On another hot, airless, July morning, Georges Trevolin had to force himself out of bed. He had remained annoyingly awake for a long time the night before. Now, half an hour before his alarm clock was due to ring, he had given up hope of getting any sleep; even if he did retained fugitive memories of vivid dreams. Some people, he had heard, dream in black and white. Trevolin's restless brain threw out images in full colour. He could still remember the girl's bright yellow dress.
She had been unknown to him, in her mid-twenties and available. He, realizing that he was dreaming, had moved in for an X-certificate experience, a natural form of virtual reality. He had woken before his exercise in lucid dreaming had reached even a moderately interesting stage. His dreams, like his life, were full of frustrations.
A mild headache crushed his temples as he headed for the bathroom with gummy eyes. His stomach felt heavy. Given the choice, he would have returned to the clammy sheets of his bed, knowing that he would feel even worse if he postponed the chore of starting his day. But that option was unavailable.
He had a prospect of some paying business and he needed to contact a man about some money. It was the old story: he was trapped between a government department wanting payment the following day, or else, and someone who owed him enough money to make up the difference between what he had and what he needed. His late-payer was a model of efficiency when it came to ordering goods and taking them away, but amnesic when payment was required.
The pavements were still steaming away the power sprays used by the early rising Sanitation Department to hose off the filth of the previous day. When he crossed roads, Trevolin had to pass through a suffocating belt of traffic fumes. Thousands of people were still in motion in the city, even though tens of thousands had fled to the country to escape the summer heat. Those who had to stay, and masochistic visitors, were crossing the city to places of work and points of interest. As they did so, they were expending enough energy to power the heavy industry of an average small country, according to some clever professor at the university.
Trevolin stepped out of the throng to take an early breakfast in the fenced-off area of pavement before the Café Perle. A current of air drifted along Helder Road, funnelled by the huge, modern buildings at the far end. Trevolin felt a plume of his own sweat and personal odour billow away in the direction of the river as he found a place among tourists and fellow working people who were too lazy to make their own breakfast.
He tried to lay silent curses on the heads of Toni Storr and Ron Arnoux, who were dragging him into the city's dusty business section when he could be lazing under a tree in a riverside park. Trevolin maintained a vision of himself in a peaceful, rural setting, where he had nothing to do all day but sun himself between meals. But it was time to move on, he realized.
The office was a mess; ashtrays full, two unwashed mugs on the desk, an expanded newspaper two days old filling the waste bin. There was a whitish film with dark grey streaks on the dark green and beige squares of carpet tile. The window, streaked on the outside by the last, forgotten rain, was laced with cobwebs. Dust clung to the inner surface of the glass. His office was just somewhere to hold brief meetings and an accommodation address for mail.
A sour smell pervaded the still air. Trevolin knew that the abandoned milk had become a virulent germ-warfare agent. He opened the window. Holding his breath, he lifted the noxious carton gingerly and hurled it into the alley. He scored a fair hit on an open bin belonging to a restaurant opposite, releasing a cloud of flies. The stink was someone else's problem now.
He put the electric fan on the window sill, facing outward so that it would blast the smell out of his office and into the alley. He emptied both ashtrays into the out-of-date newspaper, crumpled it into a ball, and aimed it at the dustbins opposite. He missed this time, but the newspaper ball merged naturally with the general overflow. The city's early-rising street cleaners concentrated only on main roads. Alleys received later attention.
Antonia Storr wanted him available in case she needed him. She used her lack of a firm schedule as a security procedure. Trevolin switched on the radio and took the kettle down the corridor for some fresh water, knowing that he was deliberately putting off trying to phone Ron Arnoux.
After switching the electric kettle on to make some coffee, he plugged in his portable computer and started the accounts program as an act of routine masochism. Confirming exactly how much he had to find to fill the hole in his bank account was no help. That month's direct debits were due and his credit card was about to charge him interest.
He thought about phoning Ron Arnoux, but it was much too early for Ron to be at his office: not that he had much hope of relief from that direction. Trevolin reviewed the previous week's list of excuses. Arnoux had been in meetings all day on Monday, making pitches to prospective clients all day on Tuesday and out of town on Wednesday. Arnoux had been expected at Tractage Rapide all day on Thursday but he had not bothered to go to his office. Friday had been a day of meetings. None of Trevolin's calls had been returned.
Trevolin had finished his second mug of filter coffee, and he was finishing his morning newspaper, when the office door burst open. Trevolin had a brief impression of a man in a dark suit and a bright yellow waistcoat. The intruder's face was bright red. So was the bald dome of his head. Sparse black and grey hairs were plastered down with sweat. His eyes were wild. Trevolin realized that he had been hearing and ignoring some sort of commotion in the corridor.
"For God's sake, call the police," yelled the intruder. He lost control of the volume of his voice. He might have been trying to speak to someone in the buildings across the alley.
Trevolin looked blankly at the man. Bulging eyes gazed in despair at a desk decorated with ashtrays, a computer, mugs and no telephone. Trevolin used a mobile phone because he spent very little time in the office.
"The police! Call the police!" bellowed the intruder as he braced himself against the office door.
Trevolin was still staring at him when the door flew into the office, battered free of both lock and hinges. The door and two men landed on the first intruder. Rolling to their feet, the latest invaders hurled the door aside and clutched at the older man, hauling him into a sitting position.
A fourth man entered the office. He swung a bulky object at the first man's head, cutting off a scream as it was building in his throat. Trevolin heard a sickening, crunching sound. The man in the yellow waistcoat sagged. His head looked misshapen, broken inside, but there was no blood, apart from a trickle at one ear, and the skin remained unbroken. Irrationally, Trevolin brought to mind something that he had read in a crime novel. Blood is spread around the immediate area only when further blows land on open wounds: one clinically accurate strike gives a clean kill.
The two men lifted the corpse from its sitting position by the armpits and whisked their victim out of the office. They behaved as if Trevolin was not there. He just stared in frozen, shocked silence.
"Nothing happened here, understand?" The man with the sandbag cosh reached into his elegant jacket.
Trevolin recoiled, expecting to see a gun.
The chalk-striped cloth of the jacket dropped back into place. A bundle of notes landed on Trevolin's desk.
"Nothing happened here," repeated a man with facial wrinkles from fifty years but a full head of neatly trimmed, dark hair. He towered over the seated Trevolin, dominating him with his perfectly tailored and groomed presence, and his piercing, blue eyes. "You understand?"
