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By Consuelo Roland
Jacana Media (Pty) LtdCopyright © 2012 Consuelo Roland
All rights reserved.
The first time Daniel did a real vanishing trick, he was on a cruise ship to St Helena. My mobile rang while I was washing my hands in the cloakroom of our Johannesburg office, en route to the monthly project managers' meeting.
The caller number wasn't local. I dried up quickly and moved into the passage, shifting my folder so that I could walk faster.
A woman's voice. Plenty of static and crackle. It could just as well have been a call from the moon.
'Paola Dante speaking.' Using my maiden name at work had made the transition to married life fluid and comment-free.
'Am I speaking to ... is that Mrs de Luc?'
'Yes, that's right. Could you speak up?'
'Mrs Daniel de Luc?' The voice was louder, insistent.
'Yes, I'm Daniel de Luc's wife. Is there a problem?' There is no reason to panic. You don't know anything is wrong. Breathe. Stay calm.
'This is Commander Kapa at the St Helena police station. I've just been in radio communication with Captain Becker of the RMS St Helena. I am very sorry to have to tell you that your husband is missing.'
Oh Daniel, not again. Please, not again.
The words washed over me like an oil slick. They glued me to the woollen carpet in the corridor of the three-storey building. The only sounds I heard in the encapsulated space were the distant voice and a booming thud that I took to be my own heart.
'Mrs de Luc? Are you there? I realise that this must be a great shock for you, but as you can appreciate, time is of the essence with a disappearance at sea. The captain would like to know if you have any idea where he might have gone.'
I wanted to laugh; it was funny after all: the captain asking me if I knew where my husband was when I was the one on land and he was the one on the ship. I told the voice to hold on while I found the closest empty office and shut the door.
'Who reported him missing?'
'A cabin attendant. It seems that the bed was not slept in although everything else appears to be intact – his suitcase and his belongings, even a mobile phone and some notebooks. But Mr de Luc himself and the clothes he was wearing when last seen are missing. Does he have diabetes or asthma, something that might have caused him to collapse? What about medication?'
'No! Nothing like that. Definitely not. He dislikes medication of any sort.'
'I hope you will pardon my asking, but did the two of you argue over anything before he left?'
'Look, the answer is no. Categorically, no! Is that clear enough? You're wasting valuable time, Commander. Why aren't you on a helicopter flying out to the ship?'
'I assure you we are doing everything within our power to find him. The island's rescue helicopter has been sent out to search the area at the co-ordinates where your husband is believed to have been seen last.'
'The ship – why aren't they searching the ship? Maybe he fell asleep in a life raft – has anyone checked the life rafts?'
'Mrs de Luc, I realise how difficult this is, but your husband's life may depend on your co-operation. Now, has he ever suffered from depression or displayed any suicidal tendencies? What about his alcohol consumption? Would you say he sometimes overdoes it?'
'Daniel does not overdo it, Commander Whatever-your-name-is. And he does not suffer from depression or suicidal tendencies. He's a writer so he likes to dramatise, but I don't know how that's going to help you find him.'
'He's a journalist? Is that why he was travelling alone?'
So that's what was on her mind.
'An author,' I corrected her shortly. 'It was a field trip for a new book. You're looking in all the wrong places. Somebody must have seen him. A grown man can't just disappear overnight.'
'They have already searched the ship several times. There is no trace of your husband. He appears to have done exactly what you say is not possible – disappeared into thin air from a ship in the middle of the ocean. And I'm afraid that may mean only one thing.'
The implication echoed up the line. She wasn't to know I'd been here before.
'What about the South African Police? Why aren't they calling me?'
'The South African authorities have passed the case on to us after consulting with the ship owners. It is not easy to turn a cruise ship back when it is full of paying passengers. We have about four days until the ship docks.'
That made me sit up. 'Four days? Are you serious?'
'The RMS St Helena operates according to a strict schedule. Unfortunately, half the world's press will be blocking our communication lines by then ...' Her momentary irritation tapered off mid-ocean.
