“People who live in elephants are never completely innocent.”
Mrs Kountché, who is one of Professor Cox’s neighbours, has a heavy Nigerian accent. She is wearing a garishly coloured rectangular swathe of cotton knotted around her broad hips, and as she leans over the railings of her balcony, she stares thoughtfully with eyes as big as a gazelle’s at the back of the building where Professor Cox lives in a ground-ﬂoor ﬂat.
“Very mysterious, that elephant,” says Detective Inspector Lannoy, sitting down next to The Sponge in the Opel Vectra. The Sponge is what his mates call Chief Superintendent Fons Luyckx.
“It’s an old African proverb. That’s just the way people talk. With bits of exotic wisdom which have lost their meaning over the generations.”
“Perhaps she meant Sani Abacha.”
“General Sani Abacha, the president of Nigeria.”
“You mean that big goon with the cool Ray-Bans.”
“Because he died this morning. It was in the papers.”
It was Monday, 8th June 1998. Luyckx and Lannoy had spent the whole afternoon questioning Victor Cox’s neighbours about the disappearance of his wife Shelley, without much result. All they had heard was some gossip about Shelley, who did not go out much during the day and was sometimes dumped outside her front door in the middle of the night, blind drunk. They encountered vague clichés along the lines of: “We don’t get involved in our neighbours’ business”, or: “What you don’t know can’t hurt you.” The usual wariness of the cops. But the questions had to be asked, they were routine in a missing-persons investigation. Professor Cox had walked round to the station that morning to inform the police. His wife had not come back home on Saturday night. And since then there had been no sign of her.
The sun is beating down on the windscreen of the police car, which has been moving at a crawl round the ring road in a trafﬁc jam for over a quarter of an hour. Dazzled, Luyckx gropes among the empty Coke cans for his shades in the recess behind the gear lever. The same shades as General Abacha.
“Mr Cox didn’t look too shocked by the disappearance of his wife,” says Lannoy, lighting a Marlboro.
“I had that impression too.”
“He sounded almost relieved.”
“Don’t exaggerate. What does he do again?”
“He teaches at the Institute of Film and Theatre Studies. History of cinema…”
“History of cinema… What will they think up next?”
“Funny bloke, Cox…”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s just hard to make him out. An absent-minded professor living for years alongside his wife but who doesn’t quite understand what’s happening to him in the real world.”
“Perhaps he saw it coming. From what you hear, Mrs Cox had a bit of a reputation.”
“Maybe. She’s probably just sleeping off the drink at a girlfriend’s and’ll show up again sooner or later with her tail between her legs. In fact I couldn’t give a toss for this case. Total waste of time. How long have we been bloody stuck here crawling along with these idiots?”
“Yeah, too long. Fasten your seat belts. Out of the way, everybody: here comes Dirty Harry!”
Luyckx opens his window, sticks the blue ﬂashing light on to the car roof and swerves with a blaring siren on to the hard shoulder towards the ﬁrst exit. As they drive past the National Bank, the ﬁrst bars of Beethoven’s Ninth sound from a mobile.
“Go on then, answer it.”
“Lannoy here… The Sponge is driving… We’re almost there, why… What? Where? OK, we’ll be right there.”
“Who was that?”
“Simons… An hour ago they ﬁshed a woman’s body out of the Bonaparte Dock.”
Luyckx smiles. At last things were moving. He switches on the radio and turns right. ‘I Put a Spell on You’ is playing. The version by Joe Cocker.