"Perfectly," croaked Trevolin.
He could still see the sandbag-cosh and a devastated skull. He was ready to offering total co-operation to avoid an equally sudden death. The money was a reassuring sign that the others were prepared to be reasonable; at least for the moment.
"Stay put here. Do nothing until we tell you." The tall man underlined his order with a smile, which came from his lips alone. A clear warning remained in his hard eyes. He turned and left the office, stepping around yet two more men, who were picking up the fallen door.
His heart racing, breathing rapidly, feeling faint, Trevolin watched the latest pair of intruders prop his door in a closed position in the frame. He wondered what would happen if the postman tried to push anything through the letter box. It would yield the sort of tableau featured on television programmes made up of videos shot by viewers, allegedly quite by chance.
The money on his desk drew his eyes; a wad of notes secured with two turns of a thin rubber band. The top one was a fifty. His silence was worth the price of a case of decent champagne - about one tenth of his current financial gap.
The once-boiled water in the kettle was both warm and unsatisfying, but it eased his parched throat. Trevolin had been breathing heavily through his mouth, drying the membranes. He had to hold the lighter in both hands when he lit a cigarette. He was almost used to taking the big risks involved when dealing with Antonia Storr but this was something else.
His office door opened again, carried bodily into the office, then one of the assistants tipped it onto its side to manoeuvre it into the corridor. Two men in black leather jackets and jeans arrived to repair the damage caused by screws being ripped out of the frame. They plugged, filled and smoothed, then they shone a blue light onto the plastic filler to set it. Five minutes' concentrated activity later, the door was back in position with the damage invisibly mended.
All six assistants crowded into the office with vacuum cleaners next. They had adaptors to make up the deficit in a office fitted with two double sockets. Trevolin sat at his desk, letting his cigarette burn away unnoticed, as a swarm of angry bees attacked his dusty carpet and blew the hot breath of their exhaust onto his ankles.
"Feet," said an impatient voice.
Trevolin lifted them into the air as busy hands hauled his chair one way and the desk the other. Both returned to about their former relationship in moments. A lump of ash fell from his cigarette onto the varnished wood of his desk top. Trevolin just sat and watched as the six cleaners left, pulling the restored office door firmly shut behind them.
A familiar noise brought him back to life. He heard an engine, a loud beeping and shouting voices. The dustmen had arrived at the alley.
"Attention!" Beep! Beep! "This vehicle reversing!" Beep! Beep! "Attention!" Beep! Beep!
The huge, dark maw of the refuse vehicle was advancing slowly toward figures clad in bright orange safety clothing. They were hurling boxes, bags and unidentified shapes into it, like acolytes attempting to propitiate an insatiable god. As the large vehicle cleared the restaurant, the driver leaning out of his window to navigate while going backwards, two leather-jacketed men appeared in the alley. Trevolin pulled back from his window instinctively, but he saw the two men carry a limp figure by arms and legs through the restaurant's back door.
His fan had cleared the sour smell from the milk. The air in his office was full now of fine dust, which was clearing slowly. Trevolin plugged in his kettle to make more coffee to clear his throat. He was coughing in abrupt, single spasms and his heart was thumping inside his chest. He seemed to be moving without the direction of thought, just doing things.
There was something different about his office door. It was the same
colour, size and shape, the same style of panels and frame members and its vintage looked similar, but the repair men had changed it. There was a subtle difference in the once familiar pattern of scars, enough to tug at the subconscious of a man who knew the office intimately.
Trevolin confirmed his suspicion by looking for the drawing pin holes in the outer reaches of the frame. A previous tenant had used as a dart-board a full length nude poster of a movie actress with a reputation for virtuous untouchability. The holes had gone. They had not been invisibly mended. They had never existed in this door.
The kettle was spouting steam. Trevolin made another mug of coffee. He rediscovered the money on his desk and divided the cash between his wallet and two envelopes, which he sealed and tucked into separate pockets of his jacket. His fingers left damp patches on the paper. It was a hot day, but he could not be sure that the heat was the cause of his sweating.
Another vehicle stopped in the alley. Voices reached him via the open window. Trevolin approached cautiously. Peeping down, he saw a police car and two uniformed officers standing beside it. The cops were looking along the alley in opposite directions. Their attention seemed to be concentrated at ground level. Neither even glanced upward.
Trevolin moved away from the window. He noticed that the glass was as dusty as ever but that the ledge had been wiped clean; as had the filing cabinet, the cupboard unit beside it and the square table where he brewed the coffee. He reached up to the picture rail. It too was dust-free. The state of the window was suspicious in such a clean office.
There was still time to unburden himself. He had no idea how much time had elapsed since the murder; he guessed at ten to twenty minutes; but he could still phone the police and plead a state of shock or perfectly reasonable fear of the team of assassins as his reason for doing nothing immediately after he had been left on his own.
Then the awkward questions would start. He had a story of murder to tell - but no body. In fact, he no longer had a single shred of evidence that a man had been culled like an animal on his office floor. The repair work showed that his door had been damaged, but said nothing about why or even when. Trevolin wanted nothing to do with the police anyway. His aim in life was to get through it without attracting more than the essential minimum amount official attention.
Trevolin went down the empty corridor to the lavatory. He returned with a wad of soft toilet paper. Damp sheets turned from pink to black as he wiped away the dust of ages from the glass. Some liquid lavatory cleaner, collected in a corner of a discarded plastic carrier bag, helped to cut through the accumulation of grease and nicotine stains.
A busy quarter of an hour on an intellectually undemanding task, doing it thoroughly, helped to calm his jangling nerves. He could almost believe that he had been disturbed by nothing more than just another bad dream during a nap at his desk.
Deciding against tackling the outside of his window, he settled down at his desk with more coffee, another cigarette and what was left unread of his newspaper. Trevolin flicked ash at the unusually clean squares of carpet to make them look more natural. Something was missing. His radio was still switched on but the invaders had unplugged it to use the socket.
Trevolin glanced out of the window as he crossed the office to restore the background of rock music. The policemen were still in the alley, one at either end of their car, keeping an eye on both extremities of the alley.
