In the neighborhood around rue de Flandre, no one knew his name and everyone called him “the American.”
The fellow who answered to this nickname was endowed with quite singular physical characteristics, and so was easily identifiable. He was a sturdy little person who stood no more than five feet tall but weighed about 135 pounds, who was missing as many teeth as he had fingers (nine, since he’d lost one in the bread slicer as a child), and whose remaining stumps were preparing to jump ship, one by one. He could, at least, be grateful that this unkempt mouth was partially hidden by his disheveled beard.
As for his attire, the American had the particularity of being completely impervious to fashion, and always wore the same clothes: a green nylon track jacket covered in a red argyle pattern, too large for his small torso, with brown velour pants too long for his short, chubby legs, and a beige and gray flannel shirt, more or less fitted to his atypical build. On his head sat a navy-blue baseball cap with the logo of a second-tier American team. The most plausible hypothesis was that his nickname came from the perpetual sporting of this headgear. It was, however, a fair bet that he wouldn’t be able to locate the United States on a world map.What could such an odd little person’s everyday life be like? The American didn’t work, but wasn’t unemployed, either, and belonged to a third, rather unenviable social category: those who are disabled by at least 33 percent, and receive a monthly allowance from the federal government. His handicap bore the disreputable name of debility or mental deficiency, terms that varied according to different medical studies and eras.
Despite his exceptionally low IQ, the American got by on his own, in a small apartment at the end of rue de Flandre, where, by force of repeating the same routines day after day, he managed to maintain a stable lifestyle. The American could, in this way, be considered an autonomous person, according to specialists on the subject.
In the morning, he took care of the basic household chores, then went to the supermarket to buy himself a loaf of white bread, a package of sliced, garlic-flavored salami, a can of Coke, a jar of cornichons in vinegar, and, if necessary, some other essential, or a little treat. Then, at home again, around noon, he consumed his purchases while watching, on a French cable TV channel, game shows in which he would never even dream of participating.
In the afternoon, the American would hang out at the neighborhood bars, most often the Laboureur, a café at the corner of rue de Flandre and rue Léon Lepage, whose dark wainscoted walls and old Belgian beer posters hadn’t changed since it had opened in the 1950s. It was a place where aging card-players, barstool philosophers, and young, hip architects rubbed shoulders, where Francophones and Flemish speakers came to drown their petty linguistic quarrels.
But it wasn’t to drink that the American went there. As it happens, he had become an employee of the café without anyone having asked him. In concrete terms, he brought the empty glasses from the booths to the counter, and in exchange for this service, the waiter offered him a Coke. This no longer seemed to shock any of the patrons, and in view of the high cost of labor in Belgium, the owner didn’t object to a little help from a good old chap who could make do with such a humble salary.
To pass the time, the American practiced an additional activity that would have made the most cynical person smile, and the most fearful tremble: he photographed girls during his daily walks in the neighborhood. From the front? No, the American was too shy for that, and would never have dared ask their permission. Considering his appearance, it was unlikely that the girl would consent, for that matter, or that she wouldn’t run for her life, crying bloody murder. No, the American was a deceitful little person who always photographed them from behind. Which, incidentally, was preferable for the mental health of his ignorant victims.
His modus operandi was as simple as his mind-set: when he saw a girl walking toward him on the street, he would rather obviously pretend not to have noticed her, then, a bit farther on, he’d stop, take out the disposable camera from its caddy, make a sharp turn, step up his pace in the girl’s direction, stop again no more than five meters away from her, and, if all the conditions were right, click on the shutter. Then, with the satisfied air of a fisherman who has just caught a trout in a polluted river, he would put away his camera and retrace his route without turning around to look at the girl. Like a good old American going off to win the West with his well-oiled gun and his belt loaded down with ammunition.
In the neighborhood around rue de Flandre, hardly anyone was aware of her existence, certainly not her name. In her defense, Justine had lived in Brussels for only a few months, and hadn’t yet had the occasion to meet many locals.
She had come from her native Île-de-France in order to study physical therapy in Brussels. Not for love of the flat country, where she’d never set foot until now, but to avoid the impossible entrance exams and exorbitant tuition costs of French schools.
