Read an Excerpt
It was too early in the season for the sirocco but the wind dashing against the
fortress harbor of Marseille was hot and dry. It carried a North African legacy
of grit and dust, the odor of persimmons and decaying ocean catch. It glazed the
eye and embedded splinters of homicidal thoughts in a population that moved like
an uneasy, suspicious herd.
Rue de la Colombe in the east harbor was a shabby affair, narrow, with
overflowing gutters and dog-turd-stained, slippery sidewalks. The peeling
facades of the buildings gave the impression of industrial leprosy.
Most of the market stalls belonged to Algerians and Tunisians and were shuttered
for the midday respite. Cutting through the stink of cat piss and rotting
produce was the sweet smell of burning hashish. The high-pitched wall of Arab
songs on radios drifted through the cracks of doors and windowsills warped by
the sea air.
There was only one café on the street, a dark hole with a bar by the door and
five tables in the back. The owner-bartender was an old harki, an
Algerian who had fought with the French against Algerian independence. His one
good eye was focused on the small television perched above the bar. Olympique de
Marseille, the local soccer team, was humiliating the visiting English team.
The only customer was also watching the game. Not because he followed the team
or even the sport but because the young waiter, a Kabyle, was pouring thé de
menthe. The teapot, filled with sugar-laden boiling water and mint leaves,
was held four feet above the cup. The waiter dipped its narrow spout and deftly
poured a stream into a glass decorated with faded gold trim. The customer
remained motionless until the ceremony was concluded.
The waiter set down the teapot, slipped the bill across the table, and took one
step back, waiting. The customer made as though to look up, then hesitated, and
instead dug into his coat pocket and produced a fistful of greasy coins. He set
them down on the table and carefully counted out the francs, setting aside the
centimes. He added up the francs, then pushed a few of the centimes into the
The waiter swept the coins off the table and walked away. A few seconds later
the customer heard the ring of his tip being tossed contemptuously into a glass
The customer leaned forward and cupped the glass of tea like an old man would,
with both hands. Hunched over, he looked even older than at first glance. His
hair was long, iron gray, streaked with scalp oil. His face was the color of
rotting pomegranate, a brown sheen to the skin that had worked itself into the
wrinkles on his cheeks and forehead. The glass shook slightly as he brought it
up to tobacco-stained teeth.
In spite of the heat he wore a coat, the frayed cloth cut long with wide lapels.
Over the left breast was a tattered three-colored service bar. Only in Marseille
would men of his generation and experience recognize it as the symbol of active
duty in Algeria.
Except that Algeria was one of the few places on earth where he hadn't fought,
because he detested it and the whole of North Africa.
The customer reached for the newspaper he had set aside while the waiter had
served tea. His hands were large and fine boned, the fingers long and delicate
but powerful. But all anyone ever noticed was the dirt under his cuticles.
The customer opened the conservative Parisian daily Le Figaro. The
rustle of newsprint could not be heard over the blare of the television.
Nor could today's edition of the International Herald Tribune, tucked
into Le Figaro's centerfold, be seen.
He bought the paper every day and always kept it hidden away in a French paper
because it wasn't in his interest to let people know he read or understood
English. That English was, in fact, his mother tongue. Every day he came to this
café for a late lunch, assured that other patrons would have come and gone. He
always took this table in the corner, his back to the wall. Ordered couscous or
merguez, a lamb dish, drank his tea, and read his paper. He'd overheard
speculation between the bartender and the waiter as to what he was. The former
said a vet, the latter insisted he was a clochard, a bum who panhandled enough
coins for one meal a day.
The customer took no offense since both were wrong.
The Tribune was open to the international page. The lead -- and only --
story was about a U.S. foreign aid bill that was deadlocked in the House of
Representatives. The rest of the page was devoted to the international real
estate market and classifieds.
The subheadings in the classifieds began with Announcements, which
included the times for upcoming Rosh Hashanah services to be held at the
Mouvement Juif Libéral de France Synagogue; several prayers would be recited in
English. Legal services in Huntington Beach, California, offered one-day
certified divorces. Isle of Man trustees had 750 nameplate companies to shelter
income. Funding problems for upstart companies would be a thing of the past if
one were to contact Bancor of Asia.
After fifteen years the ads had become depressingly familiar. The names changed;
the scams and false promises, never.
Employment: German native, 29, fluent English, official
qualifications, seeks challenging position in export, sales...
