Vaux saw daylight streaking in from the gaps between the thick steel door and and its sturdy frame. He had clambered down four flights of stairs, often stumbling on stinking garbage that had been thrown into the servants’ stairwell by transient residents. He plunged towards the door and pushed. But it didn’t give way. He pushed again and looked for a crossbar that might trigger a release and open the lock. There was no bar. He pushed hard again, shoulder against the door, but the door wouldn’t budge. He listened carefully for any noise that would indicate he had been followed by the men who had entered Azimi’s apartment. He felt in his pocket for Greene’s Sig Sauer P226. Greene had told him it was suppressed and the magazine fully loaded. Reassured, he began to mount the concrete stairs. He cursed when he stumbled on a couple of empty beer cans. He stood still as the cans clattered down the steps. The stench of stale urine propelled him upwards to the second floor. He had closed the hidden door when he left and it remained unopened. He listened for voices. Nothing. How many minutes had passed since his escape down the stairs? He looked at his old Accurist. He reckoned he’d been in the stairwell about thirty minutes. He put his ear very close to the narrow plywood door but there was complete silence. Through the frosted glass he saw no movement of any kind. The men, whoever they were, had left and had taken Greene with them.
Slowly, quietly, he opened the door. The cockroaches had returned. Now they scarpered from the countertops to crevices between the large deep sink and the chipped, tiled backsplash. He stood and listened. But there was a deep, telling silence. He walked slowly and tried to be as light-footed as his 190 pounds would allow him. He headed for the french doors whose windows had been blown away one brutal night long ago. He could hear distant muffled voices from somewhere below: a man talking to someone whose thin, tinny voice had the timbre of a radio. He gently pulled aside the tarpaulin that draped the balcony. He looked down and saw a police officer standing casually by his car talking through a walkie-talkie. His partner sat in the driver’s seat enjoying a cigarette.
Vaux turned back to the ransacked room. It had all the signs of a hurried search—the office desk whose drawers had been flung open, their contents strewn on the floor; the doors of the old armoire gaping wide; Azimi’s few garments—two cotton bomber jackets, shirts, jeans—kicked away to the center of the room.
In the corner near the tarp-covered balcony, Vaux noticed an antique wormholed escritoire. Here too, the small desk drawers had been opened and their insignificant contents—a few small coins, paper clips, an office stapler—spilled onto the ink-stained blotter. Vaux then walked over to the passage that led to the small bedroom. The door was ajar and he gently pushed it open. The blood-stained mattress now stood against the far wall and the small bedside table lay on its side, its one empty drawer hanging open. Colored shards from the shattered shade of the Tiffany lamp reflected an eerie sparkle on the yellowed, cracked ceiling. Then he saw a pair of white trainers, stained and soiled, in a corner. He had never met Azimi, but to see the murdered man’s scuffed workaday shoes caught his breath.
Vaux pulled himself together. There was nothing he could do to help Greene. The police had taken him away because they considered him the prime suspect. But why did the gendarmes suddenly show up? Presumably because somebody had tipped them off. If so, whoever killed Azimi, must have observed him and Greene arrive at the apartment and seized the opportunity to frame them. Unlike Greene, he had been lucky to escape detection. Azimi’s killer or killers presumably suspected Azimi of betrayal. The questions kept coming. But here he was at the scene of the crime. And it happened to be the place Greene’s valued cutout had chosen as a makeshift safe house.
Now Vaux’s natural talent for tradecraft kicked in. He went to work. He searched every nook and cranny of the dismal apartment. Under baseboards, above door lintels, on his knees crawling along the disused balcony, strewn with bits of shrapnel and cartons from a local Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet. He examined the creases and folds of the soiled and bloody mattress. He looked under the escritoire, searched the small drawers and the pigeon holes, examined every item from boxes of paper clips to stapler refills. He found an ancient Remington portable typewriter in a cupboard under the kitchen sink. Cockroaches and several centipedes scampered for safety as he lifted the machine above his head to examine the base. He carefully rewound and pocketed the red and white typewriter ribbon for the cryptology geniuses to work on.