The tall assassin had not yet given him permission to leave the office. As far as he could remember, none of the gang had said anything, apart from a curt instruction to move his feet. Trevolin assumed, hoped, prayed that he had been forgotten. Having recovered somewhat from his shock, he dropped the newspaper into the waste bin and opened his door. There was no one in the corridor. The indicator showed that the lift was on the ground floor. Trevolin took the stairs. Two uniformed policemen were standing just beyond the double glass doors on the other side of the entrance
"Hoi, you, hold it. No one can leave," said one of them when Trevolin tried to stroll out of the building.
"Why not?" he demanded with a note of indignant but respectful
"I want some cigarettes. Are you going to get them for me?"
"Our orders are to stay here, sir."
Trevolin had to look down to meet the eye level of the freckled young constable who was doing the talking. His taller companion seemed lost in a world of his own. Trevolin looked to right and left. There was no traffic because police cars had sealed Mail Street at both ends of his block. He could see at least a dozen uniformed constables covering shops and offices on both sides of the street.
"I'm only going two doors down," said Trevolin. "What's going on, anyway?"
"We're sealing off the area, sir." The constable answered with the obvious while ignoring the real question.
"So how can I escape with all these cops around?"
"Have you got any means of identification, sir?" The policeman's tone held suspicion that was calculated to intimidate.
Trevolin offered a business card and his identity card. Then he moved round the policeman. "You can read those while I go to the shop."
Three pairs of eyes locked on to him; two behind, one ahead.
A beefy constable blocked the newsagent's doorway. "No one can go in, sir," he said firmly.
Trevolin could see the newsagent looking out through his display window. The middle-aged man made an obscene gesture to the constable's back. He was losing a lot of trade. Trevolin made a smoking gesture, held up two fingers, and took a note out of his wallet. The policeman watched closely as money and cigarettes changed hands, but made no attempt to block the transaction. The primary condition had been met. Nobody had entered the shop and nobody had left it.
At the entrance to his own building, Trevolin recovered his identity card and the business card, then he returned to his office. His briefcase was making a beeping noise. He took out his mobile phone, hoping that Storr was on the line.
"It's me," said the familiar, husky voice. "What the hell's going on at your place?"
"No idea." Trevolin tried to keep relief out of his voice. "All I know is we've got cops all round the building. They're not letting anyone in or out. Where are
"Location Minus One."
Trevolin glanced at his window automatically. The row of brick buildings on the other side of the alley formed one long side of rectangular Martin Square. Storr was in a café on the other long side of the square, opposite the restaurant that presented its back door to Trevolin's office.
"There are cops all over the other side of the square," added Storr. "It
looks like they've sealed off your block and one parallel to it. You don't know why?"
"No idea. I tried asking one of the cops. All I got was dumb
"Okay. You stay put; well, you can't do anything else much, can you? I'll go for a drive and I'll be in touch in an hour."
"Right," sighed Trevolin.
He had some filing to do in connection with the legitimate business, which acted as a cover for occasional, more profitable activities. Trevolin could cover the desk with papers and pages of notes while he waited for the police. He assumed that they were planning to, or actually searching, all of the buildings in their isolated zone. If they were looking for the corpse of an elderly man in a bright yellow waistcoat, then the cops were wasting their time. There was no sign that the murdered man had ever been in Trevolin's unusually clean office.
The search party, two bored detectives in casual clothing and the building's caretaker in his stained uniform, spent very little time in Trevolin's office. There was little to see that could not be absorbed in about five seconds from the office doorway.
"Have you had any visitors today, Mr., ah, Trevolin?" said the blond-haired detective while his companion glanced into the coats cupboard and made sure that no one was hiding under the desk.
"Not yet. Why?" said Trevolin.
"Routine check, sir."
"It's routine to surround a whole row of buildings?" Trevolin put on a disbelieving tone. "Pull the other one."
"Nope," the dark-haired detective remarked to his colleague to confirm that no one was hiding in the office.
The trio moved on to the next office, offering not a word of explanation to Trevolin. The caretaker was jangling his keys and saying, "The gentleman next door is away today," as the replaced door closed behind him.
Trevolin lit another cigarette and made himself another cup of coffee. One ashtray was filling. He pulled the other closer. He had finished sorting the papers and making notes. He left everything spread on the desk in case the police came back, made sure that the deadlock was applied so that they would have to knock, and took out his mobile phone.
Trevolin was not surprised to learn from his late-payer's secretary that Ron Arnoux, whose father was the boss of the family firm, Tractage Rapide, was away on a business trip. It was standard practice for the secretary to put him through to the accounts department next. The story that he received from the financial director was fairly standard too.
The week before, Ron Arnoux had given him yet another firm promise that he would authorize payment of half a dozen long overdue invoices. Hugo Abattis, the financial director of TR, took the attitude that goods bought on the firm's behalf by Arnoux, acting in his capacity as a director, were a matter between Trevolin and Arnoux and, apparently, nothing to do with him. If Arnoux chose not to make the effort to sort out his invoices, that was just Trevolin's hard luck. Nothing could be done without that vital signature.
Trevolin sent statements and duplicate invoices to Tractage Rapide's accounts department on a routine basis, knowing that he was wasting his time and a stamp. He had been through the same performance the previous December, when trying to get a payment made before Christmas. He had been paid in mid-January only because TR had wanted more of a particular line and Trevolin had made noises about being unable to carry a larger debt.
He was reluctant to draw a line and tell Arnoux that he had to pay off what he owed or Trevolin would take him to court. Some of the payments did come in reasonably promptly, generally when Arnoux had been nagged by fellow directors into getting his affairs sorted out so that they could send bills to large clients, and the business was useful. There was also the major problem of Arnoux's friendship with Toni Storr. Trevolin felt obliged to endure the frustration of Arnoux's antics to retain Storr's patronage.
He took the computer out of his briefcase again to review his contingency plans for the umpteenth time. His position was as hopeless as ever, and if he could expect nothing from Tractage Rapide, he would have to do whatever Antonia Storr wanted him to do, no matter how likely it was to put him in gaol. He had never dared to turn down one of her jobs, but he longed for the day when he could make himself permanently unavailable, doubting that it was likely ever to arrive. To be free of the twin burdens of Storr and Arnoux was one of his two main aims in life.
His mobile phone began to beep as he was putting the computer away, having succeeded only in making himself even more anxious and depressed.
"Looks like they're finishing off a search," reported Storr from the café in Martin Square. "Starting at the outside and working in. They've just done that restaurant behind you."