This ambitious nineteen-year-old already imagined herself, years later, practicing her chosen profession on the fragile bodies of the aging bourgeoisie in a private office in the 16th arrondissement, which—according to her preliminary estimations, confirmed by her accountant father—could earn her as much as eight thousand euros per month, as early as the first year, excluding expenses.
Justine had ended up in the neighborhood near rue de Flandre thanks to an ad she’d found on a rental website. A certain Marie, twenty years old, was subletting a room in her apartment there: Well lit and spacious, in a small urban village, young, vibrant, and multicultural, in the heart of the city. Justine had contacted her from Paris, and the deal was quickly done.
The first few months in Belgium only confirmed what Justine had read on the travel blogs: Brussels was a friendly city, full of kind, open-minded, approachable, warm people, always ready to meet up for a beer and chat with their goofy accents and their expressions that made you piss yourself laughing.
In the neighborhood, the temptations to go out were many. And even if the prices at the bars were far cheaper than those in the City of Light, once she’d paid rent, credit cards, the phone and Internet bills, and covered the cost of restaurants, sandwiches, movie tickets, clothes, and all her other basic needs, there wasn’t much left of the measly thousand euros her parents sent on the first of every month. And if there was one thing Justine hated above all, it was being stripped of her buying power.
One cold night in November, during a party with her classmates where everyone had gotten a bit too sloshed, Charlotte, another French girl whom Justine had befriended, told her about a lucrative activity she’d been practicing for nearly a year. Considering her physical assets, Charlotte thought Justine would also be suited to it.
“So what does this involve, exactly?”
“It’s easy: you meet men, you give them a little pleasure in as short a time as possible, and you get as much cash from them as you can!”
“But . . . that’s prostitution, isn’t it?”
“In a certain sense, yes . . . Well, you can call it whatever you want. But it brings in enough cash to let you pay for school without working yourself to death twenty hours a week at some fast-food joint and smelling like grease all day . . . This way, you can give yourself every chance to succeed!”
The argument had percolated all night in the half-conscious brain of the postadolescent.
The next day, Justine sought more information from Charlotte, who was thrilled to bring a new participant along on this rewarding adventure.
As soon as she’d returned home from class, Justine sent her phone number, along with a picture of herself in her underwear, to firstname.lastname@example.org. It took no more than five minutes for a certain Boris Umanov to respond with a link and a password that allowed her to create a profile on http://www.studandmeet.be. Justine followed the instructions and chose the worldly yet unassuming pseudonym of Natacha. Not for love of Russia, but because it was the first name that came to mind, and one that she could easily imagine belonging to a whore. Her registration was quickly confirmed, and Boris sent her another, more personalized e-mail, in which he advised her to fill out her profile with a few charming photos and risqué quotes. In conclusion, he predicted that she would find success in this new endeavor and, in an attachment, provided a list of practical recommendations: the most important ones, in bold, at the top of the list, were to buy a cell phone with a prepaid card and create a dedicated e-mail address to be used exclusively for this professional activity.
In just a few days, the machine was set in motion, and the first requests flooded her new Hotmail inbox. The formula was simple: interested clients contacted her via the site, Justine accepted them or not, they agreed on a meeting based on her availability, and the men came to her place at the appointed hour. Justine made sure this was always at a time when her roommate wasn’t home, which was easy enough since Marie was usually holed up at her boyfriend’s house. These mostly affluent middle-aged men were excited to find themselves in that atmosphere, tinged with nostalgia and eroticism. It reminded them of the golden days when they could get hard over the smallest thing, without the least anxiety. Before the session began, they paid her in cash, an amount agreed upon in advance, of which Boris took a 10 percent commission, to be transferred into a PayPal account within forty-eight hours. Justine set her prices according to a fixed rate, asking, on average, for two hundred euros for a complete service, which could not exceed an hour. She added a small fee of fifty euros at the start of each additional quarter hour, which was paid at the end and not subject to the commission. And in this way Justine, working sometimes less than an hour a day, earned nearly as much as her two parents combined, who did not, for that matter, have reason to complain, given their three-bedroom Parisian apartment, their brand-new Citroën, and their second home in Upper Normandy.
Justine and the American did not meet through http://www.studandmeet.be, for the simple reason that the American had no Internet service, no cell phone or landline, did not really know what all that fuss was about, and lived relatively well without them.
