by Emmanuel Grand
Translated by Aurora Bell
Karine set the glass down a second before it slipped out of her hands, and took another from the sink, incapable of taking her eyes off the table at the back of the room. The man sipping his coffee reminded her of a scene from a movie she had seen on TV. It took place in a bar, along a desert road. The heat was suffocating. A waitress sat at the counter. In a half-shadow, a suspicious man idled, sipping a beer. You could hear the far-off noise of a baseball game on the TV and the humming of the air conditioning. The then the man raises finger. The waitress gets up and goes over to him. The man plunges his hand into his jacket, pulls out a revolver, makes a joke like, “Last stop, everyone out,” and pulls the trigger. Just like that, no reason. Bang. Lots of blood on the screen. The movie had shaken her up, and every night for two weeks Karine crossed the parking lot to her compact Peugeot as fast as possible. Frank, her boyfriend, called it paranoia. Men don’t understand. The fact remains that the man at the back of the café had stirred up her “paranoia.” About thirty, messy hair, poorly shaven, a dirty maroon jacket. And a blue duffel that he held tightly.
It was still dark out. The clock’s red LED display said 6:57 a.m. Facing the café, Abdel, who worked at the Relais H newsstand, was struggling to lift the roll up gate. The station was empty. The café filled to the rhythm of arrivals and departures, invaded by hurried people who came to gulp down an espresso before returning to the stream. It would fill up in a second and then drain like a sink, until the next train. Between the rushes, it was dead quiet. At 7:19, as the train for Quimper pulled into the station, Karine wiped down the tables with a wet cloth and turned on the TV for the morning program in which an ideal son-in-law and his perfect cohost might discuss breast implants, face masks, and gardening tips.
At 7:55, the man in the jacket was still sipping the same coffee. Frank would have told her to think about something else. This guy was definitely a loser. But even losers have their habits. She’d never seen this guy before. At 8 o’clock, he got up, took his bag, and moved to the counter.
“I’d like to make a call.”
He had a strong Polish accent. She’d met some Polish people near the beach south of La Rochelle the summer before. He was definitely Polish. She pointed to a phone booth on the square. The man went out. She followed him with her eyes. The call was short. He didn’t speak and hung up quickly. He made another call, then a third. All just as brief. Then he returned to the café, sat down at the same table, and ordered another coffee. When she brought it to him, she saw the stranger plunge his hand into his bag. She thought about Frank, then the TV, then Frank. The man pulled out a rolled up copy of the Télégramme de Brest and set it on the table. He meticulously unfolded the paper and raised his eyes to the young woman who had brought his coffee.
“I’m looking for work. You can find it in here?”
“Maybe…Jobs don’t grow on trees.”
“Can I show you?”
The man pointed to several classifieds marked with an ex. She shrugged.
Building painter. Morlaix.
Prepare media (lustering), apply various types of paint, wallpaper, and other wall dressings.
Data entry. Rennes.
After training, electronically input customers’ orders (frozen goods and grocery) from the catalog.
Leading player in ready-to-wear direct sales for more than 60 years requires traveling salespeople to work under contract near their homes.
Karine was doubtful, especially concerning the last advertisement.
“So you called them?”
“Yes. No answer.”
“Eight o’clock is too early. Try again later.”
The man nodded.
“Let me see.”
The man held out the page he had marked. She skimmed it, stopping on an ad at the bottom of the page.
“You didn’t circle this one. It’s close to here.”
Fisherman in need of sailor for coast fishing.
Lodging, wage plus share of catch. Belz.
“Have to be a sailor, though. Maybe not such a good idea…”
But the man took back the journal and reread the ad several times.
“I didn’t see it. Belz?”
“It’s an island. An hour from here by boat.”
“You have to be a sailor. Are you a sailor?”
“Sure, I can do it,” said the man. “I can be a sailor.” A light flickered in his eyes. “I’m going to call.”