"They did me ages ago," reported Trevolin.
"They've just come out of the restaurant. I'll probably be with you in about twenty minutes," Storr added.
An engine started nearby ten minutes later. Trevolin watched the police car drive out of sight along the alley. Almost at once, two men in black leather jackets emerged from the restaurant's kitchen door. From his elevated vantage point, Trevolin recognized one of them by his bald patch, a natural tonsure. Each was carrying what looked like the base of a pizza box loaded with bags of food and lidded plastic cups. Leaving his office, Trevolin descended the stairs to a landing with a view of the lobby doors. The police sentries had gone and noisy city traffic was flowing again outside.
"What do you reckon they wanted?" said a voice behind him.
"Beats me," Trevolin remarked over his shoulder. "Unless they spotted an escaped prisoner or some dangerous terrorist. An Arab with attitude and a bomb in his briefcase."
"They were obviously looking for someone important."
As he turned to go up the stairs again, Trevolin took a look at the other man. He half recognized the junior partner of a father and son firm from the floor above his. The young man had spots and long, greasy hair. His tee-shirt was damp with sweat at neck, chest and armpits. He looked barely out of his teens. A cigarette drooped defiantly in the corner of his mouth. His father disapproved strongly of smoking.
"Maybe it'll be on the news," said Trevolin.
"Maybe," said the young man. "Can't be the leaflets...?"
"Leaflets?" frowned Trevolin.
"That Anti-Wrecker's Charter. Didn't you get one?"
"There was some sort of a leaflet shoved under the door but I haven't read it yet. Why, is it any different from the usual junk that comes in uninvited?"
"My Dad thinks it's great," nodded the young man. "All about things you can do to show up late payers. He's starting to wonder if he's got the nerve to try any of the things in the leaflet on our late payers."
"Maybe I should read mine."
"Dad reckons everyone'll be reading it because everyone gets trouble from late payers. Apart from Frébus on the second floor. Dad's thinking of nominating him for a Lead-Pipe Award. That's for an individual late payer you think should be bashed over the head with two feet of lead pipe."
"Maybe the cops are looking for whoever's distributing these subversive leaflets," laughed Trevolin. "I'll definitely have to read it."
They parted at the fire door to the second floor. The younger man tramped up another flight of marble stairs. Back in his office, Trevolin searched through his accumulation of papers for the leaflet. He had been making notes on it.
The Anti-Wrecker's Charter offered a string of tactics to expose and shame both firms and individuals that pay invoices unreasonably late or give empty promises to pay as a substitute for actual payments. Trevolin enjoyed the thought of daring to try some of them on Ron Arnoux. Then, reluctantly, he admitted that he could not afford to take the risk of upsetting Storr by embarrassing her friend. He left the leaflet handy for future reference on the corner of his desk and set to work filing his collection of documents.
The local radio station's hourly news bulletin failed to mention what had obviously been an extensive police operation. Trevolin was puzzled by the omission. Clearly, the police had found nothing amiss in the restaurant. Trevolin refused to believe that the man in the bright yellow waistcoat was still alive after such a terrible blow to the head. He was sure that he had heard a terminal, bone-crunching, squelching noise. There had been a horrible, dead limpness about the figure that the two leather-jacketed invaders had carried across the alley.
Were all the restaurant's kitchen staff in on the conspiracy? Trevolin asked himself. Along with the tall, confident assassin and his six helpers? Had chefs skilled in anatomy reduced the body to convenient pieces, enclosed them in plastic bags and hidden them in the freezer to await disposal when the police had moved on?
There was another, even more grisly alternative, Trevolin realized with a shudder. He could think of a very effective way to make a man disappear in a busy restaurant. Maybe his body had been boned and the rejected bits broken up and mixed with animal bones in a bin. Maybe the flesh and organs had been cooked and eaten by customers in an act of involuntary mass cannibalism. Trevolin mentally crossed that restaurant off his lunch circuit.
He began to feel slightly queasy when Antonia Storr breezed in to the office ten minutes later, bringing a faint odour of cooking with her understated perfume. Conducting their unofficial business in the footprints of the police made Trevolin extremely nervous but a man in his desperate financial position just had to live with his nerves.
Antonia Storr was a string of deliberate inconsistencies. She changed her age, hair colouring and origins apparently at random. Her eyes were their natural blue today, but they could become brown or green when she wore contact lenses. Her medium heels made her half a head shorter than Trevolin. The date of birth on her current identity card made her thirty-one, an underestimate by several years. The card showed her with short, light brown hair and blonde streaks. She was currently describing her vaguely Eastern European accent as Czech.
Wearing her white, floppy hat, oversize sunglasses and with a cheap camera on a neck strap, she was trying to look like a tourist in a tee-shirt with a summery design and comfortable jeans. She could look irresistible when she went into glamour mode. On days when she wished to avoid notice, she looked very plain and unworthy of a second glance. Trevolin had heard that she had shed her ambition to become a movie actress in favour of much better paid activities.
Storr looked around the office as she flopped onto the chair facing the desk. "Had the cleaners in?" she asked with a mild frown.
"Yes," said Trevolin shortly.
"Not before time. These are the details of the latest buy?" Storr picked up some notes from the edge of the desk. Trevolin had been picking promising lots out of a sale catalogue.
"We want to get in before the end of the week on this one. With a firm order," said Trevolin. "And a deposit."
"Sell these and we'll manage it." Storr took a gift-wrapped package from her straw shopping bag.
Trevolin put the package in his briefcase.
"You smoke too much." Storr looked with distaste at the ashtrays. "Don't you know what cigarettes do to your lungs?"
"If you live that long," Trevolin said, remembered a man in a sitting position on his carpet, who had received a lethal sandbagging while he had watched, helpless and uncomprehending.
"Pessimist," Storr mocked from the security of ignorance. "See you later."
Trevolin opened the office door for her, then decided that he would leave the place really tidy for once. He emptied the ashtrays into the discarded newspaper, then lobbed it out of the window into one of the open dustbins opposite. He put radio, fan, kettle, coffee filter and his clean mug into a cupboard. When he left the office, it looked fresh and unoccupied, as if waiting for a tenant who would make more frequent use of it. Murderers shifting all physical traces of their victim was one hell of a way to get rid of the dust of ages, he reflected.
