn’t it? Did they see us?’
‘Calm down, Vau. There’s no damage done. They were just sitting in their car talking. Or at least so far as I could see. We were moving way too fast when we passed them. Plus we’ve got a fresh car. Plus we’re wearing these stupid American baseball caps. They won’t have made us.’
‘I wish we’d planted a proper bug on them when we had the chance.’
‘Oh yes? And this from the man who couldn’t be bothered to break into their car when the opportunity was handed to him on a plate, but simply latched his tracker onto the fucking undercarriage in the fond hope that it wouldn’t fucking jerk off when they fucking went over their first fucking speed bump?’
‘Okay, Abi. Okay. You don’t have to rub it in.’
‘What do you think they were talking about? Maybe you’ve got a view on that too, Vau?’
‘How do I know? What do you think?’
Abi closed his eyes. He scrubbed at his face, then let his head fall back against the built-in headrest. He motioned to Vau to pull the car over. ‘Us, probably.’
‘How do you figure that, Abi? They don’t even know we’re following them.’
‘What? You think they’ve just relaxed down and forgotten about us, maybe? Put us out of their minds completely?’
‘No, Abi. I don’t think that.’
‘Why ever not?’
Vau’s face lit up. ‘Because they’re too smart. Lamia knows we’ll never give up. And she’ll have told them that. They’ll be shit scared we’ll spring out from nowhere and get them.’
Abi hunched down even further in the passenger seat in case the Cherokee overtook them again. ‘You know something, Vau? I think you’re right.’ He nodded his head a few times, thinking. ‘I think we need to rush things a little. I think we need to put the fear of God into them, and get them to make a few unforced errors. I’m fed up to my back teeth with all this pussy-footing around.’
‘But Madame, our mother, told you to hang back, Abi. I heard her say so. She told you to let them lead us to wherever they are going, and not to interfere with them until she tells you to do so.’
Abi glanced across at his brother. ‘Well we know that wherever they are going is in Mexico. And probably in either Veracruz or the Yucatan.’
‘How do we know that, Abi?’
‘Because they are taking the coastal route, dummy. If they were transiting through to Guatemala, for instance, or Honduras, or Panama, they’d go the fuck down the centre, wouldn’t they? Past Mexico City.’
‘I suppose so. But you don’t have to swear at me all the time to get your point across.’
‘You suppose right. And yes I do.’ Abi yawned. He was beginning to lose interest in winding Vau up. ‘So we’re getting near to where we need to be. And they don’t know we’ve got a tracker planted on them. So I say we scare the living bejasus out of them, and set them to running at double speed. Because if we carry on the way we are going, Aldinach’s going to get ants in her pants again, and trigger another riot. Or that stupid bastard Oni is going to fall foul of the Mexican cops. I mean, have you seen him recently? He’s taken to wearing floral shorts. The idiot stands out like a cockroach on a teacake.’
Vau slapped at the steering wheel. ‘Hey, that’s funny. I like that. A cockroach on a teacake.’
Abi gave Vau a pitying look. ‘It’s not original, Vau. I stole the idea from Raymond Chandler. Only he said “a tarantula on a slice of angel food”.’
‘Angel food? What’s that?’
‘Fairy cake? And Raymond who, did you say?’
‘Forget it, Vau. It’s really not that important.’
Sabir pulled off the Veracruz cuota road and into the village of La Antigua for lunch. The trio had approximately two days’ driving left before they reached Kabah, and Sabir figured that a treat was called for.
‘What is this place?’ said Lamia.
‘It’s where stout Cortes scuttled his ships so that his men wouldn’t dare back out on him and return to Cuba.’
‘Stout Cortes?’ Calque stretched both hands above his head, like a man trying to reach for a light bulb. He stared down towards the river, which curled like a dirty brown ribbon towards the nearby Gulf. ‘The man was a barbarian. He almost single-handedly destroyed two great empires.’
Sabir threw back his head. ‘I’m not giving him a testimonial, Calque. I’m quoting Keats’s “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer”.’
Calque acknowledged Sabir’s point with a hitch of his shoulders. ‘And how do you happen to know about this place? It’s not exactly on the beaten track, is it?’
‘A holiday. With my mother and father. The only one we ever took together as a family.’
A dead look came into Sabir’s eyes. ‘I was seventeen. My mom was going through a stable period for once. Semi-sane, anyway. My dad paid for us to take a trip to Mexico because he thought it would be good for her. We came down here via Oaxaca and Monte Alban, to see the ruins at Zempoala. It was a disaster. My mom had to be airlifted back to the US under sedation. But La Antigua was the very last place we had something approaching a good time. We ate langostinos al mojo de ajo just up the road there, and drank mojitos, and my father told us all about what happened when Cortes landed here with his men. We even took a boat up to the mouth of the river, and walked around on the headland.’
‘So you speak a little Spanish?’
‘Not a word. How about you, Calque?’
‘My Spanish is a fraction better than my English. And you know how good my English is.’
‘I wondered why you let Lamia do all the talking when we checked into our posada.’
‘I couldn’t help noticing you didn’t say much either.’
Lamia had already started down towards the restaurant. ‘Well, I shall just have to do your translating for you, shan’t I? It will give me a role to play. Fortunately I speak Spanish fluently. As well as Italian, English, Portuguese, German, and a little Greek. Not to mention French.’
She turned around and flashed them her most captivating smile.
Calque and Sabir chose a table overlooking the river, while Lamia went to visit the powder room. It was the first time the two men had been alone together since they’d crossed the Mexican border two days before.
‘Do you really think we can trust her, Calque? After what she said about the Corpus back there in Tampico? About still respecting the Countess?’
‘If she was trying to outwit us, Sabir, do you think she would have been quite so painfully honest?’
‘She might be trying a double bluff?’
‘Yes, and God is an Englishman. Come on, man. One has only to look at her to see that she is a decent person. I feel privileged to be travelling with her. Just think what it would be like if there were only the two of us here. What a state we would be in by now. At least she is keeping us focused. Not to mention up-to-date with our laundry.’
‘Yeah, well, it’s clear that you’ve got an almighty crush on her, Calque. You fuss around her like an old mother hen.’
Calque straightened in his chair. ‘And what about you? Haven’t you noticed yourself recently? Your own behaviour?’
Sabir pretended to watch some fishermen jump-starting their boat. ‘That’s bullshit.’
‘It’s not bullshit. I know you both hold secret assignations together. I woke up one night and heard you.’
Sabir shrugged. He was still pretending to watch the fishermen. ‘It’s because we both can’t sleep. I have nightmares, and you snore. So between us it’s no wonder Lamia needs a break now and again. If we meet outside the room, it’s only by accident – not by intent.’
‘I do not snore.’
‘Oh, really? When did you last share a room with anybody, Calque? The early 1950s? Of course you snore. Like a steam locomotive winding up before its first big run of the day.’
Calque threw both hands out as though he was trying to snatch at a runaway loop of knitting yarn. ‘I object to your example, Sabir. You are purposely exaggerating. I may snuffle a bit, but that is only when I inadvertently lie on my back. It is a common enough ailment.’
‘Snuffle. Snore. Have it your own way.’
‘You are still artfully avoiding my question.’
‘You and Lamia.’
‘Are you her daddy?’
Calque bridled. ‘I feel I am somewhat in loco paternis, yes. I inadvertently brought her into this, therefore she is my responsibility.’
‘Admit it. You’d like her to be your daughter, wouldn’t you?’
‘See? You are changing the subject again? Perhaps you are simply too stupid to acknowledge your feelings for her?’
Sabir gave up all pretence of staring at the fishing boat. ‘Who the heck are you calling stupid? And this from a man who doesn’t even realize he’s got an Oedipus complex.’
Calque slapped the table. ‘I do not have an Oedipus complex. You’ve completely mixed up your Freudian terms. An Oedipus complex is when a boy competes with his father for his mother’s attentions. So you are certainly wrong there. My mother paid no attention either to me or to my father, so there was nothing even to play for. And don’t tell me I have the opposite of an Oedipus complex, because that is an Electra complex, and Lamia certainly does not have that about me.’
‘I’m not talking about her. And I’m not talking about your mother. I’m talking about you. Who’s changing the subject now?’
‘I do not deny that I still feel very damaged about the loss of my own daughter’s affections. Although I’m surprised and a little disappointed that you should choose to bring the matter up again. I told you about it in confidence, in a weak moment, Sabir, and I foolishly supposed that the subject would end there. However neither do I deny that I feel a quasi-paternal interest in Lamia. It would be strange, in the circumstances, if I did not.’
Sabir snapped his fingers together. ‘I’ve got it. I’ve remembered it. It’s called a Lear complex. When a father has a libidinous fixation on his daughter.’
Calque’s voice rose effortlessly above the hubbub surrounding them – a hubbub which was further aggravated by the restaurant’s resident trio attempting their own unique version of Besame Mucho on matching marimbas. ‘I most emphatically do not have a Lear complex, Sabir. And I would like to point out that Lamia is not, in fact, my daughter. And that therefore if I did happen to feel any sexual desire for her, it would not, in and of itself, be incestuous. Nor even inappropriate in terms of age difference. For you may not have noticed it, Sabir, but I am not quite in my dotage yet. I am still only fifty-five years old.’ Calque fumbled around in his pockets for a cigarette. He found one and lit it, flicking the extinguished match through the open window beside him. ‘However it is not predominantly sexual desire that I feel for Lamia, but rather admiration and liking. I also feel a curious protective urge to shield her from the attentions of younger men such as you.’
‘Younger men such as me? And what are younger men such as me, when they are at home?’
‘Younger men who have taken immaturity to an entirely new level. Younger men who mistake bravado for experience. Younger men who have no earthly sense of self-preservation. I remember you in France, Sabir, blundering from one disaster to the next without the faintest effort at self-control. It was an absolute miracle that you and your two Gypsy friends survived the eye-man’s attentions. In a rational world, you would all three be dead by now.’
‘And then you would have Lamia for yourself? Is that it?’
Calque thrust himself up from the table. Sabir did the same. One of the waiters had been just about to ask them for their drinks order, but, sensing their lack of attention to the menu, he veered towards another table like a liner changing tack mid-ocean.
‘I don’t believe this.’ Lamia was heading towards them from the direction of the restrooms. ‘Are you two arguing again? I could hear you all the way across the restaurant. Must this happen every time I go away? It is impossible. I know you like each other. Why can’t you simply acknowledge it, and stop competing all the time? What were you arguing about this time?’
Calque made a sheepish face, and sat back down to finish his cigarette. Sabir shrugged, and pretended to watch the marimba trio.
‘Were you arguing about me? Is that it?’
‘Of course not. Why should we do that?’
Lamia sat down beside them and signalled to the elusive waiter. ‘Why indeed?’
Abi left it until well after Veracruz to put his plan into action. The trio were approaching Lake Catemaco on the coast road when he told Dakini to dish the baseball cap and sunglasses, and make her presence felt. Athame, Nawal, and Aldinach – who had chosen to join the other de Bale women as a female for the duration – were hunched down out of sight in the well of the people carrier.
Lamia was driving the Cherokee, with Sabir asleep on the back seat. Calque was reading a book.
Lamia lurched upright. Then she poked Calque in the ribs with her elbow. ‘I knew it. It was Dakini I saw back in Houston. I’ve just seen her again. With a different car this time.’
Calque threw the book aside. ‘Where?’
‘She was pulled over in the Pemex station getting fuel. That one. Back there.’
‘Was she alone?’
‘Looked like it. But it was a very big car for just one person.’
‘Are you sure it was her?’
‘Don’t you think I know my own sister?’
‘Step on the gas then. We’ve still got a chance of losing her. She can’t leave without paying and giving the guy his tip.’
Lamia threw the Cherokee into the first serious curve she’d encountered since the service station. ‘I knew we should have taken the cuota road out of Veracruz. There’s only one way out of here. They’ll simply be waiting for us at the junction at Acayucan.’
‘Give me the map.’
‘Sabir’s got it.’
Calque stretched over to the rear seat and prodded Sabir’s leg.
Sabir cracked open an eye. ‘What is it? Why are you waking me up? And why is Lamia driving like a maniac?’
‘We have company.’