“Don’t get your hopes up. Finding work, it’s not easy here,” she said to curb the hope that in all likelihood would be dashed.
But the man didn’t leave her time to finish. He rushed out to the payphone.
“I’m calling about the ad.”
“Yes…” answered a nasal, groggy sounding voice.
“Are you hiring a sailor?”
“Yes, that’s me. You’ve sailed before?”
“Yes. In Pyrgos. In Greece.”
“You were on a fishing boat?”
“A fish-packing boat.”
“No wife? Kids?”
“I need someone for three months, at least. After that, we’ll see. You read the classified. A share of the catch, plus five hundred euros a month. Room and board.”
“Where are you?”
“When can you come?”
“Good. There’s a boat at two. Can you take it?”
“I’ll meet you at the port. Ask for Caradec.”
The man hung up the phone slowly. It didn’t add up. Everything had happened so quickly. Without a question. He’d even prepared a spiel: his experience as a fisher on a fish-packing boat, Greece, the Mediterranean… But he hadn’t needed it. Maybe it was luck. He left the telephone booth and hurried toward the café, hunching his shoulders against the rain that inundated the parking lot.
The 8:22 was about to leave from platform four, and the stragglers were emptying their cups or rushing out of the café with full mouths. Karine brought another coffee to the stranger.
“No kidding? It worked?”
“I take the two o’clock boat.”
“You must match what he wanted exactly. You don’t usually land a job with a phone call. Good for you.”
A match. Exactly. Maybe that was it. He was the missing piece. And now this Caradec could finish his puzzle. He’d been searching for days and, thanks to a heaven-sent phone call, he had finally found it. The man burst out laughing. This guy had to be in deep shit, ready to take anyone who could give a hand. He’ll be disappointed when he sees me on the job, he thought. He who’d been on a boat all of three times.
“Is it a CDI?” asked the waitress, unconvinced.
“A CDI. A real job. With a contract.”
The man shrugged.
“He hired you for how long?”
“Not a CDI. Here’s your coffee.”
Karine remained in front of him, thinking.
“You see, Belz…it’s a strange place.”
“I don’t want to be a killjoy, but…”
“Weird stuff happens there. At least that’s what they say.”
The man stirred his coffee.
“What kind of stuff?”
“Things that are hard to explain… When you try to explain, you start to sound crazy, you know?” The waitress lowered her voice. “Once, they found a boy crushed by a rock, right in the middle of a field. You see the problem. No one ever found a valid explanation. And then three years ago, a huge trawler ran aground. They made a big deal out of it in the Ouest France daily. There must’ve been twenty sailors on the boat. They never found anyone. Not one body. The boat crashed in an inlet. They should’ve found bodies on the beach. But there was nothing! They had divers search and everything. Less than nothing. A ghost ship.”
The man looked at the waitress skeptically.
“That’s Belz. It’s like they have bad luck. We call it Enez Ar Droc’h. It means the island of the mad. But, you’re not from around here. It doesn’t involve you.”
He emptied his cup in one gulp. The poor girl must have been a pathological liar. Stuck in this glass jar all day, she would have to tell herself impossible stories.
“I’d better go.”
“Good luck with the job.”
The man was gathering his things when the waitress held out her hand.
“I’m Karine, by the way.”
He shook her hand and left the café.
At noon, Marko went down the Cours de Chazelles. The street was long and dull like an admiral’s retirement. The lashing rain had given way to a humid drizzle. In the gray light, the houses all looked the same. Their colors seemed to have run down, into the gutters. Behind the occasional shop front, he could see immobile silhouettes, unreal shadows. The town seemed deserted. The young man quickened his pace along the concrete pavement. Karine had advised him to leave half an hour to reach the pier. Just half an hour and he’d be out of trouble.
