Candace was left holding the phone and smiling with relief. She went into the bathroom and washed her face and gave herself a lift with some bright red lipstick. By the time she’d finished and fluffed up her hair, the bell rang.
“Now then.” Karen looked her up and down. “You look tired, girl - - ”
“Don’t say that.”
Karen hugged her, “but gorgeous as ever. Troubled and interesting - - how about that?”
Candace smiled: Karen thought of herself as wild and inscrutable which tended to mean she stuck out her bottom lip and let her Afro go crazy.
“Thanks. You want a glass of wine and some blue cheese and dills?”
“Just eaten - - “ she said shaking her head, “but yes to a glass of wine and this shit needs to go right now.” She stopped Sinatra in mid croon and ran her finger through Candace’s chaotic record collection. “Muddy Waters, that’s more like it! What we need is a hoochie-coochie man.”
It sounded right. They raised their glasses and drank.
“Thanks K - - I really didn’t want to do this on my own. Not now - - ”
“Now that this private dick has told you it wasn’t an accident?”
She nodded. “He says it’s something we have to consider.”
“Well, sure - - ” Karen rolled her eyes. “How much is the dude charging you for God’s sake? I always thought it was suspicious, the first time you told me.”
“Of course. First thing that entered my head, but maybe I watch too many scary movies.”
“I always wondered because Annie wouldn’t have gone skinny dipping on her own, but it was bad enough she was dead and I couldn’t deal with anything worse - - until I found out she’d fallen for this guy.”
“Shit Candace, you don’t think complicated meant like he was a weirdo?”
Candace sighed and said, “No she’d been round the block.”
“You never said much about her.”
“I’m sorry K, but I’ve only just put it all together for myself.”
They had their own pet names for private banter in the Clinic when their tails were up. Karen had been running the office for ten years and really held the whole thing together. Nothing got her down for long.
“And you had your Mom too,” she said. “A crock of shit to deal with.”
“Right.” She and her mother never talked about it and every year the anniversaries would loom up and pass without a word - - Annie’s birthday, the day she died, the day she left, the day Dad left, Dad’s birthday - - there was always something but never a word, one endless treadmill of denial.
Karen jumped to her feet. “OK girl, let’s do it.”
Candace followed, crunching the last cracker. It dawned on her she hadn’t eaten all day.
“I’m going to call up for a pizza,” she said, pausing by the phone.
“If it’s deep pan with olives and anchovies I’ll steal a slice.”
“You’re on.” Candace ordered two. She never liked to eat alone but it happened all the time and was one of the reasons for Bill Holden.
“Mother - - ” Karen was rooting through the box, “nobody been near this stuff since we coloured people got the vote.” She shook out a bin bag of tee shirts and underwear, fishing through it with a pointed foot. “What goddamned size was she anyhow?”
“Skinny you mean.”
“I guess. She never had to diet.”
Karen ripped open another box. “Books - - ” She recoiled from the dust with a lot of drama. “And bugs - - weevils - - we need the City’s Pest Control.” She turned round and did a kind of curtsy, “I’m real sorry Ma’am, but you happen to have rubber gloves? I mean, I’m not accustomed to cleaning without them.”
Candace drew herself up high and haughty, “well, I do recall precisely requesting your people to send you all over here fully equipped - - “
Karen hooted, “C, your Scarlett O’Hara act isn’t worth a crooked dime. Just get me some gloves or at least a cloth.”
“I got gloves. What d’you take me for?” She came back from the kitchen smiling and laughing. “I did better, two pairs and a bug spray. Says it kills all kinds of vermin.”
“Foreign vermin like Drew?”
“No mention of him,” she studied the can, “but termites, cockroaches, scorpions - - ”
“Give me that.” Karen blasted the box and an acrid vapour filled the air. “You got masks?”
Candace laughed and opened a window, “just fresh air.”
“It’s not that bad.” Karen was famously part of the no-gym and no-jogging set. She stood back from the box as if something might crawl out of it. “Jeez, I hate bugs.”
“How d’you feel about snakes?”
“This guy likes them.” Candace took the photo of Durrell with a snake wrapped round him out of the file.