Sabir jack-knifed into a sitting position. ‘Where?’
‘Back at the Pemex station. They were still tanking up. With a bit of luck, we’ll have a couple of kilometres head start on them.’
‘Forget it. They’ll simply wait for us at Acayucan.’
‘That’s just what Lamia said. But I remember a smaller road on the map. A dirt road that runs through the mountains towards Jaltipan. If we get to the turn-off before they see us, we’ll have a fair chance of giving them the slip. They’ll never expect us to do such a stupid thing as that.’
‘Stupid. Yes. You said it, Calque, not me.’ Sabir blitzed a look at the map and then passed it across the seats. ‘You’re right about the dirt road, though. But I don’t like it. It’s no more than a farm track, really – they even show it as a fractured orange line on the map, and that’s never a good thing.’ He glanced at the empty road behind them. ‘If the Corpus see us taking it, man, we’ll be sitting ducks.’
‘So what’s the difference? We’re sitting ducks already.’
‘That’s it. They took the dirt road, just as you expected.’
Abi clapped his hands together. ‘They’ll have tremendous fun going over the Cerro Santa Marta. From sea level to 1879 metres in just under twenty kilometres. On a road that isn’t paved. With drops either side you wouldn’t even want to throw your grandmother over.’
‘Shall we follow them?’
‘What’s the point? They’ll pop out again in three or four hours’ time in Jaltipan. Gasping for breath, probably. We can pick them up with the tracker there, no problem. That’s if they don’t break their necks thinking we’re following them. I love doing things like this.’
‘Unexpected things. What the Americans call coming in from left base.’
‘Like what you did with the railway inspector and his wife? Downloading the child pornography?’
‘Exactly. It makes me sick coming at things straight on. There’s always another way – a roundabout way – to achieve the same end.’
‘Tell me another one you did, Abi.’
Abi relaxed back onto the passenger seat. ‘Okay. Seeing as we unexpectedly have a few extra hours to waste.’ He pretended to be thinking. In fact he’d been rehearsing the story he was going to tell Vau for the past fifteen minutes. Telling stories was the only way you could ever teach Vau anything – he was like a child that way. ‘You remember that bastard de la Maigrerit de Gavillane?’
‘The one who insulted Madame, our mother, over the table placement while I was in hospital with a torn meniscus?’
‘Yes. Him. Because she was a widow, and because she had come without an escort to a formal dinner, he placed her below those upstarts with the Napoleonic title. The Prince and Princesse de…’ Abi shrugged. ‘They’re so insignificant, I can’t even remember their names.’
‘It doesn’t matter, Abi. Tell me about de Gavillane.’
‘He knew exactly what he was doing, the bastard – his father, and Monsieur, our father, had fallen out during the war over the Nazi question. You know how the Count felt about Hitler. Well, the de Gavillanes were enthusiastic fellow travellers to the Third Reich. After the war they hushed it all up, of course, and made out that they were Resistance heroes, but nobody believed them. The de Gavillane name even appeared on denouncements secretly given to high-up Nazi Party members and to the Milice – all the denouncements concerned people who just happened to own land abutting the de Gavillane’s country estate. By the end of the war, they had a 10,000-hectare park around their chateau. People don’t forget that sort of thing.’
‘What do you mean “people”?’
‘I mean we weren’t the only ones who wanted de Gavillane punished.’
‘You mean these other people paid you?’
‘Why would I need paying, Vau? I have more than enough money as it is. No. They simply made it easier for me to do what I had to do. Told me de Gavillane’s habits. What clubs he belonged to. Where he hung out. I finally narrowed it down to his health club, or the Turf. But the Turf is too public. His health club was better. I watched de Gavillane without his noticing it. People have habits, you see. And de Gavillane had one particular habit that amused me no end. He hated people leaving their plastic cups of water in the sauna. Whenever he went in he would throw the water onto the stone furnace, and then dispose of the plastic cups in the bin outside. Made no end of a song and a dance about it to the staff.’
‘I don’t understand, Abi. Why is that interesting? Why were you amused by that?’
‘Because it was a tic. And tics make people vulnerable.’
‘Vulnerable? Vulnerable to what?’
‘I left three full cups in there one day. Just before he came in.’
‘Yes. And so?’
‘I filled them with vodka, Vau. Pure vodka. Bulgarian Balkan 176 degrees proof – 88 per cent alcohol. Clear as a mountain stream. When de Gavillane threw them onto the furnace he started a fireball in the narrow space of the sauna cubicle you wouldn’t believe. Fourth-degree burns. The man came out looking like a peeled tomato. Blind. No ears, lips, or eyelids. His penis stripped like a papaya. He’s still in hospital more than fifty operations later. The man is so seized up with scar tissue that he can’t even scratch his own arse any more. That’s what I mean by coming at a thing from the side, Vau.’
‘It’s perfect, Abi. And no one can hold you responsible.’
‘The man did it all by himself. Any evidence got burned in the great flame-up. The club talked about nothing else for weeks. A lot of people had been pissed off by de Gavillane’s high-handed behaviour. Funny how someone else’s bad luck cheers people up.’
‘Why are you telling me this, Abi? You usually have a reason.’
Abi inclined his head. ‘Well you’re certainly on the button today, little brother. What I wanted to get over to you is that Madame, our mother, sometimes needs protecting from herself. She’s an old lady now. She’s not as with it as she used to be. If I sometimes seem to go against what she tells us, Vau, you mustn’t be surprised.’
‘Like in the case of de Gavillane?’
‘Exactly. She knew nothing about that. But when she heard what had happened to him, she was extremely pleased. She never asked me if I did it, but we both know she knew.’
‘She must have been really proud of you, Abi.’ Vau took a deep breath. ‘I wonder what that feels like?’
Abi punched his brother on the shoulder. ‘Don’t worry, Vau. You’ll know soon enough.’
‘Looks like we lost them again.’ Sabir glanced down at the map. ‘We’ve got to decide fast. Do we want to take the coast road to Villahermosa, or do we risk the cuota? Put some more distance between us?’
‘What we do is stop this car right now and check for a tracker.’
‘Oh, come on, Calque. They haven’t been following us with any tracker. They just worked out which direction we were headed in, and spread out like a seine net to trap us. Lamia says that if Dakini’s here, all eleven of them are probably here by now. So they’ve more than enough manpower to do the job. Dakini just happened to luck into seeing us at Catemaco. They probably had her patrolling the coast road while the rest of them watched the cuota.’
‘I still think we should look for a tracker. Achor Bale used one on you and your friends during that trip you took down through France. So did we amateurs at the Police Nationale. The Corpus have doubtless all been trained in their use.’ He glanced at Lamia, but she contrived to ignore his leading question.
Instead, she pulled the car over into a Pemex station, edging it around behind the shop so it wouldn’t be visible from the highway. ‘I need to wash and tidy up. I’ve just been driving for three straight hours over a cattle trail, through a mountain range, with my own family chasing after me, and I’m tired, and I’m irritable, and I probably smell. You both certainly do. If you men want to look for trackers, be my guest. But I’d appreciate it if you washed and changed into fresh clothes afterwards.’ She got out of the car, grabbed her overnight bag, and disappeared into the restroom.
Sabir flapped his hand. ‘Women. It’s probably her time of the month.’
Calque gave him a look.
Sabir caught the look but chose to ignore it. It irritated the hell out of him when Calque grabbed the moral high ground for himself. ‘Come on then, Chief Inspector. Stop all your horse-arsing around. Let’s get this over and done with.’
Calque groaned, and slid out of the passenger seat. ‘I’ll take the rear. It’ll most probably be in there. You take the front.’
‘You seriously think they broke into the car and planted a tracking device? And we didn’t notice or hear anything?’
Calque straightened up from a stretch. ‘Didn’t it ever occur to you that they allowed us to get away just a little too easily, back there in Carlisle? And that they picked us up again, two and a half thousand miles later, just a little too easily too?’
‘With eleven of them potentially following us, according to Lamia’s calculations? No. That wasn’t the first thing that occurred to me.’
Calque threw open the back hatch and began to feel his way around. Sabir did the same in front.
After fifteen minutes, Lamia came back, holding a takeaway cup of coffee. She perched on the walkway watching them. ‘Any joy?’
Sabir straightened up. ‘There’s no tracker in here. If they hid it, they hid it beneath the actual fabric of the car, and we’ll never get to it like this.’
Calque shook his head. ‘No. They had neither the time nor the facility to do that.’
‘Then how about underneath?’
Calque made a face. ‘People hide bombs underneath cars, Sabir, they don’t hide trackers. It’s not professional. The first major bump, the tracker would probably fly off. It’s just too great a risk. No. They’d have put it inside. And I’m convinced now that they didn’t do that. I think we’re in the clear again. For the time being, at least.’ Seeing Lamia eyeing up his shirt, Calque sniffed at his armpits, then flared his eyes, as if the smell had overwhelmed him. ‘They’ll be spreading out, though. Trying to edge ahead of us. All any of them has to do is look at a map, draw a few straight lines, and you can see which direction we’re headed in. It might as well be lit up by a strobe.’ He started to wipe his hands on his trousers and then thought better of it. ‘We probably should have zigzagged on our way down, but you can’t have everything. It’s taken us far too much time as it is. My view is that we should drive straight through the night and try to get to Kabah in the morning. Lamia is exhausted. I’ll take the first four-hour stint, you take the second. The ones who aren’t driving, try and get some sleep.’
Sabir nodded. ‘We’ll go and get washed up then.’ He cocked a finger in Calque’s direction, then picked at his own shirt with a mock sour expression on his face. ‘Lamia, will you buy us some junk to eat on the way? You know the sort of thing Calque likes. The stuff that normal, everyday people snack on. Chocolates, and crisps, and soft drinks with e numbers. Shit like that.’ Calque shuddered as if someone had just wiped their clammy hand down the small of his back. He stood watching Lamia as she made her way back to the tiendita. Then he cocked his head at Sabir. ‘Did you notice that, Sabir? She’s wearing make-up. And she’s put on a skirt and a fresh blouse and the closest approximation to a set of high heels I’ve ever seen her in. They’re called kittens, if I remember rightly. I’ve never seen her looking so feminine.’
Sabir shrugged noncommittally. He was becoming adept at sliding out from under Calque’s elaborate traps. ‘Look. You were dead right to make us look for the tracker, Calque, and I was wrong. We’d have been made to look like complete fools if there was one in there. In fact you’ve been pretty much on the ball all the way along. I’m sorry, too, about what I said to you yesterday. All that shit about Lear complexes and daughter fixations. I don’t know what got into me. I was way out of line.’
Calque gestured towards the tiendita with his thumb. Then he spread his hands expectantly, as if it were about to rain.
Sabir followed Calque’s glance back towards the tiendita, a rueful expression on his face. He knew exactly where the conversation was heading. As usual, Calque had successfully set him up for the coup de grace. ‘I know you think that Lamia’s gone to all that effort just for me. But you’re wrong about us. I promise you that. We don’t hold out anything for each other. Lamia doesn’t even allow that I exist most of the time.’
Calque sighed. ‘Sometimes I think being a young man is the mental equivalent of snow blindness. How old is Lamia, Sabir?’
‘She’s twenty-seven. She told me so herself the other day.’
‘And how old are you?’
‘Thirty-four. Rising thirty-five.’
‘Still young enough to be a fool. Yet old enough to know better.’
‘What are you getting at, Calque?’
‘You have before you a beautiful woman who does not know that she is beautiful, Sabir. She is damaged. All her life she has seen how people look at her, and she has made some deductions about it for herself. And her deductions are these. I am not a normal woman, she says to herself, nor ever can I be. I am not worthy to be desired. If a man desires me it is because he feels pity for me, and I am a proud person, and I cannot tolerate this. So I will close myself down. Deny my femininity. Work on other aspects of myself that will make me feel valued instead. I shall learn languages. Read books. Study obsessively. Develop my brain. I will take the woman part of me and I will simply kill it off. That way I won’t be vulnerable. That way I can’t be hurt.’
‘Jesus, Calque. Where do you get all this stuff?’
