Valerie Bennett sat on the terrace of a small hotel in Rabat, Morocco, staring at the waters of the Atlantic. She did not notice the gulls flying overhead or the clouds on the far horizon. A large straw sun hat covered her motionless head, hid the hair that was almost black. She wore slacks and a silk blouse. One knee crossed over the other, a sandal dangling from her foot. Only her right hand moved, bringing one cigarette after another to her lips. The face that was often thought beautiful showed signs of strain.
“Try to relax,” she told herself. “No one can trace you here. You’re safe. But a beautiful woman must not be seen to worry.” Valeria, as she called herself now, often received compliments on her beauty; the manager of the hotel could hardly stop watching her. She knew that beauty could help a woman through almost any problem. She might need it to help her through this one.
Five days earlier she had flown to Casablanca via Paris from Nairobi where her lover had disappeared. She did not know what had happened to him, but it was not difficult to guess. She and Max Hazen had prepared for the possibility that something might go wrong. They had arranged that if Max did not return to the Hilton by midnight, Valerie would fly to Morocco. She flew there the next day and began to call herself Valeria, “Leri” to her friends.
She made her way to the Auberge Moulay Idris in Rabat. It was a place that knew how to keep secrets. Max would contact her there. They had spent several weekends there when he was at the American Embassy in Rabat and was able to escape from Jocelyn, his wife. It had been dangerous to meet in a town where he was known, but danger was part of their excitement. In any case, on their weekends together they rarely left their hotel room.
As she sat on the terrace, she tried – for her looks’ sake – to make her mind a blank. Not easy. It seemed there was a monkey inside her head. Every time she forced her mind to blankness, the monkey darted through, dragging notions she did not want to consider.
Since arriving in Morocco Valeria had experienced difficulty sleeping. That was because it was here that she and Max had plotted the downfall of her infinitely perverse cousin Jocelyn. And because she was worried that the Max chapter in her life had ended.
Max was a diplomat, presently serving as the American ambassador to Malawi. If the Kenyans arrested him for murder, the American government would bring unbearable pressure against them. So Max would not be held. In all likelihood he would be flown back to Washington. There he would deny all allegations. Even so his Foreign Service career would be over, certainly when it turned out that Jocelyn had gone missing, especially if questions were raised: Was his wife truly his wife? Or an impostor?
Valeria wondered if Max was also bothered by the ghost. She did not believe in ghosts, of course. Who did these days? Well, Moroccans might.
If she did not believe in ghosts, still she was almost constantly aware of an otherworldly presence hovering about. Sometimes the awareness was feeble. At other times it was so strong that it seemed like a bodily presence watching her, Jocelyn’s ghost taunting her from across a room. “You don’t rattle me!” she would tell the ghost. “I’ve never once regretted what happened to you!”
Jim Reynolds also sat on the terrace. He was drinking tea and refining the drawings he had made of buildings in Rabat’s Old Town. A restoration architect from Richmond, Virginia, Jim drew well. He would have been a painter if a guy could make a living at it. Taking a swallow of tea, he noticed the American woman across the terrace. He saw her in profile, the straw hat cutting off much of her face. Even so, she struck him as a looker. He turned to a fresh page in his notebook and began to sketch her.
That was reacting to a familiar impulse. Sketching a woman offered an excuse to strike up an acquaintance. But he was truly not strategizing for that here; that was an impulse he was trying to put behind him. Drawing now was what enabled him to hold himself together in this unfamiliar place he had chosen on a whim.
Jim had arrived in Morocco feeling like Humpty Dumpty. As if he had fallen off the wall. In the obscurity of this place he would put himself back together. Jim’s architectural practice dealt mainly with restoring decaying antebellum homes or university buildings too cherished to destroy. The fact that he knew how to restore such buildings gave him hope that he could work the restoration of himself.
His troubles had started when he began to lose confidence in his ability as an architect. That led to a drinking problem. From there he drifted into casual affairs with women. His wife Dorothy tolerated them by looking the other way.