'What about the helicopter?'
'We considered lowering a detective onto the ship, but weather reports predict gale-force winds. It wouldn't be safe. We'll be waiting to go on board when the ship docks.'
'But what if one of the passengers ...?'
'The captain has already conducted his own preliminary investigations. A ship's officer saw your husband entering his cabin after boarding. Two elderly passengers thought they might have seen him smoking a cigarette on deck later last night. Nobody else has come forward. Security personnel on the ship have secured the cabin. On disembarkation, all the passengers will be asked to leave details of where they will be staying, and later each passenger will be questioned. St Helena is a small island. There is nowhere for them to go.'
The smug tone annoyed me. 'I'd be careful if I were you, Commander. It might be contagious, people disappearing on your watch.'
'I certainly hope not.'
She was quiet for a moment. 'Mrs de Luc ...'
They were probably calling my mobile from the meeting room to find out where I was, and getting an engaged tone.
The woman on the other side spoke in a more kindly voice.
'If there is anything I should know, it would be best for you to tell me now, otherwise it may be too late to help your husband.'
'There's nothing you need to know.'
Through the window I could see the distant skyline of the City of Gold with its mine dumps and high-rise buildings. There wasn't a cloud in the sky. Damn it, Daniel, I have a career. You can't keep doing this to me. Where are you this time?
A burst of garbled static came down the line. Somewhere out in the Atlantic Ocean, a storm was building up.
'You'll have to repeat ... I didn't get that.'
'Do you have somewhere to go? Is there anyone I should contact on your behalf?' She came through loud and clear this time.
'I'm fine. I'll be even more fine when you find Daniel.'
'Very well. This is not the right time, but we may need to talk again about the assignment he was on.'
'He's not a journalist.' A crackle of static drowned us both out for a moment.
'... anything at all – that might assist us, please contact the St Helena station immediately. Goodbye, Mrs de Luc.'
The conversation ended there. In the far distance, a tiny plane streaked across the empty sky, trailing a plume of white smoke in its wake, until that too vanished. Maybe I should have said more about Daniel's books. But what would I have said? That as far as I knew they were French crime fiction paperbacks? That my Internet searches had yielded nothing? That even his agent's messages were lost in translation?
In the early days of our renewed acquaintance, both lying naked on my bed on a hot summer's night under the gaze of an amber moon, I'd asked where I could buy his books. It was one of those post-coital conversations that remain embedded in memory. While he stroked my breasts, Daniel said that the book publishing world and its pandering to the mass public for profit was a death knell to creativity. He'd watched with interest as my nipples hardened. 'Incroyable!' he'd exclaimed softly. For this reason, it was a principle of his never to see the published book, he said, before setting off down my naked body, his tongue now roped into the game. In the same way, he said after stopping briefly at my belly button, discussing one's writing with others would be like a man discussing a woman he loved with another man. My last rational thought was to wonder whether a woman might view her privacy in the same light.
I flew home to Cape Town the day after the call from St Helena. There was still no word.
On the Saturday morning, the sparrow Daniel fed was at the window, hopping around on matchstick legs. I crumbled some toast onto the sill. A whistle from the street below made me glance down. A teenage girl in faded jeans and a grey hoodie was sitting at the bus stop watching me. The last bus into the city had come past thirty minutes ago. When I checked five minutes later, she was gone. There'd been something hostile about her targeted stare. But I was probably imagining things. Daniel's continued absence was making me nervous.
At around midday, I was informed by the Cape Town harbourmaster that my husband, the missing author whose picture was in the weekend papers, had just walked into the Mission to Seafarers.
I found him sitting alone at a table. He shifted his rucksack off a plastic chair to make space for me next to him.
'Bonjour mon amour. Est-ce que tu as faim?'
Daniel behaved as if it was perfectly normal for him to be sitting in the Seafarers' cafeteria eating soup.