Just as he thought he was done, his eyes caught the small metal flaps of a fuse box, flush to the wall, beside the narrow servants’ exit. He pulled the small doors open. And there, stuffed in front of the glass-topped power fuses, sat a black, leather-covered diary. He opened the first pages—names in Arabic and French and English, telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, indecipherable letter-and-number combination codes. Vaux mumbled, “Eureka.”
The police car sped through the busy downtown streets, sirens blaring, lightbars flashing. Within ten minutes of Greene’s arrest, he was sitting in a cramped office in Beirut’s central police station on Verdun Street in the Hamra district. The handcuffs had been taken off; he had been patted down and then relieved of his blue blazer.
He planned to brazen it out by not claiming diplomatic immunity. He had to conceal the real purpose of his presence at Azimi’s pad to prevent unfriendly parties from coming to unhelpful conclusions. They had taken his passport, so Greene occupied his mind trying to recall his alternative cover story. He heard the door open behind him, and he turned to see two uniformed men: the younger brandishing an AK-47, the other, a corpulent man in his fifties who held Greene’s passport in his hands along with a typewritten copy of the short statement he had given. The man with the weapon stood at the door. The older man sat down heavily in a scuffed leather chair opposite Greene. The room was hot and quiet. A silent, three-blade ceiling fan twirled slowly with little effect.
The officer scanned Greene’s short statement. He looked up and took off his steel-rimmed half-moon glasses. “I am Capitaine Freige.” He smiled benignly. Greene felt heartened. “Let us get down to business, as I think you say in England, non?”
Greene smiled back. Freige wore a lightweight green chino uniform with a traditional French kepi that he now removed and put on the desk between them.
“Yes, absolutely,” stuttered Greene.
Captain Freige flipped through the pages of the passport. “So, Monsieur Menzies, you claim that you discovered the body of your friend just minutes before the police arrived.”
“That’s correct, Capitaine.” Greene figured there was nothing to lose by going along with the sort of Franglais the captain had chosen to use.
“And you claim you were just paying a friendly visit to this man. May I ask, monsieur, what exactly is your relationship with the victim? Did you have business dealings with him?”
“No, no Capitaine. I’m just a tourist.You can check with my hotel. I’ve been here a few weeks now, and I’m fascinated with the city. I try to meet as many Beirutis as I can squeeze into a day. I’m thinking of writing a travel book, you see.”
Captain Freige looked skeptical. “But ’ow can this man who lives like a—’ow you say?—vagrant, vagabond, non?—possibly be of any interest to you?”
“Well, when I visit different countries, I try to meet all sorts of people, Capitaine. That’s what writers do.” Greene thought it would pay off to sound socially progressive.
“Umm, I see. No drugs or sex involved, I assume, monsieur.” Freige looked coldly into Greene’s blue eyes. He detected a slight flush on the young man’s cheeks.
“No, absolutely nothing like that, Capitaine.”
“So please stop wasting my time and tell me what you wanted from him.” The Captain’s voice had hardened, a signal perhaps that his patience was not inexhaustible.
“Color! Reportage, stories from real life, real people—their experiences, perhaps, in the long and bloody civil war…”
“Ah, I see. Politics, eh?”
“In Lebanon, it’s hard to avoid politics, sir.”
“Very true. You know per’aps to whom the dead man had pledged political or religious allegiance?’
“I have no idea,” lied Greene.
Freige looked unconvinced. But Greene was saved from further evasions by the jangle of the captain’s cell phone.
“Oui? Ah, oui. C’est bien. OK, it is good. Tout de suite.” The Captain’s thick lips curled into a benign smile. “Seems you have friends in high places as well as in the city’s squats.”
He rose, picked up his kepi, tore Greene’s statement into four pieces and put them in a shredding machine behind his desk. He handed the passport back to the former prisoner. “You may go now. And be sure to send me the book.”
“Thank you, sir.” Greene hurried past the sullen armed guard and left the grim old building. He walked swiftly down Verdun Street, patting his inside pocket occasionally to make sure his sham passport was still intact.