On that night, Justine was at the Laboureur with a few French friends who were in town for the weekend. As she approached the bar to order another round of the beers that her friends found very good and, more importantly, very cheap compared to the bland five-euro drinks they were used to imbibing, the American greeted her with a timid bonjour. But with the deejay blasting oldies and playing the harmonica at the same time, everyone was shouting to be understood and no one could hear a thing.
“What’s your name?” he went on, surprised by his own sudden boldness.
This time, Justine registered his presence and looked disdainfully at him, as one observes a fly who has lost a wing and whose life will be snuffed out in a matter of seconds. Undeterred, he repeated his question. She reflexively gave him her pseudonym and immediately wondered why she’d responded to this pathetic creep who was shorter than her fifteen-year-old brother.
Of course, the American latched onto these first words like a mussel to a pier. “You want a Coke?”
“No thank you.”
“C’mon, it’s on me!”
“If you’ve got enough to buy me a glass of champagne . . .” she said, so that he’d leave her alone.
“Oh, yes, I’ve got a little here.” The American pulled a wad of fifty-euro bills from his pocket. “And if that’s not enough, I’ve got more at home . . .”
Justine turned toward him with the look of a slot-machine player on a casino cruise.
“And what are you doing with all that cash at home?”
“On TV, someone told me banks are nothing but robbers.”
“And you believe that?”
“Isn’t it true?”
“And you’re not afraid to leave all that cash at home?”
“Have I done something bad?”
“You have a lot more, then?”
The American held his hands about two feet apart, to give her a sense of the amount.
“That’s a lot?”
Justine told him it was decent, then explained that she couldn’t talk much longer, since she had to go join her friends who were waiting for her at the table, but that he could call her sometime, if he wanted to. He said yes, so she took out a Bic from her purse, wrote her ten-digit number on a beer mat, and handed it to the American, who couldn’t believe his eyes. In the seconds that followed, he felt a strange throbbing sensation deep down in his stomach. He stopped bringing empty glasses to the counter and preemptively headed for the restroom.
Having no notion of the complex rules of the game of seduction, the American dialed the ten-digit number first thing the next morning, in a phone booth at a Pakistani call center beneath his apartment. Five seconds later, Justine’s cell phone began to vibrate on her nightstand.
“Uh, me . . . you told me to call you if I wanted to . . .”
Her sleep had been too short and the beers too many. Justine closed her eyes and immediately remembered the hoarse little voice like a sick child’s, and asked herself why she’d given her number to this guy, before recalling his wad of bills. Then she glanced at her alarm clock and realized it was only nine in the morning.
“Why are you calling me so early?”
“It’s early? I didn’t know. When does it stop being early?”
Justine said nothing and sat up, leaning on her elbow in such a way as to turn her back to the guy asleep beside her, about whom she didn’t remember much.
“Do you want to go to the movies with me?” The American had asked this since, in the American films he’d seen, first dates often took place at the cinema.
“No, I’ll come to your place tonight, around nine,” she said, with the courage of those who know that you have to burn a little midnight oil to get ahead in life.
The American gave her his address and Justine hung up first, before asking herself how much she could get from him, and if it would be enough to buy the new iPhone 6 to replace the iPhone 5 her father had given her for Christmas, whose screen was already covered in scratches.
Justine showed up at the American’s place an hour late. She didn’t apologize, and he didn’t give her any grief. With her short dress, tall boots, and black eye makeup, she looked at least twenty-five. As for the American, he was dressed in his usual outfit, but had just taken off his hat.
First Justine walked through the apartment like a prospective tenant, and the American followed her without saying a word, not for one second taking his eyes off her ass. She sat down on the couch at the end of the living room, and the American grabbed something from his caddy near the front door. Justine suddenly had a bad feeling. Fortunately, when the American stood in front of her again, she realized it was only a stupid disposable camera.
“Can I take your photo?”
Justine refused, having no desire to be enshrined on his fireplace for years to come. “Couldn’t we get to know each other a little, hmmm, instead of playing with your little toy?” she asked, patting the space beside her on the couch.
Like a good dog obeying his mistress, the American nodded and perched beside her.
Convinced she had enough information to establish her client’s commercial profile, Justine decided to price her services à la carte.