Then Dorothy’s brother Peter died suddenly of a heart attack. On the day of Peter’s death, Jim and Dorothy had gone to Peter’s wife Nicola to comfort her. Dorothy had followed Peter’s body to the mortuary, to sit vigil with it all night.
Jim and Nicola, two longtime friends, always mutually attracted, had never investigated their attraction. Until that night when they consoled each other by making love. Nicola felt profoundly comforted; Jim considered himself reborn.
At first they denied to themselves that anything important had happened. They realized that what they did was “wrong” although it didn’t feel wrong. No one needed to know. It would not happen again. In the confusion of their remorse that was what they promised each other. But, of course, the remorse did not last.
They tried to hide their euphoria from Dorothy. But she had been reading both of them for years. Jim knew almost immediately that Dorothy suspected and felt betrayed. He wanted to beg her forgiveness. But that would confirm her suspicions. So nothing was said. Three weeks later the car Dorothy was driving ran into a large oak while traveling at high speed. She was not wearing a seat belt and died en route to the hospital.
After the accident – the family always called it “the accident” – Jim fell into depression. Dorothy’s death was another of the smashed up Humpty Dumpty pieces. He determined to pull himself together. The question was: Would Nicola help him?
Fairly soon Valeria would fly to Zurich. There she would withdraw some of the money Max had banked for them in the unlikely chance of their being discovered. Before that she would have to concoct a new persona and a new backstory about herself. The first step was to become Valeria, Leri.
The new persona would help her to find a man to ease her through the transition. The monkey pushed him into her thought. She liked men, but would not need this one for long, only until she was ready to set out on her own. Sitting on the Auberge Moulay Idris terrace was a way of waiting for that man to appear.
Leri hoped that changing her persona would keep the ghost at bay. Glancing about the terrace, she did not see it now. She smiled tightly with relief. The ghost of Jocelyn caused the past to trouble her.
She and Max had met a dozen years before at a country club dance in Clayton, Missouri, outside of St. Louis. She was twenty-two, he ten years older. He struck her as romantic, a Foreign Service Officer on a month of home leave. Having just finished a posting in France, he was on his way to French-speaking Africa.
He mentioned marriage to her the evening they met. It was not quite a proposal, more a sounding out. They saw each other the next day and several times the next week. They slept together. He proposed to her in bed. She said yes. He suggested they get a judge to marry them the next day. But she and her parents always intended a large wedding. That created a problem. Max told her, “I’m leaving for Africa in ten days. We’ll want to be married before then.”
That demand – it seemed a demand – caused her qualms. Did she really want to marry this man? Her mother advised caution. Marrying quickly: was that a good idea? She asked Max to extend his home leave for a week.
Valerie did not understand how set Max was on marrying immediately. Nor did she realize how reverential was his attitude toward the Foreign Service. He told her that in the Foreign Service one did not ask for special favors; he could not request extended leave. Hearing that, she cried and refused to see him the following day.
Then suddenly he was gone – and Joss with him. It turned out that Max had met Cousin Jocelyn at the same dance. She was beautiful – all the girls in the family were – and vivacious, impulsive and a little wild. She had always threatened to elope.
If Valerie was not certain, when Max would not extend his leave, that she truly loved him, she realized that she did – passionately, wholeheartedly – once Joss stole him. She swore she would revenge herself on that bitch.
Five years passed. Then Leri received a letter from Max. He admitted to making a terrible mistake. Wild, perverse, Joss could not remain faithful. Max feared her affairs would jeopardize his advancement in the service. He was now stationed in Washington. A mentor whispered that he was being talked of for a post as Deputy Chief of Mission, the steppingstone to an ambassadorship. But Joss might be a problem.
By then Leri was divorced. She turned up in Washington. She and Max began to see one another secretly. The passion between them was stronger than ever. Max asked for a divorce. Joss refused to give him one. She liked living overseas, where they would soon be posted again. She threatened a messy divorce; that would queer his prospects for an ambassadorship. So they stayed married.
