It was raining.
Okay, I know, you asked about the girl, not the weather, but my memory of her is all bound up in it. It had been coming down in steady grey sheets all day, the kind of rain that works its way into your soul, and it formed the perfect backdrop to my unease. The job was going too fast, running out of my control. A week earlier, all I had to worry about were the guidelines on how hot a packet I could pass on and still expect my badge to protect me in court. Now I was huddled in the cab of a stolen truck, watching the rain and as much of Dieppe port as I could make out through my fogged windscreen, waiting for my cargo, and for Bella.
So I remember the rain, and in the rain, I remember her.
Perhaps it was just that the weather matched my mood that night, as I waited in the cooling cab of my truck for my load and for my passengers. I wasn’t ready for passengers. I wasn’t ready for this at all. I should have had months to feel my way in; I’d been prepared to be patient, expected to be frustrated long before I’d made progress. I’d had it thoroughly drummed into me that undercover is for the long game, but here I was in Dieppe, waiting.
I’d had my licence for less than a year when I first met Xavier. I’d got myself the beginnings of a reputation, but I’d barely got started on that carefully calculated fall from grace. I hadn’t even managed to get myself fired yet. I must have said the right things. He slipped me a few packages. I opened them carefully, let two get through, arranged for the other to be found in a strictly random search. I hadn’t liked that, either. We couldn’t pull the trick too often, but it had been altogether too much to let pass, and it didn’t seem to have dented Xavier’s good opinion of me.
One November evening he told me he had a truck and needed a driver – told me to get sick, skip work and be available. I’d thought it was just a beginning. I’d been pleased. And then he’d said casually that I was especially honoured.
“Bella’s coming along for the ride,” he’d said.
I wasn’t meant to get so far so fast. I’d heard of Bella, and I knew I wasn’t ready. It kept running through my head as I waited, the thought just as insistent as the steady rain.
We’d first heard of Bella about six months earlier. It was never much, just fragmentary mentions on wiretaps and surveillance tapes. She was half a phantom, before that night. A whisper, a threat. Don’t write me off as some romantic frog. Bella was more frightening than ten years to life, and these are hard men I’m talking about. They believed in her arrangements, and generally they were right to. We’d had some good lines on Kimine’s affairs, but they’d fallen apart. A dozen raids, two of them fair sized busts, and three probable convictions to show for it. All three of them of men who would have been home free if they hadn’t tried to make a little extra on their own account, and knew it. They were going down quietly, implicating no one, despite our best efforts. They all had more faith in Bella than in the witness protection scheme of which we were so proud. Even reliable narks got superstitious about Bella; if they gave us her name we counted ourselves lucky, it was about as much as we ever got.
Take Claude Chanel. Chanel had been dead right about one thing, and as far as I know one thing only, in all his miserable life. He’d stood at the threshold of a rundown apartment in Rouen and said “I don’t like it, something’s wrong.” I know he said that, because there were six of my colleagues on the other side of the door. His companion had asked scathingly if he wanted to go home and tell Kimine that they’d given up the job because he’d had a funny feeling.
“I’ll tell Kimine whatever the hell you like,” he’d said, “as long as you tell Bella.”
We never did get much more than that. She worked for Kimine – for him or with him, we weren’t even sure about that – and she didn’t take kindly to idiots who diverted from her very clear plans without good cause. She was French, or Arabic, or maybe Swiss. She was an ice goddess. She could see in the dark.
I believed about a tenth of it, and it wasn’t entirely Bella who was tying my stomach in knots. There was Jacques Martin, too. I’d arrested him once, in Marseille. Well, that’s not entirely true. I was on the team, there were a score of us, it was dark, and I didn’t interview him. In short, he had no reason to remember me particularly. Even so, it hadn’t done my nerves any good the first time I saw him with Xavier; he wasn’t supposed to be involved in Kimine’s business.
So here I sat at Dieppe port, in the dusk, in the rain, in the cold cab of a hot truck, waiting.
Read more in Find the Lady, available from January 24th.