Karen shuddered. “Strange guy.” She opened her eyes goggle-wide, “Wait - this isn’t him, is it?”
“I don’t think so. According to Harry these two are the front runners.” She showed Karen the photos.
“They’re more like it.” Karen looked closer and wrinkled her nose. “But the white guy looks like a red neck. Mean son of a bitch - - ”
The buzzer went.
“Here already. They’re only just down the block.” Candace put her glass down and went to the door.
She paid the kid with a tip big enough to send him off with a smile as wide as a pizza slice. She had one as well - - she loved being with Karen and was lucky having a boss like Dana. She was feeling high: she’d dumped Bill Holden and kind of fancied her private eye even if he had kept her in the dark. Maybe it was fair enough, just the way they did things in his world. Noir - - she undid the pizza boxes and was just about to take them through when a shout came from the spare room.
“Candace, come here for God’s sake - - ”
She dumped the pizzas and ran up the corridor. Books and crumpled clothes were lying on the floor and Karen was standing amidst them in bright yellow gloves. “It wasn’t those guys at all,” she said. She was holding out a piece of card. “It was this brother here. Look.”
An old-fashioned studio portrait from the fifties. Candace’s heart thumped hard in her chest: a handsome young man looked back at her with shining eyes and a nappy hair style, a big smile and zoot suit with a thin bootlace tie. He was standing in a studio with a corny down-home frame and a scroll in one hand - - graduation. The studio had cleverly typed his name, D. Nkumbé, into the scroll.
“Look on the back,” said Karen, her voice quiet.
Candace turned it over. The top edge had been eaten away and a dark stain had seeped across the card. All but the last two lines of the dedication had gone but it was just possible to decipher it: “I adore you, dream of you, and can’t wait to be with you at the beach as well as on the mountain. I long for you and will wait for ever, Didier.” Her heart raced and she turned the photo over and gazed into his eyes, willing him to speak. Thoughts and words hurtled through her mind too fast to catch. This was the man Annie had fallen for and who scuttled home to his wife.
“This guy,” she said, a dry whisper. She was fighting with her feelings. “He looks so young - - ”
“Annie was too.”
“I know, but it never felt like it. She was always my big sister.”
“But she never got to be as old as you are.”
“True.” Candace drooped: never a day passed without expecting her big sister to walk through the door.
“Anyhow he looks plenty old enough to me, and like he says, rearing to go, beach and mountain.“
“Yeah, I can see that,” she said still trying to get her head together, “but he’s not wearing a ring.”
“He was married. Annie said it was complicated - - “
“Sure it was,” Karen gripped her arm, “the guy was black for God's sake. Race was complicated Candace - - it still is!”
Candace looked again at the photo and nodded dumbly: of course.
“You’re right,” she said.
Things were falling into place and her heart leapt - - he looked like the kind of guy Annie would’ve fallen for, handsome, stylish, over the moon about her, and black. He wasn’t married at all: it was incredible, he had been nameless and out of sight for nearly twenty years, but now he’d come back to life and where he came from was stamped on the back, Ebolowa.
“It all fits," she said, "this is the place Annie circled on the map.”
But her voice faltered as she wondered if he’d been the kind of guy who could watch his lover drown and then scuttle home - - or do something even worse?
* * * * * *
The Rhone Valley, France. Thursday morning.
He could have had the most famous limp in France. That’s what they used to say in the piscine, and they probably still did. De Gaulle had seen to that, him and his camera crew and precious titanium. Marc grimaced at the image in the mirror, the leathery tanned skin and grizzled hair. They’d called him a fucking gypsy too and that wouldn’t have changed either. He tugged at his tie and cursed them all.
“Papa,” a small voice piped up behind him.
“Papa, why are you in here again?”
He gathered her up warm and tousled from sleep. She clung onto him like a primate and he clung back.
“You could’ve helped me with this,” he whispered squeezing his tie. She opened her mouth to speak but he shushed her with a finger on her lips. She giggled and they covered their mouths like conspirators. Then he picked up his jacket and carried her downstairs into the kitchen.