Calque jabbed at Sabir with his finger. ‘I have seen the way she looks at you, Sabir. You will be mindful of this one. You won’t hurt her. You will consider her feelings. It is not enough just to be a man, and follow your hormones, and not bother to feel the need to think. If you don’t care for her, show it. If you do care for her, show it. Or else I shall be very, very angry at you, and our friendship will be at an end.’
‘We have a friendship?’
‘Isn’t that what Lamia said we had?’
‘I guess it was.’
‘Then you would be a wise man to believe her.’
By the time you had passed through Santa Elena the hunger was giving you hallucinations. First you saw a small animal that looked like a dog, but which wasn’t a dog. It had a squared-off tail, and was grey all over. This animal watched you from the side of the road as you began walking. Then it followed you, darting in and out of the scrub at the edge of the highway. At one point you took out your machete and brandished it at the beast, but the creature lay hidden, perhaps anticipating your aggressive actions.
Then, later, you saw a snake at the side of the road. It was emerald green. As you watched, it coiled itself back and tried to thrust itself towards you. But the snake didn’t move. This was such a curious thing that you edged closer to see what had happened to the snake. It was then that you saw that a vehicle had at some point driven over the snake’s tail. This had become glued to the road by the blood, leaving the snake both free and not free. It could curl itself and lash out, true, and act in every other way as a snake should. But the blood had long since dried, and the snake was effectively anchored to the asphalt until another vehicle happened by and completed the job that the first vehicle had started.
This time you used your machete skilfully, as you used to do when you were cutting the pampas grass outside the cacique ’s house. The snake assuredly felt no pain. But, nevertheless, you regretted its passing.
You had already walked on some metres from the snake’s body when you realized that the creature contained meat. And that, freshly dead, it was of no use to anyone but the man who had killed it.
You took the snake with you into the underbrush, and you made a small fire, and cooked the snake over the embers, spitted onto a stick. When you ate the snake, the meat was tender and soft, like a chicken’s flesh. You could feel the meat rushing through your body, overwhelming you with its protein. You stood by the side of the track down which you had taken the snake, and you vomited, your stomach spasming with the unexpected food.
You stood for a long while, holding yourself. Then you reached down and picked up the parts of the snake that you had vomited out. Carefully, with great tenderness, you cleaned these parts and ate them a second time. On this occasion you managed to keep them in, for you knew that without food inside you, very soon you would die. And then the oaths sworn by your father, and your grandfather, and your great-grandfather, would come to nothing. Later, when it was time to be judged by the Virgencita, you would be found wanting, and she would get her son to condemn you to the purgatorio, where you would linger in the offal of your shame.
After this thought you sat by the side of the road and you watched the cars flow past you for some little time. But eating the snake had not helped you. Neither had the vomiting. In fact you no longer had the strength even to raise your hand and ask for help. Dusk fell, and still you sat by the side of the road. You were seventeen kilometres from Kabah, and you might as well have been seven hundred.
Once, a Maya man walked past you, carrying a rifle. You raised your head. He stared at you strangely. These Maya were a curious-looking people, you said to yourself. Small, and round of face, with backward sloping ears, curved noses, and protruding bellies. Not thin and lanky like the mestizos from Veracruz. This man even wore his hair short, like a scrubbing brush. As you watched him the man sneezed, then cleared his nose onto the ground.
‘Jesus,’ you said, meaning it as a blessing.
The man smiled, and pointed to his rife. ‘I am going to shoot a pheasant,’ he said. ‘Or failing that, an iguana.’
‘Yes. They are very good to eat. Except in August and September when we cannot kill them.’
‘Why? Why cannot you kill them then?’
The Maya laughed. ‘Because they turn into snakes.’
‘Madre de Dios.’
‘And not only that,’ said the Maya. ‘If we kill one during this period and then we marry, our wives will be vipers.’
‘It is October now. You may kill one then?’
‘Yes. Yes. I will try to do that.’ The Maya started away. Then he stopped. ‘I have a triciclo. When I have killed my iguana, I shall come back this way. If you are tired, you may sit in the front and I will cycle you.’
‘Why will you do that?’
‘Why not? You are a tired man. You have come a long way. I can see that in your face. When I come back with firewood and an iguana you will tell me where you are going, and then you will share my meal. I live the time it takes to smoke two cigarettes further up this road. You are a foreigner here. You will be my guest.’
You dropped your head between your knees as the man walked away into the woods. So the Virgencita had indeed heard your cry. And she had answered it.
You were blessed.
It was one o’clock in the morning. The Cherokee was approaching the outskirts of Campeche. Calque was fast asleep in the back of the car after his four-hour stint at the wheel, and Lamia was curled up on the passenger seat, watching Sabir.
Sabir stretched his hand out to switch on the car radio, and then thought better of it. He fiddled a bit with the air conditioning vents, then he adjusted the rear-view mirror. The last thing he wanted was for Calque to wake up again, or to go into snoring mode.
‘You’re a beautiful man, do you know that?’
Sabir turned towards Lamia, a quizzical expression on his face.
‘Your profile. It is very beautiful. Like Gary Cooper’s. That is the actor whose name I was trying to remember. That is who you look like from the side.’
Sabir was at a loss for words. No woman had ever spoken to him in that way before.
Lamia looked out of the window. The lights from the Cuota road played across her features, alternately darkening and lightening them every fifty metres. ‘I have never let a man kiss me. Did you know that also?’
Sabir gave a silent shake of the head. He didn’t want to break Lamia’s train of thought.
She turned to him. ‘Would you like to kiss me?’
‘Then, when you wish it, I will not push you away.’
Sabir stared at her. Without even realizing he was doing it, he let the car slow down to a crawl.
He stretched out his right hand. Lamia snuggled herself towards him and rested her head on his shoulder. He kissed her hair, and squeezed her tightly against him. He was speechless. Quite incapable of uttering a word. His chest felt as if it were about to burst apart.
He drove like that for some time, with Lamia curled against him. He was aware that she was watching him. Aware that her eyes were playing over his face.
‘How did you know?’ he said at last.
She shook her head.
‘I wouldn’t have said anything. You knew that too?’
She nodded. Then she tensed inside the circle of his arm. ‘My face. It doesn’t disgust you?’
‘I like your face.’
‘You know what I mean.’
He raised his hand to touch her, but she shied away from him.
‘You promised you wouldn’t push me away.’
Lamia gave a deep sigh. Then she nodded, and let him touch her. Let him cup her face with his hand.
‘I’m going to stop the car and kiss you.’
Lamia glanced behind her. ‘And Calque?’
Calque was watching them from the shadows in the back of the car, a half-smile on his face.
‘I think you need to tell us about the names, Lamia.’
It was three o’clock in the morning and they were thirty miles from Kabah, at the Hopelchen intersection. Sabir was still driving, and Calque had chosen that moment to pretend to wake up.
Lamia glanced back at him. Her pupils seemed unnaturally large in the car’s interior gloom. There were no street lights any more, and for some time now they had been cutting through a seemingly endless section of wood and scrub, interspersed with the occasional plantation of blue agave and maize, and the odd slash-and-burn clearing intended for assarting or swidden farming.
‘What names do you mean?’
‘I’m talking about the names given to your brothers and sisters. There’s something odd there. Dakini, for instance? What sort of a name is that?’
In the last few hours Sabir had become so hyper aware of everything that concerned Lamia that now he even fancied he picked up a momentary hesitation he might not have noticed otherwise – a sort of physical stutter, as though, walking along an otherwise smooth pavement, she had inadvertently caught the toe of her shoe on a protruding paving stone.
Lamia tried to conceal her hesitation behind a sudden play of turning down the interior visor, opening the courtesy mirror, and then checking her hair and face. Seemingly satisfied, she snapped the mirror back into place. ‘The name is Tibetan. It means “she who traverses the sky”. Also a “sky dancer” or “sky walker”. A Dakini appears to a magician during his rituals. She carries a cup of menstrual blood in one hand, and a curved knife in the other. She wears a garland of human skulls, and against her shoulder, a trident. She has long wild hair and an angry face. When my mother first saw dakini’s face, she called her this. Dakinis dance on top of corpses, to show that they hold power over ignorance and vainglory.’
Sabir shot her a look. ‘You can’t be serious?’
‘Madame, my mother, is always perfectly serious in everything she does, Adam.’
‘Then the other names. What are they?’
‘A nawal is a Central American witch who can transform herself into whatever animal she chooses. She can be either male or female. Nobody can harm her, because whatever is aimed against her rebounds on the perpetrator. She can use her powers for either good or evil, depending on her whim. According to the Nahuatl, all of us are given familiar animals at birth. Certain nawal s or nagual choose at this time to transform themselves into jaguars or vampire bats. Then they can suck the blood from innocent victims at night, while they are asleep. The Jakaltek Maya believe that a nawal will punish any of their number who transgresses from their society and marry mestizos. That is a person of mixed blood. Not pure Indio.’
‘Your mother certainly has a way with her. You can believe that.’
‘Oni, my youngest brother, who is both a giant and an albino, is named after a Japanese demon, with claws, and wild hair, and of an enormous size. These demons have horns growing out of their heads. Their skin is always an odd colour. Red. Blue. In my brother’s case, an unnatural white. An oni has strength beyond strength and cannot be beaten. He is like a ghost. In European folklore, he would be likened to a troll.’
‘And the others?’
‘Asson is named after a sacred voodoo rattle. This rattle would be used by the Hougan priests and the Mambo priestesses during a vodoun ceremony. It will be decorated with beads and the bones of snakes. Alastor, his brother in real life, is named after the Chief executioner of Hades. He is the avenger of evil deeds – Zeus sometimes used him as an amanuensis. He can be the personification of a curse, similar, in some forms, to Nemesis. His name can also mean a scoundrel.’
‘Neat. Great names. Must be nice to be saddled with that all one’s life.’
‘My brother/sister Aldinach is a true hermaphrodite – Aldinach was originally an Egyptian demon who caused violent tempests, earthquakes, and natural catastrophes. He always appeared in the shape of a woman when he did these things. He was a ship-sinker, too.’
‘Well, they had to blame somebody.’
Lamia refused to be bated. She could see the men’s embarrassment at what she was telling them, and the manner in which she was telling it, but she was not about to let them off the hook now. ‘My brother Rudra was named after an Indian demon god. This god used arrows to spread disease. He could also summon up storms and natural disasters. His name can be translated to mean the “roarer”, or the “howler”, or the “wild one”, or simply the “terrible”. Rudra can also mean the “red one” – Nostradamus uses this nomenclature in some of his quatrains, if you remember. It was the equivalent for him of the Devil, or maybe of one of the Antichrists. Rudra might reasonably be viewed as a storm god by people who did not understand his true function.’
‘To cleanse things.’
‘Christ. Any more?’
‘Berith was an evil duke in the annals of demonology. He wears red clothing and has a golden crown on his head. He is the alchemist’s demon, because it is said that he can turn any metal into gold. He is also a notorious liar. Athame, the favourite sister I told you about, is named after the sword, or dagger, usually with a black or obsidian handle, used by priests and priestesses. The blade has a double-edge – both a positive and a negative if you like. There are also symbols on the knife. Curiously, though, the athame was not used for cutting but for channelling energy. Such a knife is mentioned in the Key of Solomon. My sister Athame is a dwarf. She is a good person. The blunt knife is a good description of her.’
‘And the twins? One hardly dares ask.’
‘Vaulderie, the youngest twin, and now Viscount de Bale after Rocha’s death, is named after the word the French Inquisition used to describe the act of forming a satanic pact. Such a person could take to the air and go wherever he wished, thanks to the use of a flying ointment. Anyone found guilty of vaulderie would be tortured, and then burned at the stake. Vau’s elder brother, Abiger, now Count de Bale, is named after the most senior of all the demons of hell – the Grand Duke of Hades himself. He is always depicted as a handsome and mighty knight, master of many armies, with sixty of the infernal regions under his command. He carries with him a lance, a standard, and a sceptre. He can read the future, and is wise in the ways of war. Other warriors come to him for help in mastering their men.’
‘Why was your eldest brother, Rocha, not named in this way? Rocha means nothing as far as I am aware. A rock, maybe. That would be appropriate, mind you.’
‘Rocha was already a young man when he was adopted by Madame, my mother. It was thought inappropriate to rename him.’