“You want to see my breasts?”
“Yes,” said the American.
“If you give me fifty euros, you can see them.”
The American nodded.
“And if you want to touch them, you’ll need to give me another fifty.”
The American nodded again.
“And I’d prefer to have it before I start . . .”
The American got up and began walking toward the kitchen. Justine followed him with her eyes. A few seconds later, he came back with a small wad of bills and handed them to her. She immediately stuffed them in her bag, without counting.
In order to reward this good behavior, Justine took in the situation and began by showing him what she had promised. The American’s eyes grew wide. She grabbed his hairy hand and placed it on one of her breasts. At that moment, he felt a pressure through his underwear, and it was as if he couldn’t breathe. Justine told him to calm down, that everything was going to be okay, and started taking off his belt. The American did not blink once, and suddenly saw his pants pulled down to his knees, which usually only happened when he was in the bathroom. Justine found his skinny legs very ugly, but, always conscientious, she stayed focused on her work. She plunged her hand down his underwear and discovered, with surprise, a relatively large penis for such a small body. This reminded her of a funny joke about midgets she’d heard on the radio in her parents’ car, on the way to their summer home one afternoon when she was a little girl. Then Justine started stroking it, slowly at first, then faster and faster. The American’s face grew increasingly red and Justine, afraid he might suffocate, slowed the pace of her movements. His erection was strong, and she had the idea of taking him in her mouth, but just as she was lowering her head, the American let out a gasp that signaled her time was up. By good luck, Justine had dodged the projectile. She slipped her shirt back on, thinking that she hadn’t had to do much, that it was easy money, especially in comparison to the fifty-year-old guys she sometimes had to jerk off for several minutes before they got hard, and who took twice as long to ejaculate.
While the American slowly returned to his senses and his face regained its normal color, Justine went to wash her hands in the bathroom. As she entered back into the living room, she didn’t see him on the couch, instead finding him in his room, lying stretched out on the bed. She lay down next to him and wondered how long it had been since his sheets were washed. After a moment of silence, the American stood up, left the room, and reappeared a few seconds later with his camera.
“Now can I take your picture?”
Justine said nothing and pretended to be asleep. She could sense the light of the flash on her closed eyelids but didn’t react, thinking that the poor guy had earned his photo, after all, and if he wanted to put her in a frame, well, it wasn’t her problem. At least, with him, she could be sure of one thing: there was no chance the photo was going to end up on Facebook.
Then the American went back to bed and fell asleep in less than five minutes. It was the moment Justine had been waiting for to get up and quietly leave the room. First, she tiptoed into the living room and found her purse. Then she made her way to the kitchen and began to dig through the contents of the buffet table. In the top drawer, she found a case containing hundreds of envelopes full of photo prints. Justine opened one at random, and looked at the first image, the second, the third . . . but what the . . . what kind of a sicko was this guy? Without knowing why, she stuffed an envelope into her bag, as if it might be of use to her later on. Gathering her courage, she went on with her search, and finally, in the cabinet below the sink, she found the goldmine. And when she discovered the contents of the plastic grocery bag, Justine couldn’t keep herself from blurting out: “Holy shit, I’ve never seen so much cash!” Then she thought she heard the sound of a door opening in the hallway.
In the neighborhood around rue de Flandre, everyone knew him and everyone called him “FotoMarc,” in reference to the rather unoriginal name of his camera store.
In 2014, running a camera store mainly meant selling digital cameras, memory cards, and useless gadgets, and no longer really developing film. For that matter, since people had started to post their photos on Instagram rather than gluing them into a dusty album they unearthed once a year at a soporific family dinner, even digital printing was becoming rarer.
Marc’s world had changed a great deal, to be sure, but there were still a few customers who came to develop their film: the dreamy, nostalgic ones, and the digitally challenged ones. The American, who had been coming to FotoMarc every week for several years, was one of these customers, and needless to say, he belonged to the second category.
“But why don’t you get yourself a camera, instead of buying all these disposable ones?” Marc had asked him one day. “I have a good one for less than 150 euros, it’ll save you money in the long run . . .”
The American had responded, in simpler words, that he was afraid to buy a camera that might stop working, that this way was very practical, with the film already inside, and he really didn’t see the point in changing.
