Blum looked at his watch. High time to make a move.
He drained his coffee cup, took a toothpick out of its
plastic container and signalled to the waiter. The bill
wasn’t enormous – convert it to German currency and
it came to no more than five marks – but he’d definitely
have to do a deal soon if he was going to afford
hot lunches next week. He hated breaking into his
emergency funds. He put a couple of cents in his saucer
as a tip, and as he left he waved his rolled-up Times
of Malta to the manager, who was sitting playing cards
with the proprietor’s daughter. Bright lad. Could be a
customer some time soon.
The light was so strong that it momentarily blinded
him. He felt for his sunglasses, and just as he realized
that he must have left them in the hotel he saw the car
that had been constantly in his vicinity for some days,
parked beside the carriage pulled by the feeble old
white horse. One of the two men in the car now got out
and came towards him, a short man with black hair
and a suede jacket. The kind of person who never
forgets his sunglasses.
Although he had just had something to drink, his
throat felt dry. He took the toothpick out of his mouth.
“This won’t take a moment, sir.”
The man opened a wallet and showed his ID, the
sort of ID that looks the same all over the world. Blum
felt himself breaking out in a sweat. He heard the voice
of the retired English major in the newsagent’s. Yet
again the Daily Mail had failed to arrive.
“What’s it all about?”
“Inspector Cassar will explain. A mere formality.”
“Inspector Cassar? I don’t understand. I’m a
tourist . . .”
But Blum understood very well, and it was clear
that the policeman knew he did. As usual, the major
let himself be persuaded to buy the Daily Telegraph
instead, and Blum threw his toothpick away and followed
the police officer to the car. There didn’t seem
to be anything he could do, not this early in the day.
It was a small, stuffy room, but they mostly were. There
was a fan in the ceiling, but it was not switched on.
Power shortage. The inspector had pushed his chair
right back to the wall. His face was in shadow, but Blum
had seen enough to know it was not the kind of face
you’d want to remember. Neatly parted brown hair,
a permanent twitch around the fish-like mouth. His
dark suit was faultlessly ironed, and the fingers leafing
through Blum’s passport were muscular and perfectly
manicured. They put the passport aside, looked
through a file, and returned to the passport. Maybe
they liked its paper better.
“You have a tourist visa valid for one month,
Inspector Cassar spoke impeccable bureaucrat’s
English. The bastard, thought Blum. He nodded.
“It expires in three days’ time.”
“I could have it extended.”
“Why would you want to do that?”
“Well, for instance, because I like it so much here on
“You’ve already spent a considerable amount of time
in these parts, Mr Blum. Rather unusual for a tourist,
wouldn’t you agree?”
“I know tourists who’ve been on their travels for
“You mean the long-haired sort with their backpacks
and guitars? Young people? Oh, come on, Mr Blum,
really! If your passport isn’t a fake you were born on
29 March 1940. I don’t think you can still be regarded
as one of the younger generation.”
Blum stared at the wall. A fly was inspecting the
picture of the President. The man looked more likely
to inspire confidence than Inspector Cassar. Maybe
that was one reason why he got to be President.
“May I ask what your profession is, Mr Blum?” The
inspector’s voice still sounded officially distanced and
civil, but Blum could hear a harder note in it.
“I’m a businessman, sir.”
The inspector moved his chair closer and picked up
the file again. “Oh yes. And what kind of business are
“Most recently I was with an import–export company
“Well, the firm wasn’t doing too well, so I got my
partners to buy me out and then I thought I’d go on
vacation for a while. A creative break, you understand.”
Inspector Cassar was very close to the desk now, and
a strip of sunlight fell over his face. His eyes were yellow.
The eyes of a beast of prey. Blum felt his heart
thud. He stubbed out his cigarette. His fingers were
damp with perspiration.
“For someone in the import–export business you
have an unusual vocabulary, Mr Blum. Creative break
– garbage! Would you like me to tell you why you fancied
this ‘creative break’? Because you’re a member of
an international art theft gang, and you plan to start
operating in Morocco and Spain and Tunisia and here
in Malta, the way you did back in Istanbul!”
The hard edge that Cassar’s tone had assumed
reminded Blum of certain particularly self-opinionated
schoolteachers he’d known. The inspector lit a Benson
& Hedges and blew the smoke over the desk in the
direction of Blum’s blazer.
“Istanbul? I don’t quite understand . . .”
Cassar tapped the file.
“You understand perfectly, Mr Blum. In 1969, according
to Interpol, you were part of the organization stealing
antique artworks to the tune of over two million
dollars from the Izmir Archaeological Museum, including
the diadem depicting the twelve labours of
Hercules . . .”
Blum cleared his throat.
“Inspector, please allow me to interrupt you, sir.
You’re bringing up all those slanders that I was able to
disprove to the Istanbul police at the time. If Interpol
is still making such accusations then they’re nothing
but totally outlandish rumours and suspicions, and I’d
sue if it wouldn’t be just a waste of my time.”
Cassar forced a smile. “You’d sue Interpol? I must
say, Mr Blum, you have quite a nerve!”
“I had nothing to do with it at all! Do you think the
Turks would have let me go if they could have shown
that I had the slightest connection with the case?”
“Right now I’m not interested in what the Turks did
or didn’t do.” The tone of Cassar’s voice was cutting.
“If you’ve been hatching any plans for here, Blum, forget
it. Art theft on Malta wouldn’t just be against the
law of our democratic republic, it would be a direct
offence to the Catholic faith of the population, and
you couldn’t atone for that in a single lifetime.”
He threw the file dismissively into the filing cabinet.
The fly on the picture crapped on the President’s ear.
Blum stood up.
“I’m not an art thief, Inspector Cassar.”