‘So he renamed himself. Achor Bale.’
‘That is simply the use of a mirror image. It is common in certain quarters. We all have two sides to ourselves. Rocha decided that his dominant side was not as Count Rocha de Bale, but as Achor Bale. It was his choice. He is dead now, so it no longer matters.’
‘And your name, Lamia? Where does that come from?’
Lamia closed her eyes, as if what she was about to say had caused her much suffering in its time. ‘I, too, was older when I was adopted. In fact I am the oldest surviving child of my parents. My younger brothers are simply senior to me according to Salic law. As far as my name is concerned, Lamia was the daughter of Poseidon and the mistress of Zeus, I think. One of his many mistresses.’ She opened her eyes and laughed, although the laugh seemed to hold more regret than actual mirth. ‘That is her only significance. I think maybe Zeus accorded her the gift of prophecy as a down payment for her services to him in bed. That is all I know. She is an unimportant figure in the scheme of things.’
Calque looked at her strangely – then he shook his head, as if trying to rid himself of the presence of an intrusive fly. ‘The site at Kabah won’t be open until eight o’clock this morning at the earliest. We might as well get as close as we can and then pull over down a track. Get a little sleep in the car. Anyone have any better suggestions?’
Lamia and Sabir glanced at each other. Then they both shook their heads.
Calque threw himself back onto his seat. ‘Like Sabir always persists in saying, in that curious American way of his – I’ll take that as a yes, then, shall I?’
You had not expected the Maya man with the rifle to come back. Maybe, you thought, his pursuit of the pheasants had taken him far away – too far, perhaps, to consider returning? Or else his iguana had proved more elusive than expected? Maybe he had found no firewood? Your head sank lower on your chest.
Soon, you knew, you would simply curl up on the spot and fall asleep. The road between where you were and Villahermosa had been particularly difficult to accomplish. First you had been lucky. A market trader, his truck empty, had agreed for you to go in the back. Later, as was his right, he had taken on others. By the end of the journey, you were hanging out over the road, scared that you would fall off and burst your head on the highway. But somehow you had held on, your fingers turning into claws.
Then you had waited many hours for your next lift. But this man had taken you all the way to Campeche in his air-conditioned white car. The air had been so cold in the car that you had started to shiver. You would even have asked him to let you out if you had not been so sure that, after him, no more cars would stop for you. This man was a miracle in himself. A rich man. From Sinaloa. A man of substance.
At first you had been scared you would dirty his car, but later he told you that his father, too, had been a campesino, and that this was why he always offered lifts to those who needed them.
Campeche had been endless. You had walked and walked. After much time you had signalled a colectivo bus. You knew this was unwise, since you only had fifty pesos left to your name, but otherwise you knew you would collapse, and they would take you to the Cruz Roja, and you would lose your belongings, if not your soul.
When you looked up again from your thoughts, the Maya man was watching you. When he knew he had your attention he held up two iguanas. Two.
‘You see? You have brought me luck. Climb onto the front of my triciclo. I shall take you home. Can you cook?’
You shook your head. Your mother still cooked for you, and, in consequence, you had never learned how, as it would have been insulting to her.
‘No problem. I can cook. Can you make a fire at least?’
‘Bring yourself, then. We can make a space for you in here, by the firewood.’
Both Calque and Sabir were too wound up to sleep. Lamia had no such reservations. She drifted off right away, curled up on the back seat, like she always did, with her ankles drawn up beneath her, and her arms cradling her shoulders. But this time she was using Sabir’s jacket as a pillow.
The two men finally gave up the uneven struggle of the front seats. Without even discussing the issue, they both went outside to watch the sunrise.
‘You know what I love best in this world, Calque?’
Calque snorted in a lungful of fresh air. ‘No. But I suspect that you are going to tell me.’
Sabir closed his eyes ecstatically. ‘The way girls’ bottoms stick out when they walk.’
Calque pinched the bridge of his nose with his forefingers, as if he had acquired a sudden headache. ‘ Putain. But you’ve got it bad.’
‘So you were awake, huh? I thought you might have been. Being a police officer and all that. Trained to spy on people.’
Calque shrugged. ‘What did you want me to do? Pipe up and spoil your moment? There are things called Chinese walls, you know. You must have known I was awake because I wasn’t snoring for once. At least according to your theory.’
‘No. You did right. And I thank you for it. You called it, but I was too dumb to listen. If Lamia hadn’t taken the initiative, I’d probably be sitting in some bar in twenty years’ time, wallowing in regret.’
‘What? Like me, you mean?’
‘I didn’t say that.’
‘But you thought it.’
‘Haven’t you ever thought of remarrying, Calque? Starting another family? As you made so clear to me the other day, you’re not too old to begin again. Have another kid. You’ll only be seventy-five or thereabouts when she waltzes off with a serial-killing truck driver.’
‘Thank you. That’s very encouraging. I’ll definitely consider your proposition. Any particular woman in mind? Lamia, excepted, of course.’
‘Of course. Give me a little time to think about it. I’ll come up with something.’
‘Ah, what joys and sudden enhancements to confidence the unexpected possession of a woman can bring. You’ve changed, Sabir. Within the space of twelve hours you’ve become a human being again.’ Calque’s attention began to wander. ‘But not an American, eh? This woman you are proposing for me? You wouldn’t suggest that, would you?’
‘No. Never that. I’m not a sadist. You being a Frenchman and all.’
Sabir snapped his fingers together. ‘How about a Mexican woman? Mexican women value men. They know how to treat them properly. Not slice off their balls and serve them back with a topping of vanilla sauce.’
Calque looked at Sabir, his face aghast. ‘Now you may really be on to something. Apart from the testicular analogy, that is.’ He appeared to be lost in thought for a moment or two, as if he were pondering some great, but as yet little-known, truth. ‘You do realize, Sabir, that no woman in the history of this earth knows what she really wants? She only knows when she gets it.’
Sabir was preparing to respond to Calque’s apercu when Lamia emerged from the back seat of the Cherokee, stretching.
‘What are you two talking about? You woke me up.’ She looked suspiciously at both men, weighing up their mood. ‘At least you’re not arguing again.’
Calque put on his most innocent smile. ‘We were talking about women.’
‘Not specific women, you understand. Just women in general. Except in one particular respect.’
‘And what respect is that?’
‘Sabir tells me he particularly likes how your bottom sticks out when you walk.’
Sabir aimed a pretend cuff at the back of Calque’s head. ‘Damn it, Calque. What are you trying to do to me?’
‘Did you really say that, Adam?’
‘He really did.’ Calque was grinning from ear to ear.
‘And you like that? That part of me? How it moves?’
Sabir hesitated, sensing a trap. Then he threw caution to the winds. ‘I love it.’ He glanced up at her, gauging her reaction.
‘I like your saying it, then.’
‘Yes. No one ever talked to me like that before. I like it.’ She turned back to the car, amused by their open-mouthed response to her statement. ‘Are you both coming? We could stop off for some breakfast before Kabah opens.’
‘No. We’ll just sit here and watch you, thanks.’
Lamia reached down and picked up a stick, which she brandished at them. ‘I don’t like it that much.’
‘Okay. Okay. We’ll go first. That suit you?’
‘No. I’ll go first. I think I’ve just decided I enjoy being admired.’
Acan Teul had been spending the entirety of every day at Kabah since the news about the eruption of the Pico de Orizaba volcano had reached the Halach Uinic.
There had been many occasions during that period when he had been tempted to bunk off and visit his girlfriend at her juice shack six kilometres down the road, but each time he felt tempted by the anticipation of the joy she would no doubt show at his presence, he allowed his thoughts to wander back to what exactly the Halach Uinic might do to him if he was caught abandoning his post, and he thought better of it. There were always the evenings to look forward to, when the Kabah site was shut.
The problem was that Acan didn’t really know what he was looking for. The Halach Uinic – who was the most important Maya priest in the whole of the Yucatan, or so people told him – had not exactly bombarded him with information.
‘We are expecting something to happen at Kabah following the eruption. This has been predicted. But we do not yet know what it will be. You were once a guide at Kabah, were you not, Acan? You will stay there during the day, therefore. If anything strange happens, you will use the security guard’s cell phone, and you will call me. Your brother Naum will keep watch during the night. After the first two weeks, you will both be allowed time off.’
‘You will be paid from the fund. More than you could earn from labouring. Isn’t it better to laze around drinking Coca Cola than to break stones for a cheating boss?’
As always, the Halach Uinic had put his finger straight on the meat of the matter.
‘I shall do as you say.’
‘Anything. Anything strange. And you will call me?’
Now, eight days in, Acan was sitting under the shade of a carob tree, fantasizing about his girlfriend and wishing he was sitting in her fruit booth pinching her bottom. He loved the way she shrieked at him when he surprised her in this way. Sometimes she would even hit him with her towel, which afforded him great pleasure.
Just as he was beginning to doze off in the early morning sun, Acan’s attention was caught by a stranger – a mestizo, it looked like – arriving on his cousin Tepeu’s triciclo.
How did Tepeu, who spent his entire time hunting, ever get to know a mestizo? And, even more unlikely, give him a lift on his triciclo? Acan stumbled to his feet and shaded his eyes. Tepeu and the mestizo were negotiating with the man at the gate. Voices were briefly raised, and then Tepeu handed over a dead iguana, and the gatekeeper waved the mestizo through.
Acan watched as the mestizo walked towards the Palace of the Masks. The man stood for some time staring at the multitude of carved masks that adorned the wall, and then he shook his head, as if something puzzled him. After a moment’s further hesitation he turned around and walked down towards Acan. At first, Acan thought the man was going to talk to him, but then the mestizo chose a neighbouring carob tree, about twenty metres to Acan’s right, and sat down beneath its shade. Then he lay down, using his bag as a pillow, and prepared himself to sleep.
Acan glanced over at the gatekeeper’s lodge, but his cousin had already cycled away. Acan shrugged. What did it all have to do with him anyway? A mestizo turning up at Kabah, although rare, was not an event in itself. And the man was now clearly asleep.
Acan allowed himself to collapse back onto the ground again. He took a languid sip of his Coca Cola, and then set himself back to thinking about his girlfriend, Rosillo, and what he might do to her, come Saturday night, if he could only persuade her to drink just a little of his aguardiente stash.
Acan awoke from his doze at a little after ten o’clock in the morning. Gringos were coming – he could hear the confident boom of their voices from a hundred metres away.
The arrival of gringos was not, in and of itself, strange, as Acan knew that most of the small trickle of people who ever bothered to visit Kabah were gringos of one sort or another. Most visitors to the Yucatan, however, chose the more famous tourist destinations of Chichen Itza and Uxmal instead, leaving Kabah to wallow in its peaceful backwater isolation.
These gringos had a US registered car, though – Acan had very good eyes, and he could make out the number plate in the scant parking lot that serviced the site. And this was strange in itself. It meant that the gringos had driven many thousands of kilometres to reach here. Unless, of course, they lived in the country for part of the year, as some gringos did, and merely drove their car down for convenience sake.
Acan shook his head. He glanced over to his right. The mestizo was also interested in the gringos. As Acan watched, the mestizo took the bag that he had been using as a pillow, and hid it behind the trunk of the carob tree, as though he feared that the gringos might steal it. And that was also a strange thing. Why should the mestizo fear that the gringos might steal what he had? Surely, it would be the other way around? Mestizos were terrible thieves, or so his father had warned him when he became interested in a mestizo girl, one time.
‘Maya marry Maya,’ said his father. ‘If Maya marry half-Spanish thieves, they lose their souls and the nawal gets them.’
Acan had soon lost interest in the mestizo girl anyway, the first time he saw Rosillo working in her juice booth. Now she was a little piece of paradise, that girl. And Maya, too. His father wouldn’t dare call her a thief.
Acan decided to take a closer look at the gringos. He got up, stretched, and sidled over to where they were standing, admiring the Palace of the Masks.
‘Do you guys need a guide? I’m an expert on this place. I can tell you everything. If you pay me in US dollars and not pesos, I can tell you even more.’
The younger man laughed, and turned towards the woman, inviting her opinion. It was then that Acan saw the woman properly for the first time. He felt himself go cold, and his neck and arms prick up in goose-bumps.