“Papa,” she asked climbing onto the bench, “why were you in the spare room?”
“I didn’t want to wake anyone up, especially you, chérie. You should still be in bed. Look at you - - you’re half-asleep.”
He watched her rub her black eyes, as deep and dark as his own, and glared round at the usual debris of cigarette ends and empty bottles. He wiped the table before lifting her onto his lap. She wriggled round and searched his face with an unspoken question they both knew he couldn’t answer.
“I have to go chérie. Therese will be here soon. She’ll make you breakfast.”
“I wish you didn’t have to Papa.” Her eyes filled with tears.
“I’ll be back soon. Cross my heart.” He grasped her so tight that the letter in his pocket pressed into him. “Anyway, I’ve got a surprise for you - - more stamps.”
“Oooooh Papa,” she shrilled so loudly that he had to shush her again. A sunny smile beamed out at him. “Beautiful new ones.”
They weren’t new to him: Mount Cameroon half hidden in cloud, Bamenda coffee beans spilling out of a basket and the bridge the French had built over the Wouri a few years before he left.
“They’re from Cameroon, where I got this,” he said, rubbing his hip. The scar tissue was ridged and he could feel the steel splinter under the skin. He remembered the noise as the bullet hit, a whine and thwack, and then the blood, famously the first to be shed in de Gaulle’s battle for France. “Lucky it didn’t smash the femur,” the surgeon had said wiping his glasses.
Madeleine wriggled off his lap and he was back in the present.
“I’m going to stick them in now,” she said.
“Voila.” He held her tight and kissed the top of her head. “Be good. I’ll send you some more.”
“From Cameroon?” She drew out the last syllable so far that his heart nearly burst.
“No, cherié, from Niger. Where our paddleboat is.” He’d called it Madeleine in her honour.
She nodded, her dark head bobbing as she slid off the bench. He yearned to take her with him right there and then consoling himself it wouldn’t be long: everything was ready, the house, the nanny, the Montessori school - - he had the money, all they were missing were the Swiss passports. He grabbed his coat and was opening the back door when the phone rang, the so-called safe line Foccart had insisted on as part of the deal.
“You’ll be able to reach me any time of the day or night,” the bastard had promised, but Marc knew better. It meant the line was tapped and the master of information had another chance to play the puppeteer. Dealing with Foccart was like dicing with the devil, you were doomed to lose, but this time fate had dealt Marc a wild card, something that might possibly inflict a mortal blow on his old enemy.
He picked up the phone. “Oui.”
“M. Benet?” It was some ENARC minion, the voice vaguely familiar. “S’il vous plait - - Colonel Foccart would like to speak with you.”
Marc waited, his grip tight on the phone.
“Gitan - - ” The nickname went back as far as the limp.
“I thought we’d got rid of you,” Marc said. “They said M. Afrique had been sacked.”
“I’m no longer Minister for Africa and Madagascar, but nothing else has changed. That’s why I’m calling. You still answer to me, and I’m bringing the date forward to the 14th. The new President might object to Messmer's nuclear plan.“
Before the election: the bastard thought of everything. “That’s a risk you’ll have to take,” Marc said just to needle him. “It’s too soon, the shipment has only just reached Douala.“
“Don’t tell me what risks I have to take.”
“I’m just telling you - - “
“And I’m telling you to get a move on. Just remember Benet, screw this up and your pretty little darling will be staying behind in France. Bye bye, baby.”
“Fuck you Foccart.” He picked up a paperclip and bent it open.
“I’d be worried if I were you, a little girl all alone in the sticks with no father to protect her - - you know what those peasants get up to. You were one yourself.“
“Cool down and concentrate on the job in hand. What about Castile? I sent you his details.”
“I got them.”
“And you’ve dealt with him?”
Marc pushed the paper clip into the soft wood as if it was a knife slicing into the flesh below the fat man's ribs. “Easier said than done," he said. "All you ever do is sit behind a desk.”
“I told you to get it sorted.”
“And I told you that hoods like Victor Castille don’t drop out of sight just because the President wants the piscine cleaned up.”