The St Helena Tribune, International Edition, Friday July 22, 2005
AUTHOR DISAPPEARS ON CRUISE TO ST HELENA
A St Helena police spokesman has confirmed that the whereabouts of French author Daniel de Luc, 32, a passenger on the RMS St Helena, remain unknown. De Luc was reported missing from his cabin on Tuesday July 19, the morning after passengers embarked at Cape Town harbour for the two-week round trip to St Helena. His absence from the Captain's dinner the evening before had been put down to a bout of seasickness. De Luc was travelling alone. Foul play is not suspected.
As the remote island where French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was ignominiously exiled and later died in 1821, St Helena's place in history is assured. But in the past few years several tragic incidents have again put our remote island in the news.
In 1998, a luxury yacht owned by the Swiss stockbroking magnate Bernard Chevalier, 72, went up in flames in James Bay. In spite of quick action by harbour officials and local boatmen, all occupants on board, including Chevalier and his wife, acclaimed actress Sophie Kahlo-Chevalier, 25, who was pregnant with their first child at the time, perished in the fire.
Six months ago, a young woman from the UK, Sarah Wheelan, 30, a bird researcher on the island, committed suicide by poison. It was alleged that she mixed the poison herself. No note was found. Ms Wheelan's family remain in the dark about the reasons for her death.
Her sister, who agreed at the time to speak to our reporter, mentioned a failed marriage and multiple miscarriages as a possible reason. 'But I thought she had put that all behind her and moved on. She was so happy to start a new life on St Helena. We are very grateful to the people of St Helena for allowing us to bury her in the Christian cemetery. Perhaps she will find peace here.' The Saints (island population) have a long history of tolerance towards suicide.
De Luc, a French citizen based in Cape Town, is the author of several crime novels published under the popular Pocket Policiers label. According to his wife, the voyage to St Helena was part of research for his first English-language crime paperback.
Shipping in a 100km nautical area has been alerted and Air Force helicopters have been requested from the South African National Defence Force to assist with the search at sea.CHAPTER 2
Pasta alla Carbonara
On Friday, 9 September 2005, the day he disappeared properly, my husband, Daniel de Luc, was about to make pasta alla carbonara. I'd rung his mobile but he hadn't replied. Minutes later he'd called back. I'd asked him what was for supper, and he'd replied it was my favourite pasta dish. He'd bought fresh parmesan cheese and some of the imported salt-cured pancetta that made all the difference at Giovanni's, the Green Point deli. One of Daniel's many talents was cooking.
'Patrice left a message again looking for you. Why don't you call him back, Daniel?'
'Patrice is an intolerable cretin. What time will you be home?'
Sometimes I thought I'd become so used to Daniel putting me off that I made it easy for him to avoid my questions. I couldn't be sure which had come first: his unwillingness to discuss his writing or my acceptance of the situation. It remained obscure to me – the desire to write a book and then have no interest in the finished product. But I'd decided that my husband's penchant for mystery was harmless and had backed off gracefully.
'I've still got the project weekly report to do. It's been a hectic day, meetings and more meetings.'
'Mon amour, sweet love-of-my-life, it's Friday – get that pretty butt of yours home smartly. I have put a special bottle of wine to chill – a Chianti should not be drunk too warm – and I am about to create a meal so sublime you will remember it on your deathbed. And who knows what might happen after the meal? It will be an unforgettable evening! Spell "hippopotamus" for me.'
It was Daniel's idea of a pleasurable diversion. Elephant, aardvark or hippopotamus. On any SWOT analysis I'd ever done, spelling could be found under 'weak points'.
'You're a sadist. I'm far too tired to spell "hippopotamus".'
'Exactly my point. Bring the laptop home; you can work on Sunday.'
