Authors: Charles Benoit
Doug was halfway down the block before he remembered to ask the old man about Sasha.
He hailed a cab and handed the driver the address that Edna had sent as contact number two. It was written in Edna’s neat, tight script in English, Arabic, and French. The driver nodded as he pulled away from the curb, popping in an Arabic music tape which he played loud enough to shake the windows. Douglas Pearce leaned back and decided to enjoy the moment, the taste of the sweet tea still fresh in his mouth, the shops and traffic of Casablanca racing by the window. Although he could not hear himself, he softly sang along, the words not matching the music. “You must remember this, a kiss is still a kiss….”
The cab pulled up in front of yet another white French Colonial building, but instead of a café this building’s rounded corner housed a shop offering what it claimed were authentic antiques, Moroccan carpets, and curios. Slipped in accidentally between three-month-old “antique Berber chests” and overpriced carpets of dubious quality were indeed a handful of authentic antiques, but the owner could no longer tell the real from the fake even in his own shop.
Abdullah Zubaid had never wanted to live in Morocco. When his father left Syria in 1935, Abdullah had little choice but to go with him, his mother and sisters dead from an unnamed epidemic that swept through Aleppo the winter before. And Abdullah had never wanted to own this shop but when his father had a stroke in the early Seventies, he had little choice again. And when his father died eight years later Abdullah had sons of his own to worry about and no skills other than an ability to predict what the tourists would pay too much for. An excellent location, the building in his name since his father’s death, and no ambition all combined to keep Abdullah unhappily employed.
When the American entered the shop—only an American would wear blue jeans on a day that would reach ninety—it was still before noon, too early to expect a big sale from the tourist trade. Abdullah put on his best I-don’t-speak-English face in case the man wanted directions to a different shop in the neighborhood. He picked up a pen and started writing nonsense in Arabic to look busy. After fifty years in this business he knew a no-sale when he saw one.
“Excuse me, are you the owner?” Doug asked.
Abdullah looked up over the top of his glasses. It was a look that made tourists uncomfortable and he noticed the shuffling of the feet that signaled it had worked again.
“I’m looking for the owner. I have a message for the owner from America.”
Abdullah said nothing, his face concealing his sudden interest in this American.
“Do you speak English? I’m looking for the owner. Owner? You? This shop you?” Doug said pointing to the man and then around the shop, trying to get the man to understand.
“Yes, this shop me,” Abdullah said without moving his eyes off the American. “I’m the owner and the proprietor, the head sales associate, and chief executive officer for Abdullah bin Abdullah Antiquities and Exports, Limited. How may I be of assistance?”
“Oh,” Doug said, “I didn’t think you spoke English, you just looked like you didn’t understand.”
“Yes, that was obvious.” He was not making this easy for the American and he still wore the expression that he knew made even his friends uncomfortable. “Now, what was this you said about a message from America?”
“The message is from Russell Pearce. I’m to tell you that I’ve taken up the hunt for the eye.”
“I do not know a Russell Pearce and I know nothing about an eye. I wish you luck on your hunt, however.” Abdullah Zubaid looked back down to the nonsense he had scribbled as if it was an important message.
“I’ve been told that everyone who lived in Casablanca in the late 1940s knew Russell Pearce. He had a friend named Charley Hodge. They were American, does that help?”
“No it does not, I’m afraid. I lived right above this shop most of my life and I assure you I did not know either of your Americans.” The shop owner looked up from his paper and removed his glasses. “Is there anything else I can do for you, sir?”
Doug shifted his weight from foot to foot like he did when a supervisor at the brewery had to talk to him about his work. “Look, I’m not really looking for an eye, I’m looking for a jewel that was stolen here in Morocco in 1948. Russell Pearce and Charley Hodge stole it and everyone has been looking for it ever since.”
“How interesting,” Abdullah Zubaid said without emotion. “Now why would a jewel thief whom I did not know want to tell me that you are now on the hunt for his ill-gotten gains?”
“I don’t really know myself,” Doug admitted, “I was simply told to tell you and that you would help me out. Are you sure none of this rings a bell with you? I’ve come a long way and I was told you would know about it and could help me.”
“I’m sorry that you have been inconvenienced but that does not change anything. I did not know this Mr. Pearce or his friend and I can’t see how I can help you, unless of course you wish to purchase a fine, handmade Moroccan carpet?” Abdullah Zubaid managed to smile for the first time, but this did not make him seem any friendlier.
