Authors: Peter May
Tags: #Fiction / Mystery & Detective / General
Poisoned Pen Press
Copyright © 2010 by Peter May
First Edition 2010
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 2009931405
ISBN-13 Print: 9781590586945 Hardcover
ISBN-13 Print: 9781590587171 Trade Paperback
ISBN-13 eBook: 9781615951284
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in, or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of this book.
The people and events described or depicted in this novel are fictitious and any resemblance to actual incidents or individuals is unintended and coincidental.
Poisoned Pen Press
6962 E. First Ave., Ste. 103
Scottsdale, AZ 85251
For Eric the Viking
I would like to offer my grateful thanks to those who gave so generously of their time and expertise during my researches for
. In particular, I’d like to express my gratitude to pathologist Steven C. Campman, M.D, Medical Examiner, San Diego, California; Grant Fry, Lead Forensic Specialist, Orange County Sheriff-Coroner Department, California; Doctor John Bond, head of forensics, Northamptonshire Police, England; Professor Joe Cummins, Emeritus in Genetics at the University of Western Ontario, Canada; Hubert Piguet and Yves Gomy of the
Société Entomologique de France
; my namesake, Peter May (no relation), of the British Amateur Entomologists’ Society; Adjudant-Chef Didier Le Gac, Gendarmerie, Île de Groix; Claude Guiader, Maire-adjoint, Ile de Groix; Brigitte Adam, journalist,
, Ile de Groix.
O death, where is thy sting?
O grave, where is thy victory?
—1 Corinthians, 55
Munich, Germany, December 20, 1951
Erik Fleischer was a man who counted his blessings.
His wife was an attractive woman, hair cascading in golden waves over square shoulders, a smile that lit her inner soul, and spellbinding blue eyes. Still adoring after five turbulent years.
He had two wonderful children, blond, blue-eyed clones of their mother. Magda’s genes had predominated over his own Mediterranean looks.
He had survived the war virtually unscathed, inheriting his parents’ Bavarian villa in this leafy suburb, establishing a lucrative practice among the new, burgeoning middle class rising now out of the ashes of Hitler’s madness.
The good life stretched ahead toward an unbroken horizon.
How could he have known that this night he would lose everything?
As he sat reading the evening newspaper, he absorbed, almost unconsciously, the peals of laughter emanating from the dining room. Mother and children playing a simple board game. He dipped his head to peer over his glasses and glanced through the door toward them. And with the seeds of arousal sown by the merest glance at Magda, rose ambition for a third, or even a fourth.
He glanced at his watch, folded his paper and laid it aside. “I’ll be back down in fifteen.”
Magda half-turned her head toward the living room. “Dinner will be ready in twenty.”
His study was an elegant room, oak-panelled, one wall lined with bookshelves that groaned under the weight of his father’s books. Tall windows looked out across the boulevard to the brooding darkness of the park beyond. Full-length velvet drapes hung open, and he could feel the cold pressing against the glass, like icy palms pushing flat against the panes. He drew the velvet against the night and sat at his leather-tooled desk, patient files neatly laid out under the soft light of his desk lamp. He checked his diary. First appointment was at eight-thirty tomorrow. And he felt the smallest grain of discontent at the thought of the endless stream of pregnant women that would punctuate his days into the foreseeable future. But he wasn’t going to let it darken his mood. His blessings were still in the ascendancy. He pulled the first of the files toward him and flipped it open.
The sound of the phone crashed into the ring of light around him, and he reached into the darkness beyond it to lift the receiver. The voice was little more than a whisper. Hoarse and tight with tension.
“They’re coming! Get out! Now!”
He was on his feet, even before the phone went dead. He heard his chair hit the floor behind him. The nearest window was two paces away. He separated the drapes the merest crack, and felt the soft velvet against his cheek as he peered beyond them into a night filled now with demons. It has hard to see past the haloes of light around the streetlamps below, but he was certain that he could see a movement of shadows among the trees. No time to think. He had put the possibility of such a thing far from his conscious mind, but now that it was here he reacted with what seemed like well-rehearsed efficiency.
Shaking fingers retrieved keys from his pocket and unlocked his desk drawer. The metal of the army issue pistol felt cold in his warm hand. He crossed to the walk-in cloakroom at the far side of the room and threw open the door. Rows of coats and jackets hung on the rail, shoes neatly lined up beneath them. He lifted a heavy wool overcoat and slipped the gun into its pocket, pulling it on over broad shoulders before stooping to pick up the leather overnight bag he had prepared for just this moment.