No one else had ever managed to talk me out of work the way Daniel did. I put the receiver down and sat there for a moment, high-backed chair swivelled around to face the mountain, wondering at the speed with which the tablecloth of cloud descended. I was trying to ignore a tight feeling in my windpipe that had been there for days, as if a very small, annoying fish-bone were jammed in there. It was probably indigestion. Maybe an early evening would be a good idea.
That was it. All the warning I had.
Things are perfect. Daniel is the perfect househusband. The natural order of things has been restored in the last few weeks.
Or has it? Have I missed something? It's understandable that a writer busy with a new book should be distracted. And the playful come-hither Daniel of our phone call was the Daniel of old. After all, I hadn't committed to being home early. But where is he?
I sit on the balcony in a tracksuit, watching the road, but at night the cars and headlights all look the same. I ask myself why I haven't been to the police, but he's gone away before, and he's always come back.
Breathe, just breathe. If you stop breathing you'll never find him.
It's not clear why but while other people get stomach aches, I have difficulty breathing. He's always said something, or had a reason before. There's something ominous about the dry dishes waiting to be packed away and the white bed sheets left on the rooftop washing line, billowing spooks in the evening wind. In the study, his desk is tidy. No loose papers lying around, no cups of half-drunk coffee, no pencils or pens.
The first attempt I'd made to file a missing person report was also the last attempt. Daniel had been away three nights without calling me. I'd gone to the police station on Beach Road, where I was given a form to complete. The overweight desk sergeant sounded like a pre-recorded message: 'We'll check the description against accident and crime reports. If anything turns up, we'll contact you at the number you've provided, otherwise you can enquire about the progress of your case after forty-eight hours. Sign here.' She made me feel that a missing husband was a run-of-the-mill event, that husbands walked out on their wives every day, that I shouldn't be such a cry-baby. Shit happens.
'You know what? I've changed my mind. My husband's not missing after all.' I'd torn up my statement and marched out of the police station. The policewoman probably just shrugged. Another spoilt white woman with an exaggerated view of her own importance.
Out at sea, ships wait to come into the harbour. One of them glitters like a distant Christmas tree in a darkened room. It could be a luxury floating hotel, a container ship, or an oil rig. On this fog-enshrouded night I can't tell. Where does it hail from? What is its next port of call? There is no way of knowing.CHAPTER 3
'You miserable, slimy bastard!' I yell at Gregory August, private eye, shaking him by the lapels. Daniel's disappearance is pushing me over the edge.
After two weeks had gone by without a sign of the man missing from my life, I was forced to admit that I needed help. But my earlier police station experience hadn't exactly engendered confidence. An online search revealed plenty of private investigators in my home city. But the smarmy predictability of phrases like 'clandestine investigation' and 'cheating spouse' made me cringe. The situation seemed unreal to me. Why not just close my eyes and see where it took me? That's how I found the unfortunate Gregory August. With a single squeamish jab of the finger at the Yellow Pages directory. Private Investigator. Reasonable Rates. References Provided. I told him he had three days.
Excerpted from Lady Limbo by Consuelo Roland. Copyright © 2012 Consuelo Roland. Excerpted by permission of Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
I / PERFECT RECALL,
Pasta alla Carbonara,
Et Tu, Brute?,
A Simple Theory,
Rules of Engagement,
October 2005: Twenty-Four Days,
Ménage à Trois,
II / BEAUTIFUL SEX,
The Party Network,
The Love Bank Foundation,
Mares of the Night,
The Piano's Love Lament,
Trust No One,
Murder Most Foul,
III / INTO THE MOUTH OF THE WOLF,
The Mountain Man,
A Simple Law of Cause and Effect,
Sleeping with the Enemy,
When the Sun Comes Out, Snow Melts,
Lean Away from the Mountain,
The Queen of Cats,
The Death of the Little Prince,
More than the Sum of Parts,
An African Story,
Memoirs of an unDutiful Daughter,
IV / PROTECTION,
Epilogue: Lady Limbo. By Gabriel Kaas.,
Pocket Policier Books, Montreal, 2008,
The Old Cat,