“Look, I’m sorry I bothered you,” Doug said as he reached in his pocket, pulling out a business card from the Sea Port Hotel.
“This is where I’m staying. If you think of anything or talk to someone who remembers Russell Pearce, please call me.” He wrote his name on the back of the card before handing it to the shop owner.
Abdullah Zubaid looked at the card and back up at Doug. “A relation, Mr. Pearce? I will call if I hear anything but I sincerely doubt that I will.” He slid his glasses back on and watched the American weave his way out of the shop. He watched Doug until he hailed a cab and pulled away into the rapidly warming morning.
Abdullah leaned back in his swivel chair and sat silently for a few moments, contemplating what to do. Finally he opened the top desk drawer and began setting its contents on the top of the desk. Folders, papers, invoices, and handfuls of paperclips soon covered the worn green blotter. He pulled the drawer out of the desk and carefully tapped the stray erasers, bits of pencil lead and rubber bands into a wastebasket next to his chair. He then turned the drawer over and set it on the papers on his desk. Tacked to the bottom of the drawer was an envelope. Using a letter opener, he pried off the tacks.
He had put the envelope there back in 1982 when Casablanca’s phone system was updated and many of the old numbers had changed. His father had shown him the original envelope when he was still a teenager, but that envelope and the phone number it contained were thrown out when the messenger who brought him the money each month told him that the contact procedure had changed. The money was not much—for the past six years it was ten U.S. dollars—but it was consistent and it cost him nothing to take it. The money would stop now, of course, but Abdullah Zubaid assumed there would be some sort of bonus involved. The instructions were clear but neither the shopkeeper nor his father ever planned to have to follow them. The gulf that separated him from that strange day when his father first showed him the envelope seemed small.
He dialed the numbers not knowing what to expect. The instructions said he should call every hour and let it ring many times so he was surprised when the receiver picked up on the fifth ring. “There has been a man asking questions,” he said to the silence at the other end, “about Russell Pearce and the jewel.”
Douglas Pearce sat at the end of his bed, his heart still racing, trying to figure out how he slept through it the morning before.
The final refrains of the call to prayer reverberated through the walls of the hotel. The mosque’s minaret was less than five feet from the bedroom window, and its six stadium-sized, tinny-sounding speakers blasted out a thousand watts of reminder to all believers:
Al-salatu khayr min al-nawm—
prayer is better than sleep. With the first
Douglas shot out of the bed, stumbling over a chair and his backpack in the predawn grayness. Every mosque in Casablanca, in Morocco, in any place where a mosque waited as the sun created a false dawn sky, echoed the call.
Religion was one of those subjects, like sex with a buddy’s sister or financial investments, that Douglas was never comfortable talking about. He was raised a Methodist but had no idea what that really meant. He’d been dragged to church, literally, as a kid but it always seemed to Doug that it was more of an ordeal for his parents than it was to him. His father wore the same suit each week along with the same bored and angry look. His mother was a better dresser but no better at hiding her lack of interest, although she did enjoy the singing. They never went to church socials, never volunteered for any of the endless committees Reverend Mitchell announced each week and usually ducked out before the service was over, “to beat the traffic home.” Doug could not imagine anyone taking religion so seriously that they would pray five times a day, especially when it started this early in the morning.
He showered and dressed—“Why didn’t I bring any lighter pants?” he thought—and reviewed the game plan he wrote out last night in the hotel’s two-stool bar. He made four stops the day before; the first was promising and the last three were dead ends. Today he’d head back to Le Café du Desert to talk to Mr. Ahmed some more, try the last name on the list, and call Edna Bowers to bring her up to date.
It was a short plan.
In the movies the hero always knew where to go, who to talk to, and how to follow a lead. It amazed him how James Bond could be playing baccarat in Monaco and stumble onto a plot to take over the world before the opening credits. Here he was in Casablanca, with only a small possible lead, one more name to check and then…what? And what was he supposed to tell Edna? So far he had spent well over a thousand of her dollars and what did he have to show for it? He looked at his plan again as he went downstairs for breakfast, hoping that something more would have magically appeared on the list.