Trades wanted: Handyman sought for special renovation. Must
have 15 years experience. References essential. Call
The customer blinked, sat back slowly. He was intensely aware of everything --
the crinkle of the newsprint, the crackle of his wooden chair, the nasal drone
of the soccer commentator. The air was filled with fat motes of greasy lamb. The
roar inside his head was an avalanche.
Fifteen years he had waited for this.
Fifteen years to be contacted by a man who had wished him dead.
Fifteen years to be forgiven.
Or could it be a trick to draw him out so that he could finally kill him? He
thought not. He would not call him by his name, the Handyman, or give him a
contact number. There were other, more subtle ways to lure the goat.
He needs me. Again.
The Handyman's fingers trembled as he reached for the tea glass. A burst of
light from a television commercial reflected off a well-worn ring on the third
finger of his left hand, its signet deliberately left dirty, the figure in the
seal obscured by grit.
The Handyman stared at it, contemplating how great a fool he was to wear it.
Even sullied, it was much too grand a possession for one who appeared so poor.
But he allowed for this single flaw in his elaborate disguise because it was his
only connection to a life that had been frozen in time. It was the wellspring of
his hope, the bedrock of what was left of his sanity.
Three blocks away, in the Rue des Jardiniers, four Moroccan children were
kicking a filthy soccer ball up and down the street. It caromed off the parked
cars, rolled into the gutter, was kicked again, leaving dirty blotches where it
had smacked against the vehicles' fenders.
The eldest boy was passing the ball from foot to foot, deciding which friend to
kick it to, when he spotted the Handyman ambling down the street. The boy
recognized him. He'd been a fixture in the neighborhood ever since he could
remember. A silent, smelly old man who shuffled along like a gimp, never said a
word to anybody. As a child the boy had been afraid of him. Now on the cusp of
adolescence, he wondered why none of the older kids had ever beaten up the old
man, or set him on fire, just for fun. Grinning, he waited for the old man to
reach an open space between two parked cars.
The boy's eyes never wavered from their target. Here came the old man, his coat
almost dragging on the sidewalk, head bobbing like that of an ancient turkey.
The boy licked his lips and drew back his right leg. He was scrawny but strong
in the way children become when they grow up on the street. His leg shot out
like a piston, his foot connecting with the ball perfectly. It rocketed away on
a low trajectory directly toward the old man's head.
The boy ran toward the sidewalk, thinking how fast he could go through the old
man's pockets while he was down. And maybe he wouldn't stop at that. Maybe he'd
hurt him a little, for fun.
The ball should have taken the old man's head off. There was no way he could
have seen it coming. Yet suddenly the old man dipped his shoulder, spun, and
threw both arms up in front of his face.
Six feet from the sidewalk, the boy froze. The old man lowered his hands,
holding the ball he'd plucked in midflight, and stared at him. The boy gasped.
He had never really seen the old man's eyes before. Now they would not let him
go, cold, black eyes, shiny and opaque like coal.
They never wavered as the Handyman tossed the soccer ball in the air, spread his
arms, and brought them together.
The boy shrieked as the soccer ball exploded between the old man's hands. What
was left of it fell into the street. And still the old man's eyes were on him.
The boy backed away, skidded on the cobblestones, and fell hard on his bottom.
He scrambled up, skinning his knee, and tore past his friends, who were still
staring at what had happened. Then they too turned tail.
The street became quiet again save for the Arab music drifting out from the
windows above. The Handyman continued along the street. What he had just done
would have been foolish -- even fatal -- an hour ago. Now it didn't matter. Now
it was a tiny payback for all the years of taunts and jeers and veiled threats.
It felt good.
The Handyman's apartment building was a nineteenth-century pile of limestone
built around a central courtyard. Long ago gilded carriages and prize horseflesh
had passed through the big double doors that opened onto the street. Now the
courtyard was strewn with broken appliances and furniture and soiled, gutted
mattresses. Above the debris that no one wanted and no one would ever come to
haul away, clotheslines crisscrossed the courtyard, running from balcony to
The Handyman climbed the narrow steps easily, stopping at each of the landings
to hit the time switch on the staircase light. The hallways under the rafters
smelled of cumin, rosemary, and coriander. A baby was bawling somewhere in the
The Handyman lived on the sixth floor, in what had once been the servants'
quarters. The rooms were cramped; the ceilings sloped so that near the windows
even a child had to crouch. The Handyman's apartment was no different from the
other ten on the floor: a single room with a waist-high partition that created a
cooking area, consisting of a cupboard, counter, two-burner electric hot plate,
and sink. There was a bed and an ancient dresser, and a scarred desk and chair
by the slanted, grimy window, which was the only source of ventilation. The
floorboards were buckled and worn; the walls were covered with seepage-stained
wallpaper, the floral design eaten away by cockroaches and filth.