Reviewing these lost years, Valeria did not notice the Moroccan hotelier approaching her table. “Ms. Bennett,” he said, “is there anything I may do for you?”
She turned toward him and smiled tentatively.
“I am Hassan ibn Ishaq” he said, “manager of the hotel. It breaks my heart to see such a beautiful woman sitting alone and a little sadly on our terrace.” He asked, “May I join you for a moment?” He slid into a seat beside her without receiving permission.
“The terrace is so beautifully designed,” said Leri. “It’s a pleasure to sit here.”
“Do you think so?” Ibn Ishaq asked. “We had it redone only a year ago.”
“Yes, I remember how it was.”
“Ah!” He smiled with pleasure. “You’ve been with us before.”
He was undeniably attractive, Leri thought, with a short, dark beard, a quick smile and kindly eyes entranced by her. He wore a dark suit and a blue shirt open at the collar. She noticed a gold watch on his right wrist and a wedding band on his left hand. “May I show you around Rabat? A city with extraordinary history.”
“You are very kind—“
“Might I take you to dinner? I know a Moroccan restaurant you would love.”
“Hospitality is what I treasure about this auberge,” Leri said. “But I heard from my husband earlier today. I expect him tomorrow or the next day so I better be a good wife and just enjoy my tea.”
The manager smiled at her – beautiful white teeth against his olive lips – and stood. “If there is anything I can do for you, please let me know.” He offered his hand. She laid hers inside it and felt not only its warmth, but a surprising jolt of electricity. “Enjoy yourself,” he instructed, smiled again, and withdrew.
The hotelier, Leri thought, clearly wondered how she would be in bed. She wondered the same thing about him. He looked passionate. Probably those white teeth would bite her. But no! She would never sleep with a Muslim.
Jim Reynolds chose Rabat as the place to put Humpty Dumpty back together because it was remote and he could be alone. If that work demanded he think in clichés – “Remember: Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” – no one would taunt him here. If each day he made a Grateful List, noted down everything for which he felt thankful, he would not have to justify this confidence bolstering practice to anyone. If he needed exercise, he could walk the city, seeing historic buildings.
He took Nicola to dinner the night before he left for Morocco. “How long will you be gone?” she asked. “Morocco sounds like the end of the world.”
“However long Humpty takes.”
“I’ll text you several times a week?”
“I’d love that. But it’s best if you don’t.”
She looked at him questioningly.
“Strange, but I think Humpty works better in isolation.”
When he walked her to her door, she said, “I’m missing you already.” But she did not send him messages in Morocco. “Nightcap?” she suggested.
“Don’t think I’m not tempted.” But he had already started working on himself. He kissed her lightly, as a friend, and saw her into her house.
Jim Reynolds watched the American woman remove her sun hat. Yes, he thought, a looker. But she would burn out her lungs with all those cigarettes.
Hassan ibn Ishaq returned inside the hotel. He went to a window in his office and gazed at Valerie Bennett. He was a prosperous Muslim who had three wives, all of whom bored him. He sometimes dreamed of adventures with American women; their culture socialized them for delights unknown to respectable Muslim women. Now a beautiful and mysterious américaine, obviously at loose ends, had come to his hotel. But how to take advantage of such an opportunity?
Valeria sat on the auberge terrace, her eyes on the Atlantic. She felt suddenly watched: Hassan ibn Ishaq’s eyes upon her, as if he were tasting her. A man’s eyes on her sometimes built self-confidence, but here she felt an odd sensation, a shiver a little frightening. When she first met Max at this very hotel, he warned her to be careful where she went alone. Never was she to enter a souk by herself. American women disappeared in souks. The one in Marrakech was the most notorious, but even in Rabat a woman must be careful. The embassy’s consular officers were always getting complaints. Impossible to track women who disappeared. Probably they were sold into white slavery, perhaps as far away as Central Asia.