The next part of the delivery process involved a call from a public telephone to an answering machine. Trevolin took a detour down Strasbourg Avenue to make his call from the lobby of the Amiot Hotel. Sometime in the near future, someone would transmit an electronic signal to the answering machine to make it replay its tape. Trevolin would use the same system in the afternoon to pick up the details of a
He returned to his apartment on foot, checking for a tail as well as he could on busy streets. He had been away for about four hours and the morning was almost over. Changed into his own mock-tourist gear, he went for a ride on the subway, took a walk along the river embankment and passed through several crowded department stores. Lunchtime had come and gone, but he was not feeling particularly hungry, which he blamed on a combination of the hot weather and nervous tension.
He made his second call from a public telephone at the Opera House Square subway station. He was given a number, which he compared with a mental list. The meeting was across the river, in a park adjacent to the mainline railway station that served the south-east.
Trevolin had the responsibility of arriving at the rendezvous without a tail. It was the next contact's responsibility to double check that Trevolin was free of unwanted observers before he made an approach. The usual drill was to watch Trevolin walk about for twenty minutes or so, checking for the same face or faces around him.
His nameless contact this time was the young man with a floor-mop cut of jet-black hair, a dark skin and a large, hooked nose. The man had no discernable foreign accent but Trevolin assumed that he was a North African. His contact overtook him near the gate on the station side of the park, moving briskly ahead of Trevolin's leisurely stroll, giving the follow me signal. Trevolin joined the Arab in a plain Renault van in the station car park. He exchanged the gift-wrapped parcel for a chamois leather bag.
While the Arab skimmed through the two videos to check for recording quality, Trevolin loaded industrial grade diamonds into a portable laser spectrograph to check the carbon content. He was not sure what he would do if the print-out suddenly gave a high silicon, oxygen or zirconium content, or what the Arab would do if he found himself looking at something other than stolen copies of newly released feature films, which his organization planned to put on pirate videotapes at huge cost to the United States' economy. Either way, Trevolin feared, the result would be an Algerian dagger in the European's ribs.
Both parties nodded satisfaction with the quality of the goods. Trevolin left the van. Not a word had been exchanged, as usual. None had been necessary. Trevolin left the area of the van as fast as possible without seeming to hurry, praying that the railway police were not on the lookout for clients of male prostitutes in vans fitted out as a mobile brothel. He had heard that there were such things operating in the great park to the west of the city.
Half an hour and two subway journeys later, he delivered the diamonds to Storr's current unofficial poste restante and received an envelope containing his payment. Trevolin made a final call from a public telephone to yet another answering machine, then his working day was over. He had enough cash to survive on now, some of it from a tall assassin, who had committed a brutal murder in Trevolin's office.
He walked purposefully through the streets, daring to enjoy a feeling of safety and relief from danger, keeping an eye on the time. The old, irrational tension was starting to rise again as he neared his bank, worrying about what he would do if he found it closed unexpectedly, or if a pickpocket with superhuman skills had relieved him of everything.
He had a feeling of feeding an insatiable monster as he paid cash into his account, knowing that the government machine would gobble it up the next day. He went out again to do some more walking to release more tension. Eventually, feeling peckish, he had a very late lunch in a vegetarian restaurant. Suddenly, all forms of meat had become long pig.
Evening brought little relief to the sweltering city. Trevolin decided to fritter away a couple of hours in an air-conditioned cinema. He chose a comedy film deliberately over the horror and mayhem available at the other units. Two prostitutes approached him, separately but equally hopefully, in the cool darkness. They chose to do so at the best parts of the film. Switching from laughter to irritation, Trevolin cursed their timing as he gave curt negatives. He was half convinced that they were part of some diabolical police entrapment scheme.
A considerable queue was moving slowly toward the booking office when Trevolin left the cinema. The city had 468 cinemas at the last count, serving a population of two and a half million. According to the latest government statistics, 76½% of those people took their main vacation between the middle of July and the end of August. And still, during those seven boiling hot weeks, there was sufficient demand for a seat in a cinema late show to build up a queue long enough to attract street entertainers. Trevolin began to wonder if the Arab should not have paid two bags of industrial diamonds for the chance to sell pirate copies to a nation of such rabid film lovers.
When he checked his answering machine from a public call box on the way home, he heard a rambling message from Toni Storr. What she actually said was unimportant. Her voice on the tape was confirmation that she had collected the diamonds and sold them on to a waiting customer to finance the impending legitimate deal.
After two drinks at a bar in the next street, Trevolin returned to his apartment, took a tepid shower, changed the sheets and went to bed. He was feeling worn out after such a stressful day. He could almost believe now that seeing a man in a yellow waistcoat being killed had been a daydream.
He made an early start to Tuesday morning, and not entirely from choice. He was driven out of bed by an urgent need to get rid of the half-litre bottle of water consumed the night before to ward off nocturnal dehydration. Showered, shaved and feeling as fresh and clean as the pavements, he went out for breakfast.
He chose the café on the way to the office because it was also on the way to the river; as was any café to the south of his apartment. His mouth was full of warm roll and soft but not slimy cheese when a tough-looking character slid onto a chair at his table. The stranger's eyebrows were a solid, black bar above his eyes. His nose was slightly flattened, the face fleshy and the mouth a thin line. His lightweight suit with a mohair sheen looked as if it had been bought when he was a stone or so lighter. He looked like a fortyish movie gangster.
"Georges Trevolin," said the stranger, making the name a statement of fact rather than a question.
Trevolin continued chewing.
"Coffee, black," the stranger called to a passing waiter. His hard stare was the perfect defence against not my table.
"You had a bit of excitement at your office yesterday."
The third statement was directed at Trevolin. He put on an expression of polite interest, suspecting that he was dealing with some sort of cop. The man certainly looked tough enough to be a television cop.
"Hébert, Chief Inspector," obliged the stranger.
"Did you catch him?"
"The escaped prisoner. Or the terrorist some alert police officer spotted. Who was suspected of being in town to assassinate someone, like a government minister who deserves it. Or was it a mad bomber, perhaps?"
"Not my department."
"What is your department?" frowned Trevolin. He decided against taking a sip of coffee to moisten his dry mouth in case his hand started to shake and he drowned himself.
"Did you hear any banging and crashing about yesterday?" Chief Inspector Hébert's conscience seemed clear enough to let him drink from a full cup of black coffee without spilling any. He lit a cigarette without offering the packet across the table.