In one corner was a closet fashioned out of raw drywall slabs framed by
two-by-fours. The Handyman opened it and removed a small old hard-shell suitcase
and a hanger draped with dry cleaner's plastic.
He put these on the bed, then filled the kettle and set it on the hot plate to
boll. He stripped and carefully went through all the pockets of his clothes,
arranging coins, keys, and fake ID papers neatly on the desk. His body was
surprisingly lean and muscled for one who looked so old. Now his movements were
precise and economical, with none of the hesitation of age.
He poured the boiling water from the kettle into the sink, mixed it with cold
water, and lathered a bar of soap. After refilling the kettle, he scrubbed his
face and hands with a rough sponge, rinsed, then did it again. When he looked at
himself in the small mirror above the sink, the face of the tramp had
The Handyman washed the rest of his body, working the sponge carefully between
his toes and under his groin. He drained the water, cleaned the sink, and filled
it with more hot water. He dipped his head and worked a cheap shampoo into his
He dried himself with a coarse towel and opened the suitcase. He brought out
clean socks and underwear, a necktie, and a pair of oxblood brogues. He pulled
the plastic wrap off the hanger, removed and slipped into the shirt, pants, and
tweed sports jacket. Because he was out of practice, it took him three tries to
knot the tie correctly. He picked up a comb and carefully ran it through his
hair, then looked in the mirror again.
The image was that of a teacher, maybe an untenured professor who could not
afford to dress with the times. The sports jacket lapels were too narrow, the
pants baggy at the waist and hips. The sturdy brogues were impervious to fashion
It was perfect.
The Handyman kneeled and with one hand lifted the bed by one of its round steel
posts. Gripping the leg with his other hand, he gave it a hard twist. The
threads in the leg yielded reluctantly, sprinkling rust over his palm as it came
loose, then free. He lowered the bed gently to the floor.
The Handyman turned the pipe upside down and tapped out its cache: a roll of
money -- French and Swiss francs, American dollars -- and a phony birth
certificate whose name matched the one on a genuine Canadian passport. The
passport had expired but could be renewed quickly enough. The staff at the Paris
consulate was predominately French-Canadian and the Handyman's birth certificate
led one to believe he was Québecois.
The last two items in the bedpost were a slip of paper with a phone number on
it, fifteen years old -- 001-1-202-555-1647 -- and a slim bundle of very
old pages the texture of papyrus.
He placed the contents on the desk, rescrewed the bed-frame leg, and burned the
paper in an ashtray. The ashes went into the sink, down the drain. The money,
including the coins from his old coat, was pocketed along with the birth
certificate and passport. The clothing he'd been wearing was stuffed into the
small suitcase, which would be disposed of later.
Almost ready now, the Handyman sat down on the edge of the bed and carefully
peeled back the pages, dry and yellow with age, the black ink having faded to
blue. There was no title or publisher's imprint; the language was Mandarin.
He could read the text easily enough but his skills of interpreting horoscopic
elements -- the stars and other portents -- had dulled. Horoscopy, like its
sister divination geomancy, required constant practice at the feet of a master.
For the last fifteen years, the Handyman's fate had been ruled by a single,
overpowering factor that had denied him his studies, one that even the stars, in
perfect alignment, had not been able to release him from. Now that factor had
shifted. The Handyman badly needed to know why. Even though he could not help
himself, he was aware of one who could.
Geomancy, the study of one's orientation to the natural world and its elements
-- fire, water, metal, wood, and earth -- was more accessible. Focusing on
interpretations written three millennia ago and passed down the ages like
forever-drifting leaves, the Handyman concluded that the force oppressing him
was not at all in harmony with these elements. It had been disturbed. There was
discomfort and uneasiness within it. Even a hint of fear.
Which makes the oppressor vulnerable. All the more so because there is an
acknowledged need for me.
The Handyman stifled the thrill his conclusion stirred in him. He knew from
experience how dangerous it was to seize the answer one desired. His
interpretation was sound -- as far as he could take it. More and deeper meanings
would have to be coaxed forth before he was absolutely certain that his
intuition wasn't merely whispering what he wanted to hear.
The Handyman was not surprised that almost two hours had elapsed since he'd
first opened the book. Long ago, when he was working, he would easily lose an
entire week in this kingdom of the unseen where his were the only footprints. He
took a deep breath, returned his thoughts to the present, and carefully rolled
up the pages and put them in the inside pocket of his jacket.