Once again the monkey loped through Valeria’s thoughts, dragging Jocelyn along. Yes, she had gotten her revenge, she mused. Moving to Malawi, Max had taken care of “the matter” at a stopover in Kenya. A tremendous risk, but danger stimulated him. In Malawi there would be little to worry about. Valeria would pass herself off as Jocelyn. She never wanted to know how he’d handled it. “Smothering” was more than she needed to know.
Then one of Joss’s lovers made trouble, a journalist based in South Africa. He turned up in Malawi and discovered the imposture. Realizing that she was not Joss, he snooped around and threatened to reveal their little game. She and Max went to Nairobi where he and the journalist would negotiate a settlement. That must not have worked.
At Charles DeGaulle Airport in Paris Valerie saw Jocelyn. That frightened her. Then later at the airport in Casablanca. Valerie was frightened there, too, until she realized she was seeing a ghost. Now sometimes at the Auberge Moulay Idris. She and Max had gotten rid of Joss; now Joss was turning the tables on them. She had separated Valerie and Max. Had she also finished Max’s career?
Leri took a cigarette from her pack and lit it with the one she was finishing. As it was now 4:00 in the afternoon, she ordered tea with lemon. Then suddenly, looking up, she gasped. Jocelyn’s ghost sat at her table. Her lips curled in a taunting smile.
Through his office window Ibn Ishaq watched the woman rise from her table. She took her teacup and the pitcher beside it and walked across the terrace. Her manner of walking entranced him. Such hips!
Valeria Bennett went to the table where the American sat working in a notebook. “Making her move,” thought the hotelier. He had not believed that her husband would arrive in a day or two.
Jim Reynolds saw the woman approaching and quickly turned the pages of his notebook to Rabat’s old buildings. Then she was beside his table, the teacup and the pitcher in her hands. Jim stood.
“Please forgive my intruding,” Leri said. “But I’ve spoken to virtually no one all day long. I’d love to hear some American English.”
Well, well, Jim thought. If he had truly reformed himself, a woman looking for a companion, as this woman unquestionably was, would not be approaching him. I still have work to do, he realized.
“May I join you?” she asked.
“Please do.” What else could he say? Jim cleared a place for her. He took the pitcher from her. She placed her teacup on the table and settled into a chair, noticing with pleasure that she had succeeded in eluding the ghost. “Are you an artist?” she asked, noticing the sketches. “I’m Valeria Bennett, by the way. Friends call me Leri.”
Jim offered his name and city of origin and admitted he was not an artist, but an architect.
“Richmond,” said Leri. “I was there once. Years ago. Aren’t there statues on the main street? Have I got that right?”
Jim smiled, but made no reply.
“I’ve been living in Africa,” she continued, refilling her cup. “Sugar?” A pause. She laughed. “Sugar, sugar?” Jim smiled and handed her the container of sweeteners. “In a tiny sliver of a country called Malawi. Ever heard of it?”
Jim nodded that he had.
“I’m at the embassy there. Consular officer. Really jack of all trades in a small outfit like that.”
Jim did not for a moment believe that she was an officer of the US Department of State. He wondered who she really was and why she was adrift in Rabat. “Much consular business there?” he asked.
“Not really. I’m on a week’s leave. My ambassador thinks I’m in Madrid. I came down here where no one could find me.” After a moment she said, “Restoration architecture? Tell me about that.”
Jim mentioned buildings one could see in Rabat and found it pleasant talking to a beautiful woman, probably twenty years younger than he, who was clearly more complicated than her pretense suggested.
He wondered how difficult it would be to get her into bed and how she’d be. The thoughts were mere habit; in fact, he was not interested. The work he was doing on himself was succeeding. He droned on, determined to be boring.
At length Leri enthused, “You make it all sound so interesting. Could I tag along with you on your walk tomorrow?”
The request surprised Jim. He did not see any graceful way of avoiding the date. “Sure,” he said. “I thought I’d take another look at the Old Town.”
They met the next morning at 10:30 and set off for Old Town. From the window of his office Hassan ibn Ishaq watched them depart by taxi. Minutes later he entered Valerie’s hotel room. In order not to be caught prying, he carried a bowl of fruit with a card bearing this message: “With the compliments of the Manager.”