"When?" said Trevolin.
"I don't know."
"You don't remember what happened yesterday morning?" Hébert's tone was scornful.
"I don't remember any banging and crashing. Apart from the refuse collectors and their bloody noisy truck."
"This was something you heard inside your building."
"If I did, I ignored it. I was concentrating on my work."
"You have good powers of concentration?"
"You didn't say what your work is yesterday."
"Who to?" frowned Trevolin.
"The officers who searched your office."
"They didn't ask."
"What did they ask?"
"If I'd had any visitors."
"And you said no. What about after they left?"
"No visitors at all at your office yesterday?" Hébert's tone was
calling him a liar.
Trevolin considered telling the nosy copper that he had left the office before lunchtime the day before. Then he chose not to get involved in complicated explanations. "No."
"You had to think about that," insisted Hébert.
"I did speak to someone about having the police all over the place, but that was on the stairs. I was trying to remember if there was any late post."
"The postman came and went before the cordon was set up. And there was no second delivery. So you had no visitors after your office was searched?"
"No." Trevolin realized too late that he had forgotten Toni Storr's brief delivery visit. He could hardly mention it now. He reached for his coffee cup. The coffee was cold. He signalled to his waiter for more.
"So what is it you do in your office that needs such intense powers of concentration."
"Bulk buying. Of government surplus materials; our own and foreign governments." Trevolin ignored the sarcastic tone. "Or bankrupt stock. It's good quality merchandise bought at a deep discount. Then it's repackaged in much smaller lots and sold on to retailers."
"But you had no visitors yesterday. Business not good?"
"It doesn't depend on people coming to the office."
"So it's not unusual to have no callers all day?"
"No." Trevolin remembered that Storr always called at several places in the building. One regular stop was a printing firm with an office further along the first floor and presses in the basement. She never left a specific trail to his door.
Hébert snapped his fingers in front of Trevolin's nose to get his attention. "Is this you demonstrating your great powers of concentration? I just said others reported banging about in your building yesterday morning. On your floor."
"How do you mean?" Trevolin paused while the waiter swapped hot coffee for cold. "Reported? Rang the police to complain?" he added sceptically.
"But you didn't hear it?"
"If I did, like I said, I ignored it. I probably thought it was someone delivering something."
Trevolin shrugged aimlessly. "Some office furniture? I don't know. I was busy."
"Strange you're the only one who didn't report it."
"If there really was any banging about, it wasn't that loud. Certainly not loud enough to justify a complaint to the police. And where would that get you? By the time the police got there, whoever it was would have finished delivering."
"And you say you were concentrating on your work?"
"Yes." Trevolin ignored the sceptical tone.
"And there's nothing you want to tell me?"
"Like what?" frowned Trevolin.
"I think you're the best judge of that."
"I'll be in touch again." Chief Inspector Hébert drained his cup. "You can tell me next time if anything occurs to you. Or you could write it down so you don't forget it."
Hébert left the table without a backward glance. Trevolin watched his dark head move through the stream of pedestrians beyond the pink railings that marked the café's boundary. Chief Inspector Hébert was taller than the average but shorter than the softly spoken, elegant assassin, who had been one of nine undeclared visitors to the office on Mail Street on Monday morning. Hébert and the tall assassin seemed to have a lot in common. They shared an assured manner, dress sense, quiet menace and an easy assumption that they could just march into the life of a stranger and take it over for however long suited them.
Trevolin chewed mechanically at suddenly tasteless fresh bread and his favourite cheese. He hurried to take on necessary fuel for his body before lighting a cigarette. The so-called Chief Inspector Hébert had made no attempt to offer official identification. He had failed to underline his right to question Trevolin in a public place by waving an identity card under his nose with the usual calculated degree of arrogance, letting the people at the adjoining tables know that Georges Trevolin was being questioned by a cop.
As he gulped coffee, Trevolin realized that he could not be guilty of lying to a police officer if the man was an imposter, or if he believed sincerely that the man was lying about his status. If the upper-class assassin could command the immediate presence of a clean-up crew of six, then he could send one of his lieutenants round to question a witness to make sure that he was earning the price of silence.
Trevolin recalled reading an extract from the memoirs of a retired police commissioner in his newspaper in the recent past. The sub-heading Murder Is Messy had stuck in his mind. The police commissioner had told his readers that killing is easy but getting rid of a body is an enormous headache. Worse, getting rid of a body is difficult enough; unless one has a restaurant available and a ready supply of involuntary cannibals; but the problem does not end with satisfactory disposal. The average murder victim leaves behind a gap in the continuum of human life. The successful murderer has to plug, blur, or otherwise conceal that gap.
The assassin could not know, he hoped, what sort of a gap Georges Trevolin would leave behind. Not if the man in the yellow waistcoat had run into his office at random. That was why Trevolin was still alive: the killers had made plans to dispose of only one corpse. Trevolin had been paid off because they had been unable to predict the scale of loose ends that would have been left if they had clouted him over the head too.
There would indeed be questions asked if someone with Trevolin's illegal connections disappeared. Some of the people asking would be the equal of the sandbag assassin in the ruthlessness department. Which was all very well, but it failed to protect the man in the middle because Trevolin had no means of contacting the assassin to warn him not to try to silence the witness permanently.
He was still not out of danger. The assassin might be checking up on him at that very moment to find out how much he would be missed. A stranger asking such questions could prove dangerous, if not fatal, to Trevolin. He signalled for more coffee as he lit a cigarette. He needed the cooling, calming effect of mentholated smoke. He could not be sure whether the sweat at his brow, back, armpits and groin was due to panic or the hot weather.
He could still picture the scene vividly in his mind. The victim's waistcoat had not been pure yellow. It had had a pattern of large squares or checks in a pale shade of red. The expression of hopeless fear lingered. And he could still hear the crunching sound of the man's skull giving way.
The noise was filed in his memory with other unexpected sounds, like the flat bang of car striking car that had puzzled him so much when he had witnesses his first street-shunt. That noise had come to him in isolation with no preparatory squeal of brakes and tyres; just a sharp, concussive bang! Followed by two irate motorists yelling at each other.