The Handyman rose to the door and appraised the room. His eyes touched on
everything, missed nothing. He knew his absence would go unnoticed. The rent was
paid until the first of the month. The landlady wouldn't come by until next
week. She'd see the empty closet and figure he'd left. Not a problem, since
everything that belonged in the room would still be there. Renting out the
garret to another pensioner would be no trouble at all.
The Handyman was not concerned about fingerprints. His had never appeared in any
police file in the world. Nor was there any reason for anyone to connect him to
He gripped the doorknob, then looked at the room one last time. He'd spent
fifteen years in places like this -- most of them worse -- moving frequently at
first, then settling in when he'd found this neighborhood, where he was
invisible, too poor to prey upon, too weak to be a threat, too old to merit even
For the first time in a very long while, the Handyman smiled. It was an
unfamiliar sensation. He thought that if the biblical Lazarus had ever existed,
this was how he must have felt when his grave had been thrown open onto the
Shops were reopening and traffic filled the street when the Handyman stepped
out. He had to move quickly to avoid being struck by a garment trolley wheeled
by a young black.
He gave the street a cursory glance and fell in behind a group of gossiping
women, all carrying empty string bags on their way to market. He never noticed
the man who stepped out from under the awning of a butcher shop and watched him
fade into the crowds farther down the street. The Handyman had no reason to
suspect that he was under surveillance.
The watcher's name was Sam Crawford. He was in his late thirties but looked
younger. He was tall and lean, with a tanned, outdoors face and a shock of white
blond hair. He could have been a fading ski bum or a hand-to-mouth print model.
In the right clothes, maybe a gigolo.
Until one looked a little closer, watched him as he crossed the street to the
Handyman's building. His movements were fluid, as if he were skimming the
surface of the road, not walking on it. And when he walked, he silently cut the
air around him, instead of pushing against it. He was the kind of man who could
perch on your conscience and you'd never even feel his breath.
Crawford took the steps two at a time, up the staircase the Handyman had
descended just moments ago. At the top landing he paused, then moved down the
The Handyman's door had an old-fashioned lock, the kind that opened with a long,
double-tongued key. Crawford had no problem with this.
When the lock clicked, he moved back against the wall, slowly pressing his palm
to the door, letting it swing open. He counted to five, allowing for a
time-delay trigger to activate an explosives-laden booby trap. The smell of soap
and shampoo drifted out into the hall.
Crawford let out his breath. The Handyman hadn't left any trip wires behind. He
stepped inside and closed the door behind him. His eyes panned the room but he
already knew what he was looking at: abandonment.
The bed was neatly made, the thin blanket stretched military tight at the
corners. But there were rust particles on the floor by one of the legs.
The sink was still wet but the few dishes stacked in the rack were dry. The hand
towel was dry but the larger bath towel was damp. The soap smell was shampoo,
not dishwashing detergent.
The Handyman had cleaned himself up.
The closet was empty, but one of the wire hangers had a shred of paper attached
to its neck. The remnants of a dry cleaner's logo.
Which accounted for the Handyman's atypical attire when he'd left the
Crawford would have the room combed, though he was sure that the search would
prove fruitless. The Handyman had not survived this long because he overlooked
details or was careless. If Crawford had known nothing about him, the room
wouldn't betray the man who'd lived there.
Crawford felt a slight vibration just above his right kidney. He reached around
to touch the silent beeper, then pulled back his jacket lapel, where a
microtransmitter was nestled in the seam.
He pressed his finger to the flesh-colored plastic receiver in his ear.
"Talk to me, Wally."
There was static, like someone was crumpling aluminum foil. Then: "He's at
the train station. Just bought a ticket for the express to Paris."
"And he's not coming back. Stay with him. Tell Paris to throw a full blanket
"Confirm full blanket. Sam, he made a couple of phone calls."
Crawford cursed. "Was anybody close enough to hear?"
"No. He made it at the train station, from inside a booth. Even if we'd been
set up, it would have been a long shot."
"How long was he on?"
"You're not going to like this. Dialing the first one took about fifteen
seconds. The second took longer, and it lasted a good five minutes."
Crawford didn't like it. The time frame indicated that the Handyman had made a
regional call, probably to Paris, and an international one. Those connections
always took longer to complete. Staying on-line for five minutes plus meant that
the Handyman could have received detailed instructions.
"I'll see you up in Paris," he said.
Crawford took one final look around the room. Its silence and poverty seemed to
mock him, revealing no more than he already knew: The Handyman was on the move.
From there he could fly to anywhere in the world.