Though far from being a close friend, Marc was still one of the people in the neighborhood who knew the American best, and certainly the only one so familiar with his odd fixation. A good storekeeper, Marc never passed judgment on this activity which had already made him a nice little profit, but he couldn’t keep himself from wondering what the American might be doing with all these photos of young girls. Sometimes, he imagined him alone at home, at night, sorting them into little plastic boxes according to a classification system only he could understand: ass size, arm length, flat shoes or high heels, hair color, skirt or pants . . . Or perhaps he taped them all to the walls of his apartment, in chronological order?
Marc had to admit, the whole thing seemed a bit shady. At the same time, it was probably just a hobby, and there was no reason to be alarmed. Had the American been an artist, would these photos have been interpreted as a body of work worthy of interest? Perhaps. But since the American was just a guy in a baseball cap who picked up empty glasses at bars, it was better for him, and for Marc, that this oeuvre remain a secret.
A few days after his evening with Justine, the American brought in a new roll of film and left with the previous prints, as well as another disposable camera. Marc developed the film that afternoon and, as usual, checked the prints as soon as they came out of the machine. The first photos he looked at were unsurprising. Some were blurred, or even completely black, and, always the good shopkeeper, he didn’t charge for any that hadn’t come out well. It was the twelfth image that got his attention: darker than the others, it showed for the first time a girl not from the back but from the front, lying inert on a bed, eyes closed, her skin translucent. Who was this girl? What was she doing there? Where had the photo been taken? Was she dead? Locked away? Had he killed her? This seemingly harmless dork—was he in fact a sick pervert? Feeling lightheaded, Marc stepped outside to take a deep breath of fresh air. He obviously couldn’t ignore the questions that assailed him like a meteor shower out of nowhere.
In the neighborhood around rue de Flandre, those who knew him called him “Inspector Freddy,” and, at the station, some of his junior officers called him “Inspector Mustache,” in homage to the impressive tuft of gray hair that covered his upper lip and most of his lower one, and acted something like an air filter when he spoke in his baritone voice tinged with a Brussels accent.
Freddy had worked at the Brussels police department since 1975. If all went well for him, he would collect his pension in 2015. But this was without taking into account the current far-right campaign to reform the retirement plan for public servants, and neither Freddy nor anyone else knew where all that would lead.
Freddy was in his office, on the second floor of the station, polishing his new work boots, when his spiral-corded landline phone rang.
“Hello, Freddy?” It was Marc, the photographer on rue de Flandre. “I took the liberty of calling, as I feel I ought to speak to you about something . . .”
Freddy recognized a certain gravity in his voice, and concluded that he’d better take the guy seriously.
Half an hour later, the inspector walked through the door of FotoMarc. Marc thanked him for coming so quickly before leading him to a small office on the first floor, where Freddy sat down without being invited.
“I don’t know if I did the right thing, calling you here for this,” said Marc, handing him the photo, “but . . .”
“It’s always better to be safe,” offered the inspector, who no longer knew quite how to finish that sentence.
Freddy took off his glasses to examine the photo in closer detail. Without pausing, Marc explained the reasons for his concern, going several years back to the time when he’d first seen the American walk through the doors of his shop.
“This photo was actually taken by the American, then?” asked the inspector, once Marc had finished his story.
“Yes, I think . . . In any case, he’s the one who has them developed . . .”
Freddy pinched his mustache between his thumb and forefinger. “Have you seen this girl anywhere before, and do you have any idea who she might be?”
Marc had never seen her, and had no idea.
“Is this the first time she’s appeared in one of his photos?”
“Hard to say. Like I said, they’re always taken from behind . . .”
The inspector grimaced and clasped his hands together. “Do you think she could be his girlfriend?”
Marc raised his eyebrows in a way that Freddy took to mean he had just asked a dumb question.
“I see . . .” said the inspector, who didn’t know the American terribly well, but well enough not to believe just anything with regard to him.
“You think she’s . . . dead?” Marc couldn’t help blurting out. It was, for him, the one and only question that had any bearing in all this murky business.
“Impossible to say, based on a photo alone,” replied the inspector, who, throughout his career, had seen plenty of live bodies that looked quite dead, and plenty of dead ones that looked alive. Then Freddy looked Marc straight in the eye, and the silence grew heavier. “You, who’ve known him for so long, do you think he’s capable of the worst?”