The Island of Belz was his destination. It took some nerve to hide on an island, and that was exactly what he liked about the plan. With the mess they’d left on the highway, he and his companions would soon have the whole Romanian mafia on their asses. And if they found them, they wouldn’t be passing out flowers. He’d turned the problem over and, after looking at it from all angles, he had to admit that he was caught in a fishing net. Sooner or later it would rise to the surface. There was only one option: make himself small, and, when the time came, slip through.
While Marko made his way quickly along the boulevard, a car drove behind him at a low speed, keeping its distance.
It’s already over, you don’t fit the bill.
Again, the little nasal voice whispering its nasty commentary in his ear. Always bringing him down. Before he left Odessa it was: A scam, they’ll take your money and leave you in a parking lot in Rovno. And in the truck: Where do you think you’re going in this livestock crate? The New World? More like the slaughterhouse. Soon they’ll stop, everyone will get out, and ptf–ptf–ptf–ptf. The end. When they climbed out of the truck, scared shitless, it didn’t let up: What do you think you’re doing with that shitty crank. You think you’re in a movie? Those guys are armed to the teeth. They’re killers. They’re going to butcher you and your band of amateurs. And now that he was almost there: You think you can hide on an island of psychos? The Romanians know how to take a boat… And the police? They only have to lay a finger on you and off you go, back to start. Fuck.
Deep down he knew all that. The little voice might have been a bastard, but it was sometimes (often) right. He was haunted by what had happened at the service area. He couldn’t stop seeing that night, the screams, the blows, the blood. Never mind that he’d gotten away. His arrival in France, the train ride without mishap, and now this job in a single phone call…The fact that he had the advantage now, that would make it’s blood boil. Now he was leading the dance.
Fuck it, have it your way. Go ahead and sink.
Marko continued toward Boulevard Maréchal-Joffre. The traffic light had been green for ages, but as he approached it turned orange and then red right before he could cross. He stopped at the same time as a police car pulled up, humming and sweeping the rain with the blue lights of its flashers.
Marko was paralyzed. He did all he could to distract himself, imagining himself in Karine’s arms or running on Langheron Beach in Odesssa. Anything to keep from looking at the car idling two meters away. His pounding heart was beginning to resonate with the heavy sweeping of the windshield wipers. He had to stay calm. The light would turn green. That was certain. And what if the cops got out of the car? He had a plan. Take off running.
The uniformed officer leaned toward the dashboard. His colleague was tapping on the steering wheel.
“Take a look at that gypsy.”
“The man waiting to cross. I bet he doesn’t have papers.”
“Wait. I’m going to check.”
“We have better things to do. Come on, we’re headed back.”
“It’ll take two seconds.” The cop adjusted his uniform and stepped out into the drizzle.
The radio crackled. “Car 1422.”
“Brigadier Dupire, I’m listening.”
“Laurent, is Jean-Steph with you?”
“What the hell are you guys doing? We’re waiting for you.”
“We’re on the Course de Chazelles. Jean-Steph doing an identity check.”
“Is there a problem? You need reinforcements?”
“No, no. He just saw a guy he didn’t like the look of.”
“Are you fucking with us? We’ve popped the bottles! The old man is about to give his speech. He wanted everyone to be here. You’d better get back, and fast.”
On the sidewalk, the uniformed cop was gesticulating toward Marko who stood as still and expressionless as a signpost.
“Jean-Steph!” shouted Laurent from the car.
“We’re going back.”
“It’s an order.”
The cop turned around, throwing his hands in the air. Marko breathed slowly. What had the cop asked him. He didn’t know. What had made him leave. He had no idea. He felt like he was freediving, prisoner to a body that no longer responded, while the man in the uniform showered him with a mush of indistinct words. He hadn’t followed the plan. The cop had gotten out, he was supposed to run. Without thinking. Without stopping. Thank God his freedom wasn’t hanging by a thread. He had to follow the plan. Marko tightened his sweaty grip on the handles of his duffle. He had to pull himself together. He was in a hostile country and there was no room for error. He clenched his teeth and quickened his pace to cross the street.