Once inside the room he inspected the contents of her suitcase, smelled her lingerie, found her birth control pills and in a supposedly secret compartment of her suitcase discovered a second passport. The bearer’s name was Jocelyn Hazen; the photo was that of the américaine. Ibn Ishaq studied the passport, wondering who Ms. Hazen might be. And who Valerie Bennett was. Then he returned everything to the order in which he found it and quietly left the room.
In Old Town Rabat Jim and Valeria walked about, studying buildings that caught Jim’s eye. He held forth about them, thinking to bore his companion. She gave him rapt attention, chattering along, asking questions, now and then placing a hand on his arm or nudging his shoulder with hers.
This contact bolstered Jim’s self-confidence; he still possessed the stuff to charm a young woman. But he reminded himself, “This is the first day of the rest of your life.” How could he consider himself worthy of Nicola if he got sidetracked by this Leri?
They had lunch at a small restaurant in an old building on a side street. Leri had a salad; Jim ordered onion soup and bread. They shared a small bottle of wine.
As they were finishing the wine, Leri reached across the table to take Jim’s hand. “Would you escort me to the souk?” she asked. “I hear it’s one of the must-do experiences of Morocco, but a woman dare not go there alone.”
Jim cocked his head as if to ask: “Why is that?”
“Women are abducted in souks,” Leri explained. “A friend of mine, pretty, blonde, very trim, was looking at some material in a souk and dropped back just a step or two behind her companions. Several men grabbed her, tried to carry her off. She cried out and men in the group rescued her.”
“Sure,” said Jim. “I’ll take you. I guess I should see a souk.”
They took a taxi and spent three hours in the souk. Moroccan leather caught Leri’s fancy. She found a jacket she wanted to buy. She suggested to Jim that they pose as a married couple. When she expressed interest in the jacket, he would insist it was too expensive. That way she would not be victimized by the negotiations. The merchant offered them tea as they bargained.
“Sometimes the tea is drugged,” Leri whispered to Jim.
Finally they settled on a price. Leri paid with a credit card. Jim made certain he got a look at it. He saw the name Jocelyn Hazen and wondered: Who would that be?
When they returned to the hotel, Hassan ibn Ishaq moved out onto the terrace to greet them. “On the town for the day?” he asked brightly. “Lots to do in Rabat.”
“Mr. Reynolds took me to the souk,” Leri told him, her hand in the crook of Jim’s arm. “I got a jacket. I love your Moroccan leather!”
Just at that moment Jim felt his cell phone vibrating. He withdrew it from his trousers and saw that the incoming text was from Nicola. He suddenly felt a strange elation for this was the first text he had received from her in Morocco. “I’ve just gotten a text,” he said. “Excuse me. I’ll read it inside.”
“Shall I order us some tea?” Leri called after him.
“Fine. I’ll be right back.” In the hotel Jim found a private corner. The text read: “How’s the work going? I’m in Paris. Hotel Normandie. I embark in five days for a Mediterranean cruise. Want to join me? Your Nicola.”
He texted back, “Fantassssstic! YES!”
Returning to the lobby, Jim found Ibn Ishaq just returning from the terrace. “I see from your smile that it must be good news,” said the hotelier.
“Can I get a plane for Paris tonight from the Casablanca airport?”
“Of course. There’s an 8:00 o’clock flight. Can I have the concierge book you on it?”
“Please do. I’ve got to get packed.” As he started toward his room, Jim turned back to ask, “And could you tell What’s-Her-Name that I won’t be able to do tea?”
Amused at “What’s-Her-Name,” Ibn Ishaq made arrangements with the concierge and returned to the terrace. For a moment he gave himself the pleasure of watching Valeria Bennett. He approached her table, settling a look of distress on his face. “I’m afraid good news for Mr. Reynolds is unfortunate news for us. He is flying this evening to Paris.”
Leri looked upset. “This evening?”
“He is packing right now.”