Trevolin forced the memories away. If it was not already too late, he needed to leave an account of what he had seen in a safe place. Then he had to hope that if anyone came after him, he would have time to warn the contract killer that he was about to put the wrong solution into effect. And hope that the killer would decide to consult his client.
Trevolin worked out what to write and where to leave it while he smoked his cigarette and drank his third cup of coffee. He decided to tackle that job in the privacy of his office. His insurance document would be more legible if it came out of his computer and the built-in printer. Better still, he could leave several copies around on floppy disks, which cannot be just picked up and read like a printed document.
When he signalled for the bill, Trevolin found that he had been charged for four cups of coffee, which made him think that Hébert had to be a real, freeloading cop after all.
Chief Inspector Hébert returned to his car and sat in it, thinking over what Trevolin had told him. He knew now that opting to do the legwork himself had been a mistake. His subordinates could have wasted as much time at less expense to the department's budget. Hébert had thought, knowing it could be a naïve hope, that a chief inspector might just frighten more information out of a member of the public than a humble investigator or even a sergeant could manage. He was forced to conclude that the tenants of that particular office building really were totally blind and deaf when it suited them.
Life had become a source of constant frustration for Hébert. What had seemed at the time like a sound career move to the Anti-Corruption Squad was turning into a major disaster. His main problem arose from a conflict: the country had a new government, which wished to be seen to be taking a tough line on corruption, but too many sticky-fingered politicians of the old administration had been exposed before the election.
During the previous administration, judges and MPs had been murdered by Southern gangsters, whom they had been investigating. There had been sleaze galore, including money-laundering that had been aided by regional politicians in return for illegal contributions to their party's funds, kick-backs worth tens of millions of francs from major construction projects to local councillors, sly attempts to block media coverage of any investigations of corrupt government ministers, several enforced ministerial resignations and the scandal of the prime minister's arranging a peppercorn rent for his son's luxury flat in the capital.
Opinion polls during the election campaign had found that 71% of the population believed that all politicians are corrupt and about a half of the remainder were just giving their would-be rulers the benefit of the doubt. Equally shocking, 62% of the voting public thought that the job of the Minister of the Interior was to obstruct investigations into local government corruption.
The message from the politicians now was No more! If they wanted public confidence, the sleaze had to end. Thus the role of the Anti-Corruption Squad had become noisy investigation so that those with a hand in the till whipped it out when they heard heavy footsteps approaching. Suspected corruption had to be covered up to avoid public alarm, and exposed only if the offenders lacked the sense to stop misbehaving.
Louis Bix, Hébert's head of department, was a master of political double-think, who lived with the memory of the sacking of the head of the Central Service for the Prevention of Corruption after he had dared to conclude that the prime minister could be prosecuted after reducing his son's rent to a token amount.
Bix had five chief inspectors under him. Swinging with the political wind, and looking for personal job security, he was deep in a programme of redeployment and refreshment. His declared aim was to introducing fresh, new talent into his department and he was prepared to accept a high turn-over of staff if it prevented them from becoming stale and too involved with the people whom they were investigating.
Bix was quite cynically recruiting time-servers, who could carry out investigations from the comfort of an office, consult the right people and produce an impressive final report to show that everything was all right. If he got wind of the case early enough, Bix could be relied on to have a discreet word in the right ear and facilitate a smooth clean-up job.
Hébert was the last of the old guard, a loose cannon who still believed in exposing corrupt politicians and officials. Bix was using classical rejection tactics on Hébert in his attempts to keep him permanently off-balance, such as cutting his staff to the bare minimum, giving him routine and irritating minor affairs to investigate and communicating infrequently in person and mainly by telephone or message.
Getting out of the Anti-Corruption Squad was the obvious and easy solution to Hébert's lack of job satisfaction. Foolish stubbornness and pride made him reluctant to let himself be forced out before a normal tour of duty ended. If Bix wanted to get rid of him, he was determined to force his boss to make it well worth Hébert's while.
Chief Inspector Hébert had been reduced to a staff of one female sergeant and two detective-grade investigators. He was at the frustrating stage of his current investigation when he was building up a web of connections between local and foreign businessmen, politicians present and past, and government officials. He had received a whisper from a resentful secretary, upset by the way his boss was treating him, of a deal between a corrupt planning official and interests fronted by MP Guy Malard. The conspiracy concerned a factory built in the Art Deco style, which its owners no longer needed.
Conservationists wanted to convert the building so that it could be used to serve the local community as a meeting place and a sports centre. The alternative, more profitable plan was to demolish the factory to release the site for low-cost housing. Hébert had linked Malard to a Japanese businessman called Takishima. He was now trying to get a line on two Germans, who were involved in the conspiracy to prevent the application of a preservation order. Corruption is a world-wide industry.
Surveillance reports suggested that Malard was also cooking up something else. Hébert's agents had logged some apparently casual meetings with Department of Transport and Treasury officials. They had some fragments of conversation on tape from walk-bys but the conspirators were very careful about long-range monitoring. It was not possible to tell what they were up to - but they were definitely up to something.
The businessmen, it was clear, were putting up seed capital for the project. The politicians, one of whom was retired and running an apparently respectable consultancy business, seemed to have been brought in to chart a path though the various stages of planning regulations.
The investigation was hampered by Hébert's having to walk on tiptoe to prevent his boss from finding out what he was up to, which would lead to an order to put on the government-face-saving heavy boots. Having to juggle time-keeping records so that he and his staff seemed to be working on other matters was also becoming a real strain.
In his secret world of deception, Hébert was having real problems with Georges Trevolin. He had identified various connecting threads from a Treasury official called Gerard Demineaux to the MP Guy Malard, and from Malard to Giles Arnoux a former MP, who was now the chairman of a family firm of facilitators called Tractage Rapide. The Japanese businessman Yuko Takishima was also involved somehow, but Hébert was not sure exactly how he fitted in. If anything, he seemed to be juggling pieces of two independent plans.
Whatever was happening, the equation was clearly:
Foreign Money + Political Influence + Knowledge of how to Manipulate the System + Bribery & Corruption = A Fat Profit.
The connections between Malard and Trevolin and between Takishima and Trevolin were puzzling. Hébert's initial view had been that Trevolin was a very minor figure in one of the plans. Indeed, Hébert was finding it hard to work out how someone like Trevolin fitted in at all. There was no obvious contribution that Trevolin could make in terms of finance or knowledge; unless he knew something that could be used to blackmail some essential person.