There was one other guest in the small café setting, an older gentleman in a tan linen suit sipping mint tea and breaking apart a fresh pastry. Douglas sat at a table near the window and drained a tall glass of orange juice—another one of Morocco’s pleasant surprises—and ate a fruit-filled pastry. He stared out the window wondering if anyone he knew actually cared that he was here.
“Do you remember that perfect rejoinder Rick Blaine supplied the Nazis as to why he was here?”
The question startled Doug out of his daydream. He looked around to the well-dressed gentleman, the only other person in the room. “I’m sorry,” Doug said. “What was that?”
. The movie. Humphrey Bogart’s character is asked why he came to this Allah-forsaken city.” The man stirred even more sugar into his mint tea as he talked. His voice was smooth and comforting, like a voice-over in a nature documentary, a European documentary by the accent. “‘I came for the waters,’ he tells Major Strasa. ‘But there are no waters in Casablanca, Mr. Blaine.’ And then, with perfect timing, Bogart says ‘I was misinformed.’ Every time I come to Casablanca I am reminded of that scene. I was misinformed. That sums up nicely my experiences with this city.”
“Yeah.” Doug added, “Great flick. Too bad the real Casablanca isn’t still like that.”
“It never was, I’m afraid,” he said as he brushed some flakes of pastry out of his close-cropped white goatee. “I’ve been in and out of here since the Forties and this is about as exotic as it ever got. It still has the red light district, but the old quarter—the medina—is all but gone and they still don’t have a single decent museum in this city, although there are a few interesting mosques and that monstrosity they are building by the coast, the Mosque of Hasan II. Have you seen it? No? I had heard it was breathtaking but again, I was misinformed. They say it will be the second largest mosque in the world, it being bad form to go one larger than Mecca, and it will prove to the world that, while we can surpass the Blue Mosque in size, we have fallen woefully behind in style.”
They have a red light district here? thought Doug.
“No, if exotic locale is why you came to Morocco, I suggest you get out of here, bypass Rabat and get straight to Fez. Better yet,” the man said as he sipped his tea, “go south to Marrakech. But they are more religiously inclined there. It’s easy to forget that Morocco is an Islamic country if all you see is Casablanca.”
Doug had never paid for sex before and was deciding if he had any strong moral code that prevented him from starting now.
“Was it tourism that brought you here?” the gentleman asked.
“Sort of. I’m doing a favor for a friend.”
“Well your friend should consider himself extremely lucky to have a friend like you. Personally I’d be afraid to ask any of my friends to come to Casablanca for any reason. I just couldn’t stand hearing them scramble to make up excuses.”
“I had some time on my hands and figured, what the hell, right?” Doug said, trying to sound as if jetting off to obscure international locations was something he did regularly for his fabulously interesting cosmopolitan friends.
“Yes,” the man said as he smiled, “what the hell. What have you seen so far?”
“Nothing, really, just a few shops and a café.”
“Did you get to La Petite Roche for dinner? Le Mer? Le Cabestan?”
“No, it was Le McDonald’s I’m afraid.”
“Now that is just not fair. Any man who would be such a good friend deserves at least one good night in Casablanca. You’ll probably find this quite forward—my friends are always telling me I lack propriety when I meet new people—but are you free for dinner this evening? The woman I had planned to dine with decided quite late last night to return to Paris. Most unexpected. I would be honored if you could join me. Perhaps I could pick up a few tips on cultivating better friends.”
But there’s a red light district in Casablanca, Doug thought.
“Sure, I’m not doing much I guess, nothing I can’t do tomorrow.” Damn, damn, damn, he thought.
“Excellent,” the man said. “Let’s say that we’ll meet here at nine? Despite all I have said I will admit that there are some splendid little restaurants here.” He motioned for the waiter and signed for the meal.
“My name is Sergei Nikolaisen,” he said as he stood up, and Doug was surprised since the man had seemed taller when they had been sitting. He looked fit and trim, and his tan suit was tailored and exaggerated his height by highlighting his narrow hips.
“Doug Pearce,” he said extending his hand. Sergei had a strong grip for such soft hands.
“Douglas Pearce, it is a pleasure, but….” Sergei Nikolaisen stood still for a moment, glancing slowly to his left and right. He waited for the waiter to leave and leaned forward, motioning to Doug to do the same. “I must warn you,” he said in a hushed voice, “you are in great danger.”
Doug felt his eyes widen and breathing stop.