Bummer, she thought. Being a girl who did not like being alone in bed, she had been considering how to arrange it with Jim Reynolds.
She realized the hotelier still stood beside her chair. “Please do me the honor of dining with me,” said Ibn Ishaq.
“You are so kind,” said Leri, hoping to keep the horror off her face. “But I think I’ll just have an apple in my room.” She smiled at him and looked away. He bowed, feeling rebuffed, and moved off.
Valeria Bennett sat at her table on the terrace of the Auberge Moulay Idris. She drank tea and smoked cigarettes and wondered what was to become of her. She watched the ghost of Jocelyn Hazen cross the street, come up onto the terrace and take a seat at the table next to hers. The ghost observed her, an impish smile on her face as if chasing the American architect away had been her doing..
The sky reddened as the sun fell toward the sea. Leri watched a taxi pull up before the hotel. Jim Reynolds hurried out of the lobby, followed by a bellman carrying suitcases. As the driver opened the door for him, he ducked into the cab without a backward glance. Leri stood and waved as the car moved off. At the adjoining table Jocelyn’s ghost chuckled raucously.
Leri ignored the cackling. She put some bills under her teacup and left the terrace. She would walk to the beach before the sun set. She was feeling a little depressed, stuck in this town that spoke Arabic, knowing not a blessed soul except that wretched ghost and not at all sure about the story she needed to devise about herself.
From his office Hassan ibn Ishaq watched the American woman leave the terrace. Seeing that she meant to walk alone to the beach, he reached for his telephone. He made a call, instructing two of his staff to follow her in a car − just to be certain she encountered no trouble on her walk.
Valeria headed toward the ocean, alone on the sidewalk except for boys playing soccer in the street. As she moved along, watching the boys, a black car pulled up ahead of her. It stopped at the curb. Two men jumped out of the car. They ran toward her. Leri recognized them from the hotel. They must have a message for her. So why did they grab her and lift her off her feet? One man slapped a hand over her mouth. As she struggled to free herself, the men hustled her into the rear seat of the car. She stared at the men, terrified. One of them forced a gag over her mouth and tied it behind her head. The other pinioned her arms. Together they tied her ankles and wrists and thrust a black sack over her head. The car took off. Leri had the sensation of its racing through the streets.
About the time Jim’s taxi arrived at the Casablanca airport, the car stopped. The two men pulled Leri from it and carried her inside a building. They went along a hallway to a room. There they tossed her onto a couch. As they left her, they pulled the black sack from her head.
Gagged and bound, Leri saw that a large bed dominated the room, complete with pillows, fresh sheets and a light blanket. On the bedside table stood a carafe of water, a bottle of whiskey and two glasses. Once she heard the car leave, there were no sounds.
After a very long time – she may have dozed off – Leri heard a door open down the hall. Someone entered. The door closed. She heard approaching footsteps. The door opened. On the threshold stood Hassan ibn Ishaq.
He said, “I hope my friends did not hurt you bringing you here.” As always he wore his obliging smile. He came behind her and untied the gag. He took hold of her head, a hand tightly on her jaw. He leaned over and kissed her.
Leri was too frightened to appraise the kiss. She did not resist. That would only bring down blows. Hassan lifted her off the couch and placed her on the bed. “You will be perfectly safe here.,” he said. “There are magazines to read, a television, some provisions in the kitchen. You will not be able to escape although I’m sure you will try.”
Hassan leaned over and kissed her again. “I am a great admirer of beautiful women. And you are very beautiful.” Hassan took a switchblade knife from his pocket. He flicked it open. He kneeled before her and cut the ropes at her ankles and wrists. “There is a nightgown in the closet,” he said. “You might want to put it on right now. I hope you won’t mind if I watch.” He smiled. “I doubt you will find nightgowns once you arrive in Turkmenistan.”
Leri felt a catch in her throat. She heard a vengeful cackle of derision. Across the room, sitting on a couch, she saw the grinning ghost of poor, smothered Jocelyn Hazen.