I knew he was an Arab the moment I saw him. I didn’t know why, but I could recognize Germans and Arabs immediately. Perhaps it was because I had killed a good number of each—Arabs during Israel’s War of Independence, Germans after the World War in Europe.
This particular Arab was dressed in plain brown pants held up by a slim black belt. His shirt was white, open at the neck, and tucked into his pants. His jacket was dark blue and unbuttoned. He stood in the doorway to Greta’s Café and mopped his forehead with a white handkerchief.
Greta’s Café was a cozy establishment on Allenby Street in Tel Aviv, a short walking distance from my apartment. It served as a sort of second home and office to me. I ate and drank there every day, and more often than not, prospective clients found me at my table at the rear, playing chess against myself with a board Greta kept for me under the counter.
The Arab put the handkerchief back in his pocket and stepped over to Greta. She was sitting in her regular spot behind the counter, close to the entrance to the café, and reading a newspaper, shaking her head slowly at the news. Greta was a big woman. Tall, wide at the hips and chest, with a fleshy face that had been wrinkled by age and sun, and iron-gray hair arranged in a nest-like halo of curls about her head. The Arab said something to her. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but toward the end of it, Greta cast a quick inquiring glance my way, and I nodded to her.
Greta gestured toward me. The Arab squinted in my direction, nodded his thanks to her, and came over to my table.
Up close I could see he was of medium height and build, but walked with a slight stoop that made him seem shorter than he really was. He wore his black hair longer than most men did, and when he turned his head I could see why. A cigarette-wide pink-white scar ran along his left cheekbone and up to his ear, where it was curtained by his hair. It looked like a bullet had grazed his cheek and mangled his ear some. Or a knife.
Despite the scar, his olive-tone features were delicate, almost feminine. Short and narrow nose, soft brown eyes, rounded chin and jawline. He was clean-shaven. A pair of wire-rim glasses hung on his nose, giving him the air of an intellectual.
I nodded, and he said his name was Ahmed Jamalka. I motioned for him to sit. I stuck a cigarette in my mouth, got it going, and offered him the pack. He gave a smile of thanks, but shook his head.
“Those cigarettes aren’t for me. I have my own.”
From his jacket pocket he drew a thin stack of rolling papers and a small dark-red pouch that, once opened, emitted a strong scent of tobacco. He took one rolling paper and spread a thin layer of tobacco in its center. With quick, dexterous movements, his fingers rolled the paper into an even cylinder, twisted both ends, and tamped them closed. He ran the tip of his tongue over the seam of the cigarette, sealing the paper.
“If you would oblige me with a light,” he said, and his voice was as gentle as his features. But it was a gentleness founded in resolve. This was not a man who could be stepped on or over. Not without a fight.
I struck a match and held it out for him. He bent forward to meet flame to cigarette, and I saw that his hair was beginning to thin on top. He looked to be in his early twenties, about ten years younger than I was, much too young to be balding.
He leaned back and we smoked for a while. The scent of his tobacco was fuller and richer than mine.
“What kind of tobacco is that?” I asked.
“It comes from Beirut. In Lebanon. I first encountered it when I was a student there before the war. No other tobacco comes close.”
“How do you get it? I thought the borders are closed.”
“Officially they are, but no border is ever hermetically closed. My family has some contacts in Lebanon that keep us modestly supplied. Still, I do have to use less tobacco in my cigarettes than I did in the past.” He eyed me with a faint smile. “Would you like to try one?”
“It wouldn’t feel right, with you having to ration yourself.”
“These days, is there anything one doesn’t need to ration? Should simple courtesy be postponed to a more prosperous time?”
I nodded agreement with his logic, and he proceeded to roll a cigarette for me. While doing so, he said, “You can consider this a part of your retainer, Mr. Lapid.”
I snuffed out my cigarette. “A retainer for what, Mr. Jamalka?”
“For a job I want to hire you to perform.” He handed me the cigarette. “Here.”
I lit it and took a drag. It was too deep and the tobacco surprisingly strong. I coughed and my eyes watered. Ahmed smiled at me through the haze of smoke our twin cigarettes made between us.
I drew in on the cigarette again, a shallower pull this time. I nodded. “Very good. A new taste, for me at least. The taste of European cigarettes, or American ones, is vastly different. Would you like some coffee to go with it?”
He said that he would, and I asked Greta to bring each of us a cup. We smoked in silence while we waited, gazing at each other through the smoke. He was scrutinizing me more closely than I was him, trying to get the measure of me. He had come here specifically to hire me, but he was hesitant. Whatever task he wanted me to perform, it was of a deeply personal nature. Just revealing it to me might be cause for embarrassment.
It could be anything. He might be blackmailed by someone and could not go to the police. His wife might be having an affair. He might suspect his business partner was stealing from him. But whatever it was, Ahmed Jamalka did not relish sharing it with me.
Greta set the coffee on our table, and Jamalka and I both took a sip. Jamalka nodded at Greta and said, “This is very good. I admit I am surprised.”
Greta smiled and thanked him before returning to her chair by the entrance.
He took another sip, seeming to weigh the coffee in his mouth as he contemplated how to tell me what was on his mind.
I said, “There is always tomorrow, Mr. Jamalka.”
“You obviously have a reluctance to talk about whatever brought you here today. Unless it is of an urgent nature, you can always come back another day.”
“Do you always tell prospective clients to go away, Mr. Lapid?”
“No. But I’m not that hungry for work, so I don’t mind if you do.”
He flashed a smile that quickly died, his face turning serious. He gave a small nod of decision, brought out a picture from his inside jacket pocket, and laid it on the table. “This is my sister, Maryam.”
I picked up the photo. It was a color picture of a young woman, or perhaps a girl on the cusp of becoming a woman. She was slim, black-haired, olive-skinned. She was wearing a white, ankle-length dress that did not cling to the contours of her body, but could not hide her fine figure. At her back was a wall of rough stones. At her feet was a big pot with a wooden spoon sticking out of it. A small brown-furred dog with a white spot on its nose peered up at her from the corner of the picture.
“And here is another.” Jamalka handed me another picture.
This one was a close shot. It showed Maryam’s face. She had the same eyes as her brother and almost the same nose and mouth. They looked better on her than they did on him.
“She is quite beautiful,” I said.
“Yes,” he said softly. “And the pictures fail to capture her essence, her vitality, her spirit.”
I put both pictures on the table.
“And what do you wish me to do? Is Maryam missing? Do you want me to find her?”
Jamalka shook his head slowly. “That’s not it, Mr. Lapid. You see, Maryam is dead. It’s her murderer I want you to find.”
— End of Chapter 1 —