“You are in great danger and I’m afraid it is too late to help you.”
“Oh yes,” he said, “you. You have foolishly accepted the dinner invitation of a world class old bore and if the Moroccan wine does not kill you my endless stories and obscure anecdotes will surely do the trick.”
Doug couldn’t help but smile.
“Till tonight then. Do try to enjoy your day and,” again he dropped his voice to a stage whisper, “beware of foreign strangers.”
Nothing had magically appeared on Doug’s list. It still had the one name, Hammad Al-Kady, and the note about seeing Mr. Fahad/Ahmed. He could add on the dinner invitation but that meant mentally crossing off the red light district.
What’s a red light district like, he thought as he left the hotel. It was already blindingly bright outside, the shine amplified by the uniform white buildings, and Doug found he even squinted with his sunglasses on.
Would there be actual red lights? Would it be like all the Hollywood images he’d amassed in his fantasies with micro-skirted, spiked heeled, big titted babes leaning in car windows, or would that prove to be as disappointingly inaccurate as his whole image of this city? Jay, the guy who worked in the keg filling section of the Odenbach Brewery, used to live with a girl who, he said, was a hooker in Pittsburgh, a scrawny, foul-mouthed chain smoker with a Joan Jett haircut who, all the guys agreed, wore the sexiest smelling perfume. Despite the smell, Doug could never imagine paying her for sex. Not her, anyway. What would the prostitutes in Morocco look like? Would they be French or Moroccan and would he be able to tell the difference? How much would it cost? Would they overcharge him just like every cab driver and souvenir vendor? And would they guess he was an American and rip him off or stick a knife in his ribs or have their pimp—or are pimps only an American thing?—beat the crap out of him? And what about diseases? Would he even be able to find a condom here? The more he thought about it the less upset he got about his new dinner plans.
He had left the hotel and had decided to walk the few blocks to Le Café du Desert, confident he could find the right block of white buildings. He took a seat among the older men who were sipping their tea or smoking the elaborate water pipes, the aromatic fruit-flavored tobacco creating small clouds around the heads of the smokers. When he asked for Fahad, the name Mr. Ahmed said he went by these days, the waiter’s face changed expression. He bit his lower lip and looked toward the small group of waiters passing time by the cash register. “Wait a moment, please,” the waiter said and walked over to the other waiters. They talked a few moments in Arabic and glanced over to Doug. He watched as one of the waiters took a deep breath, set down his tray and walked over to his table.
It took the waiter five minutes to get around to the sentence “Mr. Fahad is dead,” and another five for the details to be made as plain as possible considering his heavy Moroccan French accent.
“It was an accident. He was walking home, up on the sidewalk. It was dark and the car came in quickly. It did not even stop when it hit him.”
Doug Pearce felt a sharp chill deep in his chest despite the climbing temperature. Dead. The man lived in Casablanca all his life and less than a day after talking to Doug about a past he had almost forgotten, he was killed when a car jumped the curb, a high curb at that, and ran him down from behind as he walked home from a place he had walked home from every night for fifty years. Mr. Ahmed was his link to Russell and Charley, to the missing jewels, to the Casablanca of the past, and now he was dead. His only link.
It could just be a coincidence, Doug said to himself. People have accidents all the time. And considering how they drove, they probably have more than their share of accidents at that. It probably had nothing to do with him and his one question. It wasn’t his fault.
If he said it enough times he figured he’d eventually start to believe it.
Doug Pearce sat at the café for over an hour, the nervous waiters replacing his empty teapots with fresh ones. He tried to figure out what to do next but his mind kept wandering off into the strangest directions—names of old schoolteachers, the new batting order for the Pirates, the break room at the brewery. He remembered what his high school math teacher once told him, that he had a mind like a rudder-less speedboat. So he thought about boats for a while, too. After discovering that the bathroom was just a hole in the floor, he took out his list of things to do and a pen.
At the top of the page he wrote “jewels stolen” and at the bottom he wrote, “jewels recovered” and then, after looking at the list, added a question mark after “recovered.” About a quarter of the way down the page he wrote “Uncle Russ killed.” He stared at this for another fifteen minutes. On the other side of the paper there was one name and an address. This was it, he decided. If he didn’t get a decent lead, a strong idea about what the hell he was doing from one Mr. Hammad Al-Kady, he’d call Edna that night and tell her he was coming back.