He did not stop to think. There was no regret-filled backward glance as he closed his study door and hurried along the landing to the back stairs. No time for reflection or sorrow. To hesitate would be fatal. Only briefly, as he hurried down the stairway, did the image of Magda and the children in the dining room flit briefly through his mind. No time to say goodbye. No point. It was over.
The cellar smelled sour. Freezing air, fetid and damp. He stumbled through the darkness to the door, and fumbled with gloved fingers to unlock it.
Icy night air hit him like a slap in the face, and he saw his breath billow in the moonlight as he pulled on his hat. But now he stopped to listen, before peering cautiously along the alley between cold granite houses, to the street beyond. There was only the occasional car on the boulevard. But the shadows among the trees had taken form. He saw the huddled shapes of half a dozen men. The glow of cigarettes in the dark.
And then suddenly the screech of tyres. Lights blazing in the boulevard as several vehicles mounted the sidewalk, doors flying open. A cigarette discarded in a shower of sparks as men came running from the park.
Erik pulled the door shut behind him and sprinted along the alley to the lane behind the house, half-fearing they had sent men round the back. But no—they had not anticipated his forewarning. As he heard the hammering on his front door and the voices calling in the night, he hurried off into the dark, toward an unknown future full of fear and uncertainty.
Agadir, Morocco, February 29, 1960
The view from the ancient city walls down to the harbour below and the sweep of the bay away to the south, were spectacular. Yves never ceased to marvel at it. He had been fortunate to get an apartment in the historic
, a studio in the roof of a converted
in the heart of the old town. It was small, but all that a single man might require. From his terrace, he looked out over a jumble of rooftops and down into the narrow, shaded streets below. He loved the life of the
, its noise, its energy, and he was used to shopping almost daily for fresh produce in the
. He enjoyed waking to the sound of the calls to prayer that rang out each morning from the minaret of the mosque. Plaintive calls, summoning men to confer with their maker. And although he was not a religious man himself, there was something about the spirituality of the ritual that he envied, that his lack of faith would prevent him ever from sharing.
Today, as he drove out through the old city gates, the view unfolded below him as it always did. But this morning he barely noticed it. The mist gathering along the coast caught the first light of dawn as the sun rose over the desert to the east. Glowing. Pink. The restless ocean washing it up all along the sandy shore. A haze hung over the city spread out below him, new build expanding east and south as the population of this West African port exploded with the success of the Atlantic sardine trade.
But Yves was focused on his rearview mirror. Amid the chaos of motor vehicles and horse-drawn carts and merchants’ barrows in his wake, he caught a glimpse of the black Citröen. He had been watching for it, hoping that in the end it might prove simply to be a figment of an overactive imagination. But there it was. He cursed softly under his breath and followed the road as it serpentined its way down the hill toward the harbour. Fleets of rusting trawlers lined up along the quay, like the sardines that they had brought in overnight.
He glanced out of his driver’s window, up the arid rocky slope and its tangle of pale green desert scrub, to the curve of the road above him. Dust rose from the tyres of the following Citröen. He had first spotted it nearly a week ago. It was probable that no ordinary person would have noticed it. But Yves was no ordinary person. His life possessed only a veneer or normality. There was not a minute of any hour of any day that passed when he didn’t have an urge to glance back over his shoulder. It had become instinctive, as much a part of him as breathing. Always watching, scanning faces, focusing on anything unusual, no matter how small. Always expecting them, knowing that they were out there. Somewhere. Looking for him.
As the Citröen came round the bend behind him, he saw the driver’s face, caught in a brief flash of sunlight, like a photograph engraving itself on Yves’ retinas. A familiar face. Round. Bald. But familiar from where? He had no idea. He only knew that he had seen it before. He could see the shadows of other men in the car, and suspicion burgeoned quickly into certainty and then fear. They had found him. They were following him. And sooner or later they would come for him.
With a deep inward sigh, Yves knew that it was time to move on.