One side of her face was covered in a veil of blood.
Acan grabbed hold of his shoulders for comfort, forcing his thumbs between the index and middle fingers of his hands – this phallic gesture, of the thumb as penis and the fingers as the vagina, had been taught to him by his mother as a talisman against curses.
Acan was briefly tempted to cross himself too, but then he remembered what the Halach Uinic always said about old Christian habits, and how they diluted true belief – true openness of mind. God was God. Hunab Ku was Hunab Ku. Itzam Na was Itzam Na. God was Hunab Ku. Itzam Na was God. God was both Hunab Ku and Itzam Na. In other words God was the same God for everyone. He did not belong to one religion more than any other. You did not own Him simply by giving Him a name.
The woman was looking at him strangely, and Acan realized that he was still gripping his shoulders like a young girl trying to protect her breasts from public gaze. He dropped his hands and attempted to smile.
The woman sensed his fear, however. Sensed that his throat had dried up. That he could barely swallow. This much he knew. Please God his talismanic gesture of the thumb between the two fingers had worked, for he also knew from his mother that this movement represented the dried-out and impotent penis being restored to life by the moistness of the vagina. In this way only could the evil eye be counteracted by the natural scheme of the earth.
Acan shivered, and turned to the older man of the group. Perhaps he would make a decision for them all? Acan wanted to be back underneath his tree. He wanted to drink half a litre of Coca Cola, very quickly, and very cold. Then he wanted to go and find Rosillo and tell her all about the gringa with the bloodied face. Maybe he would even get Rosillo to pass a raw egg over him, then crack it into a bowl of water and examine it. In this way would the mal de ojo be absorbed into the egg. Later, Acan would cover the bowl with straw and sleep with it underneath his pillow.
The older gringo cleared his throat. He tried a few words in Spanish, and then shook his head when he realized that Acan could not understand him. The old gringo’s English, too, was very poor indeed, but at least one could make out his basic meaning.
‘Five dollars, then? And you take us around the site and explicate everything to us?’
‘Sure, papi. Sure. I do that. Only you give me what you want at the end. What you think I deserve. Maybe less than five dollars. Maybe more. Okay?’
The older man laughed. ‘Okay.’
Acan could see out of the corner of his eye that the younger man had his arm around the woman and was talking softly to her. He didn’t dare turn back and look at them directly. He couldn’t trust himself.
He pointed up at the great facade of masks confronting them. ‘Here you see the Codz Poop. Also known as the Palace of the Masks. It is dedicated to Chaac, the rain god of the Maya. It is he who splits the clouds with his lightning axe, and fills the cenotes throughout the dry season.’ Acan’s voice had taken on the sing-song automated note of the professional guide.
‘Do you know how many masks there are? Or at least were?’
Acan searched his memory – it was a long time indeed since he had guided anybody in this spot. ‘Before the destruction there were 942 masks. Or so they say. You can see where the second line of masks would have been. Now there are only 500 left. The number 942 held a special significance for the Maya.’
‘What significance? I’ve never heard anything about the number 942.’ This was the younger gringo. The man holding the woman with the bloodied face. ‘We know 365 was a key number for the Maya, being the number of days in their solar year. Also 260, being the approximate span of parturition. But 942? It doesn’t make any sense.’
Acan felt raw and on the defensive after his unexpected reaction to the gringa’s mal de ojo. Why was this young gringo pushing him so hard? What did he want? Was he still angry about Acan’s reaction to his woman? ‘We no longer know. The secret has been lost with the destruction of nearly all our painted books.’
‘The codices, you mean?’
‘That word I do not know. But of all the books, only three, and the fragment of a fourth, are left intact. It is the greatest sorrow of the Maya people. These books contained our history. And the Spanish priests destroyed them.’
The older man with the strange accent was frowning at him. ‘Bishop Diego de Landa. July 1562. He tortured and killed all the Maya Chilans and notables. Then he destroyed five thousand cult objects and twenty-seven books. Thus the Black Legend. La Leyenda Negra.’
Acan looked away. ‘I know of no such Black Legend, Senor. All I know is that the Spanish priests tortured and killed any person they believed to have gone back to the old ways of thinking. And the Monsignor Bishop did not destroy twenty-seven books, Senor. He destroyed ninety-nine times twenty-seven books. The Halach Uinic has told me so, and he knows about such things. Later, the Catholic Church explained to us that the Monsignor Bishop was really being charitable when he destroyed the history of our people. He was trying to protect us from ourselves.’
Acan had no idea why he was describing all this to the gringos. Had he gone crazy? When he had been a guide here, five years before, he had never gone into things with such detail. But the stories of the Halach Uinic were fresh in his head, and the sight of the woman had unsettled him. At this rate the gringos would tip him one dollar, not five, and kick his ass into the bargain.
‘That is terrible.’
The woman had spoken for the first time. Acan could feel her gaze piercing through the back of his neck.
‘ Asi es la vida. My grandfather always said that to have the Spanish as friends was far worse than to have them as enemies.’ Acan shrugged, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to laugh. Part of him knew that he was attempting to play down something that, if he ever truly acknowledged it, would probably overwhelm him.
The younger man came up and touched him on the shoulder. Acan jumped, as if he had been hissed at by a snake. Then he realized that it was not the woman, but the man, who had touched him. And the man did not have the evil eye.
‘Let me get this right. You did say there were originally 942 masks on the Palace wall?’
‘That is what I have heard, yes. That is what the Halach Uinic has told me.’
‘The Halach Uinic? Who is this person you keep mentioning?’
‘He is the highest priest of all the Maya. He understands many things.’
‘And you know this man?’
‘Of course. Everybody knows him.’
The younger man turned to his companions and said something to them in a low voice. Acan could not completely make out what he was saying, but it had something to do with the number 942, and certain prophecies, and also the Halach Uinic.
Acan decided that, apart from the woman’s face, these gringos were unimportant. They were just as all the other gringos – hungry for knowledge that they would soon forget. He decided that he would wring as much money in tips as he could possibly get from them, and then go and share a cigarette with the mestizo, and find out what relationship the man had to his cousin Tepeu.
Now that was a real mystery.
Sabir sat on an upended barrel in the little shack that the Kabah gatekeeper had set up as an outlet for his soft-drink concession. He was still upset about the Maya guide’s response to Lamia’s face. He had never experienced anything quite like it. The man had taken one look at Lamia and then reacted as though he had seen a ghost. He had seemed truly terrified.
Sabir decided unilaterally that now Lamia and he were – how would one term it? – dating? – an item? – he would try to persuade her to go to Massachusetts General Hospital’s dermatology department in Boston once all this was over. He had a friend there, a senior consultant. He hadn’t seen the guy in years, but friendships were all about need, weren’t they? He’d call this person at home and seek his opinion about Lamia’s condition. Rekindle the friendship a little.
He knew he’d have to tread carefully around Lamia – she was hypersensitive about her face for obvious reasons – but he couldn’t imagine her objecting that strongly to his interference. All he’d have to do was to make sure she didn’t think he was doing the thing just for himself – that some unconscious part of him found her face distasteful, perhaps, and wanted it changed to suit him. If she ever thought that, he’d be sunk.
Lamia and Calque ducked in under the shade of the plastic awning just as Sabir was perfecting his game plan. Sabir wondered what they’d found to talk about out there in the heat. Maybe Calque was doing his Big Daddy bit again and had been reassuring Lamia about her face and the guide’s weird reaction to it. Maybe he ought to consult Calque about his idea for the dermatology clinic? Calque could be a know-it-all asshole when he wanted to be, but he was also oddly wise in the ways of women.
Sabir ruefully acknowledged that for a man of his mid-thirties age range, he was wildly out of practice in terms of female psychology. Still. When he looked at Lamia and thought of her in his arms, his heart took a pleasant little turn around his chest – he hadn’t felt like that for years, and he found it a very satisfying emotion indeed.
Calque sipped from his can of Sprite, his eyes playing over Sabir’s face. ‘Give us the quatrain again.’
‘Do you want me to write it down for you?’
‘No. Write nothing down. The Corpus might catch up with us again. I’m sure they’d be more than happy to have everything presented to them on a plate.’
‘Okay. It goes like this:
“In the land of the great volcano, fire
When the rock cools, the wise one, Ahau Inchal Kabah,
Shall make a hinged skull of the twentieth mask:
The thirteenth crystal will sing for the God of Blood.” ’
Calque shrugged. ‘Well? What do you make of it? We’ve looked at the Temple of the Masks. By a sheer fluke we’ve established that there were originally 942 masks, just as there were 942 Nostradamian quatrains. My view is that this number linkage is just a ridiculous coincidence, and not worth wasting time on. Do you agree?’
‘Personally? No.’ Sabir glanced across at Lamia. He sensed that she did not have her entire concentration focused on the subject at hand.
He reached across the table and took her fingers in his. He kissed them, and then pressed them to his cheek. He saw the sudden change in her expression caused by his unexpected movement – she seemed to sway back into view again, as if returning from a faraway place.
Frankly, he was astonished at his own audacity. What deep wells had that come from? He had always considered himself inept with women, and here he was working from a part of himself that he had never hitherto known existed.
‘What do you mean, no?’ said Calque. ‘You think there’s some link between an obscure site in the Yucatan and a sixteenth-century French scryer?’
‘But, Calque. We already know there’s some link. You’ve heard the quatrain. It’s categorical. Nostradamus wasn’t making all that up about “Ahau”, “Inchal”, and “Kabah”. He even got the spellings right, give or take an acute accent – except when he was purposefully obfuscating, as with Inchal. Almost as if someone was looking over his shoulder when he was writing the verse and making sure he didn’t blow it. And remember this. The manuscript had been hidden for more than four hundred years in a waxed and sealed bamboo tube secreted in the base of a statue of Sainte Sara when we found it. Impossible to tamper with. Impossible even to know it was there without Nostradamus’s say-so. So yes. I think we need to take every possible connection between Nostradamus and this place seriously.’
‘So what’s our next move?’
Sabir shrugged. ‘I’d have thought that was obvious. We come back tonight, when it’s dark, and we lever out the twentieth mask in the wall with the help of a couple of tyre irons. What else can we do in the circumstances?’
‘They’ve come to a place called Kabah, Madame. It’s an insignificant site, well off the beaten track. This morning we watched them as they made a tour of the site. They seemed to pay particular attention to the Temple of the Masks.’
‘Were they alone? Or did they meet somebody?’
‘They were alone. Apart from a local guide who ran up and bothered them, and whom they subsequently employed.’
‘Have you talked to him?’
Abi hesitated, aware that danger loomed. ‘No. I didn’t think it necessary. It was obvious the man was employed by the site. He was lying there sleeping before Sabir and his little gang arrived.’
‘Maybe he was waiting for them?’
‘Madame, no. I really think not.’
‘Speak to him anyway. Do you understand me, Abiger?’
‘Where have our trio gone?’
‘To a motel. Twenty kilometres down the road. But I have something else to tell you, Madame. Something of key interest, I believe.’
‘And what is that, Abiger?’
Abi cleared his throat. He didn’t know quite how the Countess was going to take this next piece of information. Still. He knew he had to give it up, or else one of the girls – Athame, maybe, who had always been close to Lamia – would simply get in there ahead of him and queer his pitch.
‘All the way down, the three of them have been sharing a room. Through fear, probably, of us breaking in on them’
‘Get to the point, Abiger.’
‘Now Calque, the policeman, has taken a room on his own.’
‘She is with the American.’
Lamia stood at the very centre of the small motel room and waited as Sabir got the fan going. The fan made a chopping sound, and then settled into a wheezing rhythm, thanks to its worn-out ball bearings.
She glanced at the twin beds. The late morning heat was already lurching in through the windows. She could feel the moisture gathering in the small of her back, then trickling down the gap between her underwear and the base of her spine.
‘Do you want to move on from this fly tip?’ Sabir was pacing the bounds of the room as though he was trying to memorize it. ‘The drive from Ticul to Merida would only take an hour or so. We could get ourselves an air-conditioned room in a modern hotel. You might be more comfortable.’
‘I don’t want to drive any more.’