“No, no, I don’t think so. But at the same time, I don’t know him as well as all that . . . and he’s a very peculiar person. He’s always nice, but, well, what does that really mean, after all?”
“Not much, you’re right,” concluded the inspector before taking leave of the photographer.
Twenty minutes later, Freddy called Abdel into his office to tell him everything he had just learned. Abdel was the inspector’s new right-hand man, named to this post after the departure of Jean-Marc, who had decided to finish his career in the central administration. He was a young recruit who still had much to learn, but Freddy had a great deal of faith in him.
“And what do we do now, chief?” asked Abdel.
“Well, first you’re going to scan this little photo and send it to forensics, then make copies and go looking for the girl . . .”
“As for me, I’m going to try to get my hands on this damned American.”
Abdel walked toward the door, and just before stepping over the threshold, turned to Freddy with a worried expression. “Tell me, chief, do you think she’s—”
“I don’t know, Abdel. Experience tells me that if he’d killed her, he probably wouldn’t have gone to get the photo developed.”
“Ah, that’s not a bad point . . .”
“At the same time, this might be his way of revealing his true nature,” added Freddy.
“You mean with this sort of guy, anything is possible?”
“Unfortunately, yes. These men don’t always think rationally, and it’s often very hard to discern their intentions. But come on, enough chitchat! The main thing, for now, is to find him . . .”
Freddy had no trouble getting ahold of the American, since, after going to ring the bell at his apartment, he found him, like most afternoons, at the Laboureur, bringing empty glasses to the counter. Freddy approached him, introduced himself, and quietly asked him to step outside.
“And my Coke?”
“I’ll buy you another one . . . Come on, follow me and don’t make a scene.”
The inspector and the American left the Laboureur under the amused gaze of the bar’s regulars, who weren’t on their first beers of the day, nor their last. They walked side by side, and Freddy said nothing to him of the matter until they’d arrived at the station, a few blocks away. He brought the American into a brightly lit room near his office, and pointed to a chair where the latter sat down without batting an eyelid.
“You know why we’re here?”
The American did not seem to understand the reason for his presence in this place. Freddy took the photo out of his pocket and set it down in front of him.
“You know this girl?”
“But that’s my photo!”
“How do you have it?”
Freddy told himself it wasn’t impossible that he didn’t know her last name, and changed the question. “Who is she, this girl?”
“She’s Natacha,” responded the American who, for the first time, seemed visibly annoyed.
“You’re the one who took this photo?”
“Yes, that’s my photo.”
“And where did you take it, this photo?”
“At my apartment.”
“Natacha was at your apartment?”
This time, the American only nodded his head.
“And can you tell me what she was doing at your apartment, this girl?”
“She came to my apartment to see me.”
“To see you,” repeated Freddy, laughing. “But of course . . . And how long have you known her?”
The American seemed to be genuinely searching for a response to this question, but dates and days of the week, like many other things, had never been his strong point.
“You know where she lives?”
“And can you tell me what this Natacha whom you don’t know much about was doing at your apartment, lying down with her eyes closed?”
“She was sleeping,” said the American, before releasing a nervous little laugh that led the inspector to suspect he was less stupid than he’d first seemed.
“And since when do you take photos of sleeping girls, huh?” Freddy cried, pounding his fist on the table. “It’s not already perverted enough to shoot them from behind on the street? You need more, more, more?”
The American went pale as photo paper that had been exposed to the sun.
“And who’s to tell me you didn’t drug her and rape her, then kill her and take her photo, like hunters do with the heads of their prey? Eh? Who?”
The American curled up on his chair, took his head in his hands, and started to breathe like a horse at the entrance to a slaughterhouse.
“Listen to me, American: I’m not your enemy and I’d like to believe whatever you tell me, but as long as you say nothing and we don’t find her alive, I can’t let you leave here . . . You understand what I’m saying?”
The American spread his hands and made a strange movement of his head that perplexed the inspector.
Freddy asked a security guard to make sure the American didn’t leave the room, then went back to his office. A few moments later, the ringing telephone interrupted his thoughts.