A window along one side of his office looked down on to the floor of the indoor fishmarket below. It was a huge shed where long wooden palettes laid out on concrete displayed the day’s catch. Sardines, mackerel, dorade, mullet, plaice. Boxes and boxes of them neatly arranged in oblong enclosures all across the trading floor, where buyers clustered to barter with white-coated marketeers. Raised voices floated up through the stench of fish and salt to rattle the window frames. Yves paused for only a moment to consider that it was the last time that he would gaze upon this scene. He had grown to love the smell and sights and sounds of the market during the nearly ten years he had worked his way up from humble trader to market manager. Considering that he had known nothing of fish or fishermen when he arrived from Munich, his ascent had been little short of meteoric. But his intelligence and ability to think on his feet had quickly singled him out from the crowd, and his bosses had not been slow to spot it. Increased responsibility had followed. Promotion. First to the running of the trading floor, then to assistant manager. And when finally his mentor had retired last year, stepping up and into his shoes had seemed the most natural progression to everyone concerned.
He turned away from the window, heavy with disappointment and regret. Each time, it seemed, that his future looked set, fate stepped in with a change of plan.
Run, Erik, run. Start again. Rebuild your life. But don’t ever think you are safe. Never think for a moment that I am not right behind you, ready to pounce
He removed the picture from the wall above his desk, and spun the dial on the safe behind it left and right. He heard the tumblers falling into place as he stopped it at the final digit, and the heavy door swung open. Inside lay bundles of documents, official papers, a cash box containing several hundred Dirham. And right at the back, a padlocked metal case, which he removed and placed on his desk.
A small key on his car key ring unlocked the padlock and he threw back the lid. Inside were the passports they had given him. All the paperwork he would require when the time came. He took them out and slipped them into a compartment of his briefcase, and picked up an old black and white photograph. Magda and the children. He felt a stab of self-pity, almost remorse. In all these years he had hardly ever allowed himself to even think what might have become of them. And now wasn’t the time. It followed the papers into his briefcase, and he picked up the Walther P38 that he had taken from his desk drawer that fateful December night in Munich all those years before. Occasionally oiled, but never fired, in anger or self-defence. He dropped that, too, into the briefcase.
He looked up startled as the door opened. His secretary was a plump lady in her late thirties, dowdy and unattractive, with olive skin and dark eyes. Her long hair was tied up inside a black scarf. “What is it, Aqila?” The sharpness of his tone startled her.
“I’m sorry, Monsieur Vaurs.” Her apology was both defensive and hostile. They had never got on. “I have Monsieur Cattiaux from the bank on the line. Do you want to take his call?”
“No, tell him to call this afternoon.” His French, after all this time, was almost without accent and would never stand out in a country where almost everyone spoke it as a second language. But that was something he might have to work on.
She nodded and closed the door behind her. He breathed out deeply, trying to release the accumulating tension. He wouldn’t be here this afternoon, and he would never speak to Monsieur Cattiaux from the bank, ever again. He took some satisfaction from that, at least. A single crumb of comfort floating in his sea of troubles. If there was one thing he did not mind leaving behind him it was debt.
He put the empty container back in the safe and locked it again, carefully re-hanging the picture. Then he turned to his desk and began going through the drawers. Not much here that he would take with him. Almost impossible to anticipate what he might need in an obscure and uncharted future.
call to prayer rang out across the
, the voice of the
carrying across the night, rising above the racket of the street markets and restaurants below. It was a familiar and comforting sound to Yves, coming as it did with the soft air through the open windows of his studio. Even in February the night air was mild. He would miss the climate. The heat of the summer, the mild winters, the clear, dry air. And the smell and sound of the sea. When silence settled across the city in the dead of night, it was always there, a sound like breathing. The deep, sighing, ever-present breath of the sea. In a way, he thought, it was what he might miss most of all.
The small leather suitcase was open on the bed. Prepacked and always ready, he was adding last minute items. Insignificant things. The detritus of a life to which he had grown too attached and was reluctant now to abandon entirely. An engraved silver cigarette case, a clock with luminous hands that he had bought at the
, a gold wrist chain given him by Salima. He paused and wondered about her photograph. It stood in a pewter frame on the bedside table. When he hadn’t wakened to her on his pillow, she had always been there at the side of his bed. On an impulse, he tore the cardboard backing away from the frame and took out the black and white print. He looked into her dark, smiling eyes, and ran a fingertip over her lips. Lips he would never kiss again.