‘Okay.’ Sabir stopped his pacing. ‘Are you hungry?’
‘It’s too hot to eat.’ She turned her face up to the fan. ‘Can you make this go any faster?’
‘I hardly dare. Let’s see though.’ He tripped the mechanism. ‘Christ. I think it’s going to take off.’
She laughed, and eased her dress away from her skin so that the air could circulate and cool her.
Sabir checked inside the bathroom. ‘There’s a tiled shower you could fit the entire Pats Football Team in. And we’ve got clean towels and soap. Things aren’t as bad as I thought. Shall I order some cool drinks?’
‘That would be nice, Adam. But who are the Pats? And why would they want to come into our bathroom?’
Sabir closed his eyes. ‘You really don’t want to know. Pretend that I never said it.’ He opened his eyes and flared them at the ceiling. ‘Okay. Maybe you do. They’re the New England Patriots. They play American football.’ He knew he was talking too much, but he couldn’t stop himself. He moved over to the telephone, shaking his head at his own stupidity. He raised the handset to his ear, then let it fall back into place. ‘Doesn’t work. I’ll have to go downstairs and put in the order personally. What do you want?’
‘Something sweet. A 7UP, maybe.’
‘Sure you don’t want a beer?’
Lamia cocked her head to one side and watched him. ‘A beer. That would be nice.’
‘Sol? Corona? Dos Equis? Negra Modelo? Pacifico?’
‘You choose, Adam.’
He hesitated, then headed for the door. As he passed her he stopped. He seemed about to say something, but then he just reached out and touched her arm. He retrieved his wallet from his discarded jacket. ‘I’ll be back soon, okay?’
‘I’m going to take a shower. Without the Pats.’
He nodded absent-mindedly, not even picking up her attempt at a joke. ‘Sure you want beer?’
‘I’ll get some potato chips, too. And maybe some peanuts.’
She turned to him. ‘Adam. It’s all right. I came to this room of my own volition. I’m not regretting it. I’m not going to run away if you leave me alone for two minutes.’
Sabir took a deep breath. He reached for the door. Then he turned back and strode across the floor to where she was standing.
Lamia leaned forwards and rested her head against his collar bone.
Sabir encircled her with his arms and squeezed her against him. ‘I love you. I want to tell you this now. Before anything else happens.’ He swallowed, but his throat didn’t seem to be functioning to quite its usual standard. ‘I’ve never said this to a woman before. I’ve never felt remotely like this.’ He buried his face in the valley between her neck and shoulder, breathing her in.
‘I love you too. I wanted to tell you in the car, early this morning, but I thought you might not like me that way. That you might just be drawn to me in the normal way, because we had been travelling together. You still might be.’ She looked up at him, a fleeting uncertainty on her face. ‘I would understand that. You can make love to me, if you want, and then decide how you feel. You can tell me afterwards.’
‘I’m telling you now.’
‘Adam. You don’t have to go down for the beers, you know. Or the potato chips. Or the peanuts.’
‘I know. I’m not going. I don’t know what I was thinking of.’ He led her slowly to the bed. They stood facing each other. Everything was all right again with the world. Sabir felt like a man on a plane watching a shed-load of passengers streaming expulsively out through the main exit after an inordinately long and claustrophobic delay on the tarmac. ‘I liked it when you put on that dress yesterday. And the make-up. And the high heels.’
‘Why? What’s so different about a dress, and make-up, and high heels?’ She was teasing him.
He laughed. ‘You know very well why. Because they’re feminine. Because they draw attention to parts of your body that particularly please me.’
‘Parts of my body? Like what?’
Sabir hesitated, gauging her mood. Then he turned her around, so that her back was to him. He liked the way she was letting him toy with her.
He drew in a quick breath, like a surgeon faced with a particularly delicate stitching job. ‘The nape of your neck, for instance.’ He cupped her neck, enjoying the heft of her hair on the back of his hands. ‘And your shoulders. And your upper arms.’ He touched each element in turn.
‘What other parts of my body please you?’ She had a smile in her voice.
‘Hmm. Let me think. Your elbows. Your forearms.’ He touched each named part, taking pleasure in the feel of her weight against him – keenly aware, too, of the bed just below them, but in no hurry to urge her there.
‘What else? What else makes a woman different from a man?’
Sabir gave it a moment or two’s thought. ‘A man has no hips to speak of.’ He ran his hands down Lamia’s flanks. ‘But you do. I like how your hips flare out from the narrowness of your waist. Like this.’ He touched the indentation on each side. ‘Like a violin. I like how a dress accentuates that.’ He reached around her and let his fingers travel lightly down her upper thighs, then up again in a more forceful sweep from the back of her knee to her buttocks. ‘This is an area I particularly value.’
‘Oh really?’ Lamia’s breath caught as she uttered the words.
He went down on one knee behind her. ‘And then your calves.’ He allowed his fingers to trace the outline of her leg. ‘And those shoes you wore. With the high heels. I like the way they show off your ankles.’
‘Yes. These.’ He reached down and encircled each one in turn with his hands. ‘But there’s more.’
He turned her around so that her belly was parallel to his face. ‘This is your belly. When you wear a skirt, it shows the little bump you have down there – the woman’s bump, just above your pudenda. I like that. It’s suggestive.’
‘Bump? Pudenda? Adam, really. You sound like a biology professor.’ She hesitated, stopping well short of what she had meant to say – desperate not to change his mood. ‘Suggestive of what?’
‘Of other things.’ He smiled, and rested his head against her stomach. He could feel the warmth of her against his cheek. Catch the scent of her – a mixture of clean clothes, perfume, and her own special scent, which he had first recognized in the brief instant he had carried her in his arms while they were escaping from their motel in Carlisle.
Lamia’s fingers wandered idly through his hair. ‘You like women, don’t you?’
‘But you are wary of them?’
Sabir closed his eyes. He didn’t want to talk any more. Didn’t want to spoil the moment. But something forced him on. Some recognition that if he didn’t explain exactly how he felt, he would be cheating Lamia of something she had earned by right – his formal acknowledgment of a grace she had accorded him that no other woman had ever come close to providing. ‘Because of my mother. I watched her destroy herself, and take my father down with her. It hurt me every second of my life until she killed herself. Then it hurt more after that.’
‘Does it still hurt?’
‘Not when I’m holding you.’
‘Like now. I can’t think of anything but you.’
Lamia crossed her arms below her upper thighs and drew her dress slowly over her hips – over the swell of her breasts – around her shoulders. Then she uncrossed her arms as the dress rode over her head, freeing itself from the temporary prison of her hair. She let the dress float gently down onto the bed beside her.
Sabir stood up. They were still touching along the entire length of their bodies. He undid Lamia’s brassiere and let it fall onto her discarded dress.
She sat down on the bed. Then she allowed herself to fall backwards, like a rag doll. She looked up at him expectantly, laughter in her eyes.
He reached down and drew her panties over her hips – she had to wriggle a little to help him.
Then she was lying naked in front of him. Not covering herself. Confident about her beauty. Wanting him to admire her.
He consumed her with his gaze, and Lamia accepted it as nothing more than her due. Without taking his eyes off her, Sabir discarded his own clothes. Lamia’s eyes travelled quickly over his body as he undressed himself, and then up again to his face.
Sabir slid onto the bed alongside her.
They lay, facing each other, feeling the beat of the fan against their skin.
It was a long time indeed before Sabir bent forward to kiss her.
Oni de Bale slapped at the mosquito which was hovering just above his right eye. He flopped backwards against the tree and lathered some more ‘Scoot’ on himself. He wondered if the others were being eaten alive too?
They each had separate cars again now – Abi had taken advantage of Sabir and Lamia’s sex interlude that morning to send them all into Merida, to the nearest Avis drop-off point.
Now that was a strange thing. Never would he have dreamed of Lamia and Sabir getting it on together. Especially with Madame, his mother’s, virginity hangup. What was that junk from the Bible she always used to quote at them in an effort to get them – well, particularly Aldinach, let’s be honest – to behave themselves?
These are they which were not defiled with women; for they are virgins. These are they which follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth… And in their mouth was found no guile: for they are without fault before the throne of God.
Of course in Aldinach’s case the target was both men and women – whichever was the opposite of whatever sex he had chosen to be that day. Convenient, that, when you came to think of it. It doubled the possible catchment area. Mind you, Aldinach wasn’t gay. Oni had to give the little nymphomaniac her due. She only worked on polar opposites. Never own sex. It was a sort of morality, when you came to think about it.
Anyway, much good Madame, his mother’s, virginity imprecations had done them. Rocha had fallen for her line, though, and look what had happened to him. But he was the only one, apart from Lamia – the rest of them rutted like rabbits whenever they could. And now here was Lamia obviously deciding that enough was enough, aged twenty-seven, and reeling old Sabir into her bed. Frankly, he couldn’t blame her. With a face like hers you needed all the luck you could get in the jiggy jiggy stakes.
Oni knew all about it. The size he was, most females ran a mile, scared that he would squash them. All right, he wasn’t a disgusting fat pig like Asson, whom he had once seen consuming four pitchers of Ben amp; Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream at a single sitting, but he was upwards of seven feet tall, and most women reached just about as far as his navel. As a result, Oni had taken to hiring professionals, who weren’t put off by the – what did Aldinach call it? – outsize aspects of his persona.
Now Abi had ordered them all into the forest to watch the site at Kabah, and here was Oni, with his extra-large body surface – wasn’t it the Cathars who said that human skin connected us to the Devil? – serving as dish of the day to a particularly virulent variety of mosquito. Fuck it. Fuck it all to hell.
He reattached his night-vision goggles and focused them on Sabir’s back. The guy was busy counting the masks on the facade of the temple. Each time he came to one he liked, he fetched a sheet of paper out of his backpack and taped it over the mask. He’d covered five sections in this way already – only the single remaining upper section still to go. The paper shone up in the moonlight very well indeed – Oni had to allow the bastard that much.
Oni now reckoned, by dint of careful counting, that Sabir was choosing the twentieth mask in each separate mask section. Must be some significance to that, wouldn’t you say? He punched his cell phone and passed on the information to Abi.
Sabir had snuck in to the Kabah site not half an hour before, just as Abi had said he would, wearing a rucksack and carrying two tyre irons. The policeman had snuck in beside him. Lamia wasn’t with them. Probably recovering from her orgy, out in the car. Oni grinned. Bet she was sore. She’d probably be walking splay-legged for days. Serve the bitch right for leaving it so long to get started.
That footman who got himself squished – Philippe, yes, that had been his name – he’d been dogging her for ages. But Lamia had brushed him off like a cobweb. And now he was dead, propping up the walls of a girls’ school in Cavalaire-sur-Mer. Did people still have sex in hell? Oni shrugged. Only one way to find out. On second thoughts, though, maybe he’d leave that little task to Philippe.
Oni swung around and focused his night goggles back on the Indian. Yes, the man was still hiding behind the tree, watching Sabir’s every move. Next, Abi swung his goggles over to the courtyard on the left of the Temple of the Masks. Yup. The night watchman was still lurking in a doorway there. The guy was whispering into his cell phone like he was making love to it.
It seemed pretty much impossible that Sabir and the policeman weren’t aware that they were being watched by at least three separate parties, but then Oni had to accept that they didn’t have the advantages he had – his night-vision goggles turned the whole of the scene in front of him into a sort of pallid, moonlit playground, where everything took on the surreal shape of one of Salvador Dali’s dream landscapes.
Oni could hardly wait to find out what would happen when whoever the night watchman was calling – cops? museum archivists? eco-warriors? – would come piling in through the front gates like the 7th Cavalry in a John Ford movie. The expression on Sabir’s face would be worth the price of entry alone.
Oni whispered once again into his own cell phone, bringing Abi up to date, and ending up with, ‘What do you want me to do?’
‘Stay where you are. Watch. And wait. Don’t – I repeat don’t – interfere.’
Oni grunted, and slapped at another damned mosquito. Easier said than done. He squirted out another palm full of ‘Scoot’ and plastered it all over his face. ‘Fucking buzzers!’