“I found some stuff on the girl, asking people in the neighborhood,” said Abdel. “Some of them recognized her face, and one woman had even seen her go into the building on 156 rue de Flandre. So I went there myself—there was no name on the doorbell, but I knocked on the super’s window and he let me in. I showed him the photo, and the guy confirmed it was one of the two students on the third floor . . . I headed up . . . there was no one there, but since it was an old door, I went ahead and pried it open without causing too much damage . . .”
“Bravo, respect for the procedure,” said Freddy. “And then?”
“I looked around a bit, and it seemed just like any other student’s apartment, with two rooms, single beds, and two desks covered with textbooks . . . Anyway, in the smaller room there was a photo of the girl, the same girl in our photo, and I told myself that it must be her room . . . You see, chief?”
“Yes, I see, Abdel . . . And then?”
“Here’s where it gets interesting! Listen . . . I dug around the room for a while and pretty soon I stumbled on this big cardboard box in her wardrobe, like a shoe box, full of money, mainly fifty-euro bills and also some hundreds . . .”
“What? But . . . how much was in there?”
“I didn’t count, chief, but I’d say there has to be at least five thousand.”
“Yeah . . . and that’s not all. On the desk, there was a planner marked with just the names of men—around three or four per week.”
“Well, who’d have thought? The sly little thing . . .”
“And I haven’t told you the strangest part, chief! At the bottom of the box, there was an envelope full of photos showing girls from behind.”
“Girls from behind?”
“Yes, chief, girls from behind!”
“But what’s she doing with those photos at her apartment?”
“No idea . . . Either she’s the one who took them, or they’re the American’s.”
Freddy got lost in his thoughts for a few seconds, before bringing his attention back to the conversation.
“Well, and after all that, do you have any idea where she might be?”
“Hold on, chief, I haven’t finished. Just when I was about to leave, a girl came into the apartment. I surprised her and she was pretty scared. I introduced myself, and she told me that she lived there. I showed her the photo and I explained that we’re looking for this person. She said the girl’s name was Justine, that she was, in fact, her roommate, and she’d gone to Paris for a few days to visit her family . . .”
“Yes, Justine, chief! Her real name! Natacha must be the name she gives to men . . .”
“Okay, I’m starting to understand . . . And then?”
“I showed her the box with the money and asked if she knew anything about it. The roommate immediately started crying, then she told me she didn’t really know what her friend was up to, but that, yes, there were often men who came over, and the money might come from that, but she didn’t know anything about it and had nothing to do with any of it.”
“And what did you do then?”
“I told her not to contact Justine under any circumstances, otherwise she’d have to deal with us. I suggest we let her take her time coming back from France, and we arrest her right when she gets off the train. According to the roommate, Justine gets in tomorrow on the 7:45.”
“Nicely done, Abdel! Prostitution, abuse of a handicapped person . . . Ah, yes, she’s going to have quite a lot to explain to us, this pretty little Frenchy.”
Freddy hung up before standing and taking a few steps toward the window, then looked down at the street. How many cases had he solved in his career? He no longer remembered exactly, but in nearly forty years in the profession, this was among the most efficiently handled ones, solved in less time than it took to type up the lousy police report.
The inspector’s watch, a gift from his wife on their twentieth anniversary, read 4:55 when he headed back to the room where the American was still under surveillance. Freddy opened the door and gazed paternally down at the little man, who was busy counting the square tiles on the wall.
“I have some good news for you and some bad news. Which would you like to hear first?”
“I don’t know,” said the American, as if he’d been asked to choose between a vanilla or chocolate ice cream cone.
“In that case, let’s start with the good news,” said Freddy. “All suspicion of murder and kidnapping has been lifted. As soon as you’ve signed your deposition, you can go home and continue with your little life in peace.”
“Really?” said the American, as if he’d heard that the dog he’d lost as a child had just been found.
“The bad news is, well, I’m afraid that your new girlfriend might be a whore. And between us—and I tell you this from my years of experience, without wanting to hurt you—I’d be shocked if that wasn’t the case.”
“Yes, a whore,” said Freddy.
“Really,” said the American, as if he’d just been told there’d been a mistake, and the dog that had been found wasn’t his after all.
© Edgar Kosma 2015 — Translated from French by Katie Shireen Assef — This short novel was published in the collective book Brussels Noir published in Akashic Books (USA).