He slipped it into the lining of his suitcase and stood debating whether he should call her. But he knew he could never explain the reason he was leaving, or make her understand why she would never see him again. And he wondered why that thought caused him more pain than the leaving of Magda and the boys.
In the end, he found a more practical reason for not calling Salima. It was just possible that his phone was being tapped, and he did not want to alert his pursuers to the fact that he was about to flee.
He closed his suitcase and sat on the edge of the bed looking around his studio. A glance at his watch told him it was not long after 11.30, and he suddenly felt very alone. And frightened. He had never planned for a life like this. Living in the shadows, watching for those who might be watching him. Forced to flit from one life to the next, always leaving behind the people and the things he loved. There was almost, he thought, no point in building a new life. Because somewhere, sometime in the future, they would find him, and it would all begin again.
Wearily he got to his feet and lifted his case. The bastards were relentless. And if they ever caught him, his life would be over.
At 11:38 he pulled the door of his apartment softly shut behind him. The old stone staircase was in darkness, the bulb on the landing burned-out or stolen. He would leave by the side exit in the corridor next to the caretaker’s apartment on the ground floor, just in case they were watching the street. Once out into the maze of alleyways that riddled the
, he could melt undetected into the night.
But the dark in the stairwell was profound, wrapping itself around him like a cloak, very nearly tangible. His outstretched free hand followed the line of the wall downwards as he searched ahead with each foot for the next step. His own breath resonated loudly in the silence that resided behind the thick, stone walls of the old
It was when he reached the landing below his that he first heard the voices. Whispers in the dark. Foreign tongues that he could barely discern and could not understand. But there was an urgency in the voices that conveyed itself without barrier of language. A tension in them. And he became aware that the men who owned them were on the next landing down, and on their way up.
Panic rose like bile to choke him. It was them! They were coming for him. Now. And there was nowhere he could go. He stopped, standing stock still, mid-flight. The only course open to him was to retreat to his studio, and attempt an escape across the rooftops. But the very thought paralysed him with fear. He had felt safe to always leave his windows open, because no thief in his right mind would clamber over these roofs at night. And, besides, he had absolutely no head for heights.
They were getting closer. He heard his name, and blood turned to ice in his veins. No doubt about it. It
him they had come for. And still he stood rooted to the stairs, held there by a debilitating inertia. His only other course would be to charge down through them, taking them by surprise. But what if they had flashlights, and guns? There were several of them, he could tell. He would be totally exposed.
There was no advance warning. So he was taken wholly by surprise when the world came apart around him. Suddenly, and completely. What had seemed like solid matter supporting him turned to dust, and masonry, and timber, the air filled with the screeching and rending of metal and stone. A roar that rose up out of the very bowels of the earth, the hot, rancid breath of the devil himself exploding into the night. Yves was falling, flying, turning. Interminably. Fifteen seconds that felt like fifteen hours, before something struck him on the head, and the world turned black.
He had no idea how long he had been unconscious. But the first thing that struck him, as awareness returned, was the silence. An extraordinary, deafening silence, all the more striking for the contrast with the roar of destruction still echoing in his memory. Dust was settling all around him like the finest snow, and he choked on it, before looking up to see stars where once had been his apartment. He could make no sense of the confusion of masonry and brick all around him, had no conception at all of where he was. But to his surprise he found he was still clutching his suitcase, battered and scored, but intact.
He was lying at a peculiar angle over a chunk of what appeared to be the staircase, and he manoeuvred himself with difficulty into a sitting position. Miraculously, nothing seemed broken, but he could feel blood trickling down the side of his head.
Now he could hear distant voices calling in the night. And someone screaming. Closer to hand, something that sounded like moaning. But in his confusion he was unable to identify which direction it came from. He had no idea what had just happened. An explosion?
He tried to get to his feet and, as he turned, saw an arm protruding from a jagged chunk of masonry, frozen fingers clutching at nothing. He scrambled over the rubble, and with an enormous effort managed to pull the stonework to one side, exposing the hopelessly crushed body of a bald-headed man with with a round face, white now with plaster dust, and streaked crimson with blood. The Citröen driver. There were others here, too. He saw a foot. A hand. A leg. No sound. No movement. His pursuers were dead. All of them. Just three of the sixteen thousand who died that night during fifteen seconds of hell, in what he would soon discover had been the worst earthquake in Moroccan history.