You watched the two gringos with a sinking sensation in your heart. What were they doing? Why were they here in the middle of the night? The younger gringo was counting the masks in each section, and then taping sheets of paper over the ones he chose. A strange procedure, surely? And no doubt illegal. Otherwise why would they come here at dead of night rather than during the daytime, when their activities would have been open to the public gaze?
You recognized them both from earlier on in the day. Only now the woman that had been with them, the one with the blood-soaked face, the one the guide had thought had the mal de ojo – yes, you had noticed him making the phallic gesture with his hands to ensure that the mal de ojo did not turn into the more dangerous ojo pasado – this woman had gone away. Maybe, being a woman, she did not approve of what these men were doing?
Earlier that evening, Tepeu had tried to persuade you to travel home with him on his triciclo. Tepeu was an estimable man. A man to honour. You had told him that you needed to stay here, near to the temple, and he had not questioned your motives, or tried to dissuade you. Instead he had arranged for a blanket for you, and also that you would be brought some iguana stew from the wife of the gatekeeper.
This woman and the gatekeeper lived in a hut about half a kilometre from the site. At eight o’clock Tepeu had cycled over and he and you had eaten the stew together, and shared a litre bottle of beer. You had told Tepeu that you could not repay him, but he had brushed your protestations aside like a man who flaps his hand at a hornet.
Now the gringos were here, and you did not know what to do. Did they intend to steal, as all gringos did? And why would they steal the masks? What could they hope to do with them? Sell them? Impossible, surely. The authorities would discover them, and then they would face prison.
As you watched, the younger gringo retrieved an implement from his rucksack and started to lever at the first of the stones. The older man took a similar implement and began to work at the stone from the other side.
You stood up behind your tree to get a better view of what they were doing. It was nearly full moon, and the two men were bathed in the reflected light off the white face of the temple.
What should you do? Speak to them? Run off and fetch Tepeu? Or the gatekeeper? Yes, maybe that would be the correct thing to do in the circumstances. The man lived only half a kilometre away, and you knew where his hut was situated, thanks to Tepeu’s description.
For some reason, however, you did nothing, and simply watched the gringos as they levered and struggled with the masks.
‘Do you think we’re crazy doing this? I mean, we’re standing here in a foreign country, at night, on a protected archaeological site, destroying one of their ancient monuments. If they catch us at it, they’ll toss us into prison and throw away the key.’ Sabir’s face had taken on a livid tinge in the moonlight – he did, indeed, look half mad.
‘We’re putting the stones back, Sabir. Nobody will know the difference.’
Calque and Sabir were onto the third of the marked masks. Each time they succeeded in levering one of the stone masks partially out of its sconce, one of them would hold the torch while the other felt around in the space behind the mask, pretending not to be worried about scorpions, biting spiders, and snakes.
‘Maybe Mexico doesn’t have scorpions?’
‘Of course they do. They’re strictly nocturnal creatures, though. And they only get angry when disturbed.’
‘Thank you, Calque. Thank you very much indeed.’ Sabir was feeling around behind one of the sconces with his hand. ‘They’re not deadly, are they?’
‘Just the Centruroides. The rest are okay.’
Sabir snatched his hand out of the hole. ‘Nothing there.’ He shivered, as if someone had just walked over his grave. ‘Where the heck do you come up with this sort of information, Calque? Do you just gen up for the fun of it? Or is it a nervous tic?’
‘Yes to both.’
‘You’re doing the next hole, then.’ Sabir’s cell phone buzzed. He slapped at his pocket as if he thought there might be a scorpion lurking in there too. ‘Yeah?’ He listened. Then he nodded. ‘Okay. Thanks. We’re fine here. No luck yet. Three to go. Then we can all go back home and have a holiday. The Caribbean, preferably. I’ve already got the double-hammock and the rum punches lined up. And there are no scorpions over there to leap out at you.’ Sabir pocketed the cell phone and turned to Calque. ‘Lamia says the roads in each direction are clear. She’ll continue to run interference for us until we call her in.’
‘The Caribbean is full of scorpions. You really are an ignorant man, Sabir.’
Sabir pointed at him. ‘Okay then, how’s this for ignorant? The Maya write from left to right, just like us. Except that everything’s in pairs with them. Glyph blocks, and suchlike. You told me that yourself, didn’t you?’
Calque gave a cautious nod.
‘What if we miss out the next section and just start at the far corner, which we probably should have done in the first place? Not waste our time here pussyfooting around on the right. In fact, why don’t we treat this whole temple wall as if it’s the stone equivalent of a written parchment?’
‘Why not just toss a coin?’ Calque sighed. ‘If your theory is right, Sabir, we have been wasting our time looking behind the wrong stones. We have been counting the twentieth mask from the right in each of these sections. If we had followed Maya practice, we ought to have counted the twentieth stone from the left. And started from the top. Is this what you are saying?’
‘My point exactly. Only I’m a stupid idiot who doesn’t know there are scorpions all over the Caribbean.’
‘It was a joke, Sabir. If a man is really secure in his intelligence, he doesn’t need to lash out whenever anyone teases him.’
Sabir was only slightly mollified. ‘Okay. I’m sorry.’
‘I’m sorry too. And I’m even sorrier that your theory, much as it pains me to admit it, seems a good one. Let’s go straight to the twentieth mask from the left.’
‘What forfeit will you pay me if I’m right?’
Calque sighed. His face took on the expression of a cartoon dog being forced to placate an over-bumptious puppy. ‘I’ll speak up for you with Lamia whenever she asks me about you. Which she does, incidentally, nearly all the time. How would that be? Previously I’ve always tried to drop you in it on account of my sexual jealousy. But from now on I’ll praise you to the skies. Will that satisfy you?’
‘It’s a deal.’
‘Of course, if we don’t find whatever it is we’re looking for, I will still consider myself free to undermine you at every opportunity.’
Sabir shook his head. ‘Thank God you’re French and not Belgian, Calque. Otherwise I might have a real problem with your sense of humour.’
‘Your turn to stick your hand in, Calque. Are there any particular bequests you wish to make? I’ll see to it that your posthumous instructions are carried out to the letter.’
Calque ignored him. He felt around in the first of their new series of holes. Then he closed his eyes. ‘There’s something in here. Something smooth. And cold.’
‘You’re kidding me?’
‘No. I can feel it quite clearly. It’s got teeth. And a nose. I can even feel the indentations of the eyes.’
‘Jesus Christ. What is it? I’ll kill you if you’re bullshitting me.’
‘I’m not bullshitting.’ Calque withdrew his hand from the hole. ‘We’re going to have to take the whole sconce out. There’s no way I can lever this thing through the size of hole I have here.’
Sabir stuck his hand into the hole and felt around. ‘You’re right. But we can’t risk taking the whole mask out of its niche. It’ll be too heavy. We’ll never get it back inside again.’
‘Then we’ll just have to leave it here on the ground. Maybe they’ll think it fell out due to condensation?’
‘Yes. That’s likely. Good call, Calque. I can just see the curator now. “Hey, guys! We just lost another of these 1,200-year-old masks. Bastard thing must have fallen out due to condensation.”’
Both men stepped back and stared at the sconce.
‘We’ll just have to tug like hell and then get out of the way. Thing’ll probably lose its nose when it hits the ground. That’ll really buff up our grave robber credentials. One thing I can tell you, Calque. When we get hold of whatever it is that’s tucked in behind this mask, I’m not sticking around.’
‘Neither am I. Come on. Let’s do it.’
The two men levered with their tyre irons until the mask was teetering at the very edge of its sconce.
‘It’s going to tip. Watch your feet.’ Sabir pulled at the mask, and then stepped quickly back as the entire structure overset towards him.
The mask hit the ground and bounced.
‘Christ. It’s still going.’ The two men turned around to watch the mask pounding its way down the steps behind them, stone-chips skittering in every direction.
Only then did they see the eight Maya standing in the moonlit courtyard. Each man held a rifle in his hands. Lamia was standing beside one of the Maya. Her mouth was bound with a cloth.
Sabir glanced at Calque. He spoke out of the corner of his mouth. ‘Any more funny jokes to share?’
Calque sucked at his teeth. ‘Not offhand.’ He gave a sudden Burt Lancaster grin. ‘No. Wait. Maybe these gunmen aren’t interested in us after all? Maybe they’re on a night training exercise for the Mexican army?’
‘Yeah. Right on, Calque. That’s a good one. Glad I fucking asked.’
Tepeu watched the two gringos with a horrified sort of fascination. They were smiling. It seemed impossible, but it was true. Here they were, facing eight armed men, seconds after being caught by the Halach Uinic in the very act of plundering the holy temple, and they were smiling. Had they no idea what might happen to them? Had they no idea of the severity of what they had been doing?
The younger man sat down at the top of the stone steps and put his head in his hands. The older man stood beside him, staring down at the Halach Uinic.
The Halach Uinic stepped forwards and indicated that the band should be taken from the woman’s face.
It had been Tepeu who had captured her. He felt very proud indeed of this fact. He had turned his triciclo over in the middle of the road and had lain beside it, as if he had been involved in an accident.
For one brief instant he had thought that the woman had not seen him and was about to run him over. But at the very last moment she had stopped and climbed out of the car – it later transpired that she had been talking on her telephone at the time.
Tepeu had then stood up and covered her with his rife. His cousin Acan had warned him about the mal de ojo, but Tepeu only saw that this woman had a defect from birth on her face. This he had seen before, in Merida, on a man in the market. It was certainly no mal de ojo, but something to be regretted instead. How would it be to spend your entire lifetime being looked on and pitied by everyone who passed? And the woman was beautiful, too, apart from her blemish – at least for a gringa. Acan, as always, was dramatizing the situation out of all proportion to its significance. Still. The man was little better than a guero. Endlessly chasing after girls, and dollars, and the main chance. Tepeu was fond of his cousin Acan, but he did not respect his way of life.
Now he looked furtively around for a sign of his new friend, the mestizo from Veracruz. He had to be here. Wisely, though, he was hiding. Tepeu liked this man. It was not his fault that he was of mixed blood. But he was an honest man. And modest. This shone out of him.
When Tepeu had first come across the mestizo, he had immediately realized that the man was close to starvation. At first he had not known how to play the situation. It was not customary among the Maya to invade a stranger’s privacy unless specifically requested to do so. Tepeu had decided to leave the outcome up to God. He had told the man that he was going hunting, but that when he came back he would take the man with him to his home. In this way face had been saved by both parties.
If the man did not wish Tepeu to feed him, he would go away. If he was too weak to go away, Tepeu would find him again, and take him under his wing. Tepeu had always taken people under his wing. This was his nature. The first animal that had crossed the invisible circle his mother had marked around his birthing bed had been a hen. From that moment on, Tepeu had had no choice in the matter.
Now the Halach Uinic was walking up the steps towards the two men. The woman was accompanying him, as well as Acan, and his brother, Naum. Tepeu hurried up to join them. From there, he would get a better view of the surrounding forest. If he saw the mestizo, he might be able to signal him away. Indicate to him in some manner not to become involved.
The older of the two gringos was speaking to the Halach Uinic in broken English. Pointing backwards to the hole where the mask had been ripped out. Making a shape with his hands.
The Halach Uinic flapped his fingers, and this older gringo now started up the remaining steps ahead of him. The whole party, Tepeu included, followed the gringo until they stopped near the opening.
The older gringo then stepped forwards and thrust his hand into the hole he and the younger gringo had made.
Tepeu could feel his breath catch at the back of his throat.
Something was about to occur.
Would the gringo bring out a weapon of some sort? And why was the Halach Uinic humouring him? Tepeu had not fully understood the English the gringo had used. Perhaps the older man had begged for his life, and the Halach Uinic had agreed to spare him if he thrust his hand back into the rain god’s mouth?
The older gringo pulled an object out of the hole. This object was pale and round, and appeared to capture the light of the moon within its circumference.
The gringo held it up so that the Halach Uinic could see it.
The Halach Uinic dropped to his knees. Acan and Naum dropped to their knees. Tepeu, without quite knowing why, did the same. Behind him, the three remaining men who had accompanied them prostrated themselves on the ground.
It was at this exact moment that Tepeu’s friend, the mestizo, chose to appear from behind the shelter of his carob tree.