There was a strong possibility that Georges Trevolin was just a distraction and his apparent connections with Malard and Takishima had no significance. Hébert knew that these two conspirators were using his office for secret meetings and as a spy-style dead-letter drop, but it made sense for them to be using Trevolin's name and his office without his knowledge. At the same time, Hébert could not afford to take any chances. He would have to continue to keep an eye on friend Trevolin.
Hébert had knocked up a crude organization chart on his computer as a summary of the apparent connections. One thing that he did know for certain was that Trevolin had lied to him about the events of the previous day and that Trevolin looked likely to carry on lying, no matter how much pressure was brought to bear on him - unless Hébert could devise some means of making that pressure irresistible. But no matter how apparently useless Trevolin seemed, he was a lead and someone to be prodded repeatedly in the future until he surrendered any useful information that he might have.
Georges Trevolin stepped out of the lift on the second floor of his office building as a round man in a blue-striped shirt was emerging from the washroom.
"Morning," said Trevolin in response to the usual nod of recognition. "Bloody hot, isn't it?"
"It's the season," said the older man with a shrug. "And it drives the weaker competition out of town."
"It's a good theory." Trevolin stopped at his office door and frowned at the other man, who worked at the far end of the corridor. He too stopped and put on an expectant expression. "Tell me, has anyone been asking you if you heard any banging about yesterday?"
The older man released a heavy sigh. "A police inspector came to our apartment. Last night, if you please. While we were having dinner. My wife was sure he'd come to arrest me."
"Bloody women! Yes, he said I was the only one on this floor who didn't report banging in the morning. Well, that really set my wife off! Where was I if I wasn't in the office to hear the banging? Meaning, was out I out somewhere enjoying myself with another woman instead of slaving away here to keep her in fancy clothes and furniture?"
"Yes, bloody women!" said Trevolin sympathetically.
"I had to remind her she phoned me while we were surrounded by the police cordon to tell me to do some shopping for her. As I told her at the time, how was I going to get in and out through hundreds of police? Bloody fly? Jump from one roof to another? A man with my figure isn't built for acrobatics, I can tell you!"
"So what did you tell this inspector bloke?"
"I heard one loud bang, then some workmen talking in the corridor. I assumed it was them banging about. You've had the police too?"
"Just now. This character turned up at the café while I was eating."
"I said I thought it was someone delivering something. The alleged noise."
"And you reported the noise to the police, of course?"
"Well, who would, for all the good it'd do you? But this chief inspector told me I was the only one on this floor who didn't report it," said Trevolin.
"That's what he told me, the cheeky sod!" The older man put on an even more indignant expression while he dabbed at his glowing face with a large, white handkerchief. "I'm the only one who didn't report it and did I have any special reason for keeping quiet?"
"Do you remember his name? Whoever called on you?"
"Yes, it could have been that. He marched right in, planted himself on the sofa and lit a cigarette while we had food on the table. My wife kept going on about that for ages afterwards. Not that she dared tell him to put it out at the time. He looked a pretty tough customer, I can tell you."
"That's him," nodded Trevolin.
An elderly man in a brown dustcoat had just emerged from one of the offices. He was carrying a shoebox size package wrapped in brown paper and tied with white string. The blobs of red sealing wax on the knots were unlikely to survive the crushing machines used by the modern postal service. He lifted his head in response to his neighbour's call, overshot the target, and had to lower his head to look through the upper part of his bifocal spectacles.
"What is it, Couvertin? Run out of stamps again?" chuckled Malou.
The round man stuffed the handkerchief into his trouser pocket. "Did some cowboy of a police inspector visit you to ask impertinent questions?"
Trevolin noticed that Couvertin had Chief Inspector Hébert's habit of ignoring an inconvenient question in favour of one of his own.
"Impertinent's the right word for it." Malou tucked the box under his arm, address against his brown dustcoat, as he joined the others. "He came to my home last night. Asking about some disturbance yesterday morning. When I told him I'd spent most of the morning at one of my suppliers, he didn't want to believe me. He practically accused me of lying deliberately."
"Yes, that's the same cowboy," said Couvertin.
"But he changed his tune when my wife mentioned she'll be having lunch with the wife of the local police superintendent today," chuckled Malou. "Why, what did happened yesterday?"
"Nothing we know of," said Trevolin quickly. "He told both of us we were the only one who hadn't reported some banging about. Both of us were the only one."
"Obviously, he was telling us a deliberate lie; but we can't imagine why," added Couvertin. He took two steps along the corridor to tap on one of the door. "Hey, Jourdan."
Another balding, middle-aged man looked out into the corridor. "What's this, some sort of a committee meeting?"
"Are you the only one who didn't report banging about to the police yesterday?" said Couvertin.
"How did you know that?" frowned Jourdan.
"The cop told us the same thing," said Trevolin. "What did you say?"
"That I heard some workmen, or cleaners, banging about. Or something." Jourdan shrugged. "Nothing unusual. Do you know what it was?"
"Your guess is as good as ours." Couvertin shrugged. "Maybe it was someone delivering a Lead Pipe Award."
Trevolin shuddered at this chance hit on the exact truth.
"You saw that leaflet?" laughed Malou. "One of the printers in the basement was telling me they should chuck Frébus out of the Association of Small Businesses for late payment. He was all set to do what the leaflet suggests and write to the committee of the Association and the main members."
"He reckons he can afford to lose the business?" said Jourdan. "Frébus won't use him again in a hurry."
"Like the leaflet says, someone who won't pay his bills isn't much good as a customer," said Couvertin.
"Not if he's costing you money," agreed Malou. "I'm not going to have anything to do with him now I know he's a crook."
"That's libel," warned Couvertin.
"Yes, but it's true," said Jourdan.
The group broke up. Malou headed for the post office with his box. The others went to their offices. Trevolin looked up the number in his directory, then called the local police station using his mobile phone. He asked to speak to Chief Inspector Hébert. He learned that there was no one of that name there, either in the uniformed branch or the detective force.
Trevolin apologized for ringing the wrong police station and broke the connection before anyone could ask for his name. He continued to make calls until he was satisfied that there was no Chief Inspector Hébert at any police station in the city, and no senior officer matching Hébert's description had been making the rounds of the building's tenants, interrogating them. Suddenly, writing about his experience of the previous day seemed even more urgent.