Tepeu froze into place, halfway between kneeling and stretching himself out. There was a sudden noise in his head like the hissing of a thousand snakes. Through this noise Tepeu could hear the mestizo’s voice echoing off the walls of the buildings.
‘What you are holding,’ the mestizo said, ‘is pictured. Here. In this book I have. This book that I must now give to you. See? I have it here in my hands. I have brought this book all the way from Veracruz, but it is too heavy a burden for me to carry alone any more. My father, and my grandfather, and my great-grandfather protected this book for you before I did. Now that the great volcano of Orizaba has burst into flame, the time has come for the book to return to its own people. This is what I have been told to tell you. That we have done as we promised.’
‘You’re not going to believe this, Abi.’
Abi stared at his cell phone. ‘What am I not going to believe? Wait. Don’t tell me. There’s been a crime passionel. Calque has murdered Sabir through thwarted love for our sister.’ He shook his head, half convinced by his own casuistry. ‘All joking aside, Sabir must be blind. Or maybe Lamia’s just hot as hell in bed, and they’ve both gone pussy crazy?’
‘No. No. It’s nothing like that, Abi. It’s not that at all.’ Oni was so excited that he failed to pick up the customary sarcasm in Abi’s voice, or even to notice the new wave of mosquito attacks that were being unleashed against him. ‘You’ve still got all the roads out of here covered, haven’t you, Abi?’
‘Oni, get to the point.’
‘The point. Yes. Putain. The point.’ Oni was sweating even worse now – the perspiration was streaming off him in runnels, diluting the ‘Scoot’ until it was only fractionally better than useless. ‘You should have been here, Abi. It was like an Indiana Jones movie. Picture this. Sabir and Calque are standing out there in the moonlight, levering away at one of the temple masks, and trying to grab at something that is tucked away behind it. Then the mask they are levering at topples out of its niche and clatters down the temple steps like that bouncing bomb that flattened the dam in that stupid war movie the Rosbifs have.’
‘That’s two movies in one sentence, Oni. I can only take so many movies.’
‘Okay. Okay. No more movies.’ Oni slapped at a rogue mosquito that had broken away from the flotilla encircling him. ‘So then Sabir and Calque turn around like the idiots they are and stare at the mask as if it’s going to stop bouncing and magically swoop back inside its hole again. And that’s when eight Mayan guys appear out of nowhere, with our sister in tow, and cover them with rifles.’
‘What did they find, Oni? Calque and Sabir?’
‘What? But I was telling you about the armed men.’
‘Forget about the armed men, Oni. I already know about the armed men. You may find this impossible to believe, but you’re not the only fucking fish in the fucking sea. Now tell me what they found.’
‘Who’s telling this story, Abi? You or me? I was just building up to the punchline.’
Abi glared at his cell phone as if he intended to sink his teeth into the keyboard and chew it up. ‘Then you’d better get to the fucking punchline, Oni, or I’ll fucking flatten you just like that fucking dam you were fucking wittering on about.’
‘Yes, you and what man’s army? And you shouldn’t swear so much, Abi. Madame, our mother, says it’s a sign of a lack of imagination.’
Abi consciously reined himself in. It was either that, or swear out a contract on his brother. What was the point in working himself up over nothing? He knew what Oni was like. Had always known. He sometimes forgot that the idiot was only eighteen years old.
He had actually received reports of the coming of the armed men some little time before. For some reason the news had not surprised him. You don’t single-mindedly follow three people day after day without the expectation of some sort of violent payback. And here it was, beckoning to him like one of Homer’s sirens.
Abi had immediately ordered the others to stand by, and to follow when and where possible. Now all he needed was to get a little sense out of his humungous fool of a brother, and he would have the situation nicely back under control again. ‘I’m sorry, Oni. Continue in your very own time. I’m entirely at your disposal, as always.’
‘There’s no need to be sarcastic. I know I get a little carried away sometimes. But this was special, Abi. Listen.’
‘I am listening.’
‘When the mask had finished bouncing, there was a sort of powwow, with everyone putting in their centime’s worth. Lots of hand-waving and rifle-shaking. Then a decision must have been made, because Calque turns around and leads everybody back up to the face of the temple. Then he stands there like a stage magician – like George Sanders as Svengali in that movie with…’
‘…until he shoves his hand up inside the hole left by the mask and comes out with a…’ Oni stopped. He was grinning at his cell phone like a chimpanzee.
‘With a what? For pity’s sake, Oni, tell me what he came out with.’
‘A crystal skull, bro. A crystal fucking skull. Can you believe it?’ Oni shook his head at the cell phone, as though it might somehow jerk into life and be able to discern his thought processes. ‘It was more than a foot tall. With a jaw on hinges like a real skull. And something black for its eyes. Emeralds probably. Or maybe jade. I couldn’t make it out. Well the assholes with the guns take one look at this thing and drop to their knees like they’ve just seen the Pope. And what do Sabir and Calque do? Do they leg it? Do they leg it hell. Instead of sprinting back to their car, they stand there like they’re expecting to be given a gold medal at the Olympics for their trouble. Like they expect a pat on the back rather than the bullet in the head they’ll probably get when these bozos with the rifles come to their senses again.’
‘What happened then, Oni?’
‘Wait for it. It gets better. Much better. What happens then is that this guy I’ve been watching for the past three hours – the guy hiding behind the carob tree I told you about, Abi – this guy comes breezing out from his hiding place waving a book. “It’s all written down in here,” he shouts. “I can’t carry this thing about with me any longer. The volcano has spoken.” Or some shit like that. My Spanish isn’t too good.’ Oni was really getting into the swing of things now. ‘Well the gunmen nearly pissed themselves, I can tell you. They were lurching around, not sure who to cover, who to shoot, or whether they should throw themselves on their knees again and start worshipping Calque and Sabir as gods.’
‘How did it all end?’
‘Three of the gunmen got together and manhandled the busted mask back into its hole. Then they tidied up all the stone chips and made the whole place shipshape again, just like nobody had ever been there. Then the boss man gathers everybody up, they have another powwow – believe me, these guys are good at powwows – and then they head off to wherever they need to get to in three separate cars, including Sabir’s Grand Cherokee.’ Oni searched wildly for a suitable flourish with which to end his story. ‘Now there’s nobody left here but us chickens. And a few bloodthirsty fucking mosquitoes feeding on us. Can I come home now, Abi?’
‘I recognize you. You’re the guide, aren’t you? The one who told us about the 942 masks?’ Sabir was driving the Grand Cherokee. Acan was seated beside him, with Calque and Lamia taking up the back seats. ‘So you were out there watching us all the time? How come? Were you expecting us? But that’s impossible.’ Sabir turned his head sharply. ‘You’re not with the Corpus are you?’
Acan was still nervously watching the woman. Hoping she wouldn’t stare directly at him. Give him the evil eye. He was clutching his rifle between his legs, so he wasn’t able to make the appropriate countermovement to diffuse the curse. ‘The Corpus? What is that?’
‘Forget it. It’s not important.’ Sabir glanced at Lamia in the rear-view mirror. ‘Look. Do you have to keep staring at my girlfriend that way? You may not realize it, but it’s damned off-putting. What is it with you people? Isn’t kidnapping us enough?’
Acan blew out noisily between his lips. Now that the subject was out in the open, he felt better. ‘She has the evil eye.’
Calque leaned forwards. ‘He thinks Lamia has the evil eye. On account of her face. That if she stares at him he will be cursed.’
‘Oh, for pity’s sake…’
‘This is serious, Sabir. You need to explain it to him.’
Lamia reached forwards between them. ‘I will explain it to him. I speak his language. It is my face that is frightening him, not yours.’
Calque dropped back into his seat. Sabir turned his concentration back to the road. Both men were acutely embarrassed. The placation and the bringing to understanding of this young Maya man had become far more important than any half-baked ideas of getting themselves out of the spot they were in.
Lamia hunched towards Acan. She spoke softly to him in Spanish. He began a reluctant nodding of the head. At one point Lamia took Acan’s hand and held it to the side of her face. Acan snatched it away and crossed himself. Lamia watched him, sadness mingled with her desire to make him understand. Then, unexpectedly, Acan stretched out his hand one further time. This time Lamia did not attempt to influence what Acan could or couldn’t do.
Acan’s fingers were trembling. He had quite forgotten about his rifle.
Sabir instinctively sensed that he was in the perfect position to wrest the rifle away from Acan and take control of the situation again. True, he was top-and-tailed by two other vehicles, each with a number of armed men inside them, but he could see a side-turning looming half a mile further up the road. All he needed to do was to time his move to coincide with the arrival of the slip road.
Only then no crystal skull. No book. No answers. Sabir hesitated for a moment, his skin crawling with a sudden inner certainty which whispered ‘and no more Lamia, either’. She would never forgive him for abusing her tacitly given word.
So Sabir did nothing. For the very first time since his mother’s suicide, he realized that he was putting the welfare and happiness of another person before his own. The thought was a novel one. Was he really beginning to emerge from nearly ten years of emotional lock-down? He glanced possessively at Lamia in the rear-view mirror.
Acan reached out and touched Lamia’s face. Something changed in his eyes as he made the movement. The fear went out of them. He nodded, as if something had been successfully explained to him – some secret to which he had always wished to be privy.
He turned back to the front. ‘It is all right now. I am very sorry.’ Then he began to cry.
Sabir stared hard at Lamia, and then at Calque. ‘What brought that on?’
Lamia shook her head. ‘It was nothing. I reminded him about the mark of Cain. I said that God had given me this mark because I had come of an evil cradling. And that I took the mark as a sign to me that I must turn my back on the evil represented by my family and stand on my own two feet. Like Herman Hesse’s Demian.’
‘Which he’d read, of course?’
‘Don’t laugh, Adam. I explained to him that the god Abraxas concatenates all that is good and evil in this earth, and that we each have to destroy a world if we wish to be reborn. I quoted to him from Hesse’s book. The original goes “ Der Vogel kampft sich aus dem Ei. Das Ei ist die Welt. Wer geboren werden will, mu? eine Welt zerstoren. Der Vogel fliegt zu Gott. Der Gott hei?t Abraxas. ” I translated it for him like this: “The bird fights his way out of the egg. The egg is the world. He who wishes to be born must destroy a world. The bird flies to God. The God is called Abraxas.”’
‘Lamia, he’s crying, for Christ’s sake.’
‘My image of the egg. It meant to something to him. Over here they use the egg to rid themselves of evil thoughts. I think he understands about me now. He no longer thinks I have the evil eye.’
Sabir glanced furtively across at Acan. Then back at Lamia. He could feel Calque’s eyes burning into the back of his head.
Sabir felt uninformed and inadequate. Unworthy of Lamia’s love. What was he doing here? What right did he have to interfere in all these people’s lives? To act as some sort of unholy catalyst, uniting forces that he little understood, in ways over which he had even less control?
‘I’m sorry I made that crack about the Hesse book. I don’t understand my own motives sometimes. I felt possessive of you, and didn’t like the fact that you weren’t involving me in what you said to
…’ He hesitated, really acknowledging the man beside him for the very first time. ‘What is your name?’
‘My name is Acan.’
‘This is Lamia. Lamia de Bale. Back there is Calque. Joris Calque. And my name is Sabir. Adam Sabir.’
Acan smiled through his tears. ‘My name is Acan Teul. I am Maya. From the village of Actuncoyotl. My father is called Anthonasio – Tonno for short. And my mother is called Ixtab.’
Lamia smiled gratefully at Sabir. Then she turned back to Acan. ‘Ixtab. That is a beautiful name.’
‘Yes. She is named after the Rope Woman. Our goddess of suicide. In Yucatec Maya, suicide can be a positive thing. It can be an honourable way to end one’s life. Ixtab is the goddess who accompanies the person who has killed themselves to paradise, making sure that they are welcomed there, and given the respect that is their due.’
Sabir turned on him, his face instantly suspicious again. ‘Suicide? Why are you talking about suicide all of a sudden?’
Calque laid a restraining hand on Sabir’s shoulder. All of their nerves were on edge, and Sabir’s most of all. Calque knew that Sabir hadn’t been sleeping. During the past few days the man had been becoming more and more wound up – just as he’d been in the aftermath of his tangle with Achor Bale. It was as though Sabir lacked three or four of t