“Well, whatever your line is, Mr Blum, you won’t
have much chance to pursue it here. As I said before,
your visa runs out in three days’ time, and if I were you
I wouldn’t be too hopeful about getting another.
Maybe you can continue your ‘creative break’ in Italy.
The door’s over there.”
“I shall complain to my ambassador.”
“Go ahead, Mr Blum, and good luck. But don’t forget,
if you’re still on Malta an hour after your visa runs
out, your ambassador can visit you in Kordin.”
“Our civil prison, Mr Blum.”
When the mosquito entered the beam of light from
the bedside lamp and began zooming about right in
front of the wall, Blum picked up one of the porn
magazines and killed it. The wallpaper of the hotel
bedroom was spattered with squashed mosquitoes.
Blum wiped the magazine on the bedpost and handed
it to the Pakistani, who was sitting on the coverlet
watching him with eyes older than Pakistan, as old as
all that goes on between man, woman and mosquito in
“That’s life,” said Blum. “Hard but fair.”
“An interesting thought,” said the Pakistani.
Blum took the packet of HB out of his blazer pocket,
lit a cigarette and offered the packet to the Pakistani.
“I don’t smoke, thanks,” he said, smiling, and tipped
his head to one side. His skin looked even darker
in the dim light. He was wearing a green artificial silk
suit and linen shoes, no socks. His long, greasy hair,
already touched with grey here and there, lay around
his smooth-skinned face like a wreath.
“You’re right,” said Blum. “Sex is healthier.” He
looked at his watch. “However, I’m afraid I don’t have
all day for you, Mr Waq . . .”
“Haq,” the Pakistani corrected him. “Hassan Abdul
“Of course. Mr Haq. Well, what do you think? I’m not
sure how much you know about these things, but there’s
absolutely nothing to equal this old Danish porn.”
The Pakistani leafed through the magazines while
Blum looked round the room. Category D, he thought,
spartan but clean. In summer the old palazzo would
probably be quite comfortable, but now, in March, a
chill still lingered. And there were mosquitoes all the
year round. The Pakistani was travelling light – a small
plastic suitcase under the wash-stand, two shirts drying
on wire hangers, and magazines and paperbacks which
didn’t look as if they came from Pakistan on the rickety
bedside table. However, Mr Haq had a Remington,
and he used expensive aftershave. Blum had travelled
lighter himself, and he too couldn’t always afford
Mr Haq put the magazine down, looked at Blum with
some disappointment, and said, “American products
strike me as – how shall I put it? – more realistic.”
Blum stubbed out his half-smoked cigarette. The
tourists were beginning to sing in the inner courtyard,
and he was in a hurry.
“You mean brutal. The Americans are more brutal.
Now these are from a time when people still knew how
to enjoy each other, if you see what I mean.”
Why was he bothering with this? The man probably
buggered three sacred cows before breakfast every day.
It was crazy anyway, trying to flog porn to Asians.
“What’s more, there’s nothing else in this line
on Malta. So if you want any you’ll have to buy mine,
Mr Faq. And let me tell you one thing – the Americans
will leave your lot in the shit when the Russians come
over the Khyber Pass.”
“Haq,” said the Pakistani, unmoved. “Hassan Abdul
Haq. Have you ever been to my country, then?”
No, Mr Blum never had, nor did he intend to go
there, not right now. What he saw about it in the
newspapers was enough for him.
“Afghanis might get some satisfaction from these
products, but in my view they have no artistic merit.”
Quite possibly Blum agreed, but no Pakistani was
going to tell him so. He picked up a magazine and
showed him the best bits.
“These are classics, my dear fellow. Denmark 1968,
it’s kind of like a vintage wine, know what I mean about
vintage wines? Well, no, your sort don’t drink, of course.
But I can get any price I care to name in Cairo, any
However, Mr Haq was not Egyptian, he disapproved
of Egyptians on both personal and political grounds,
and 1968 meant nothing to him either. He said he
thought the magazines were boring. “Always the same
woman, always the same man.”
“Well, it’s always the same game,” said Blum. “Maybe
the Chinese know a few extra tricks – or the Amazonian
Indians, but in itself, as such, it’s always the same old
thing. Anyway, what do you mean, artistic merit? Who
wants artistic merit?”
“American magazines are more interesting.”
The Pakistani was staring at a point somewhere over
Blum’s shoulder. Blum heard a mosquito whining. He’s
waiting for me to kill that one too, he thought. He likes
to have me kill mosquitoes for him. The Paki sits on the
bed running down the porn magazines while the white
man chases around the room squashing mosquitoes.
Some people might think that funny. Not me.
“Maybe you want pictures of two men fisting each
other? Or does watching a blonde do it with a pig bring
you off? Perhaps you fancy little kids being screwed,
Mr Haq looked at Blum as if he were giving this idea
profound consideration, and then said, “I could use a
man like you, Mr Blum.”
For a brief, intriguing moment Blum thought the
other man was making him a sexual proposition, but
then Mr Haq began talking about Saudi Arabia. The
people singing in the courtyard struck up “Guantanamera”
– three hoarse male and two shrill female voices.
Blum was starting to feel he needed a drink.
“I don’t want anything to do with Saudi Arabia, Mr
Haq. They jail you there for a bottle of whisky. Or give
you 100 lashes on the soles of your feet. No thanks!”
“No, no, you can earn good money with whisky. They
don’t lash you unless you get caught, Mr Blum. And
just think of the problem of available sex . . .” The
Pakistani seemed to have taken it into his head to enlist
this German to help him make his fortune in Saudi
Arabia. He told him about the airport built in the
middle of the desert sand by German specialists and
Pakistani immigrant workers – 15,000 men living in
huts, no women and no alcohol, or nothing like
enough of either, now wasn’t that the kind of golden
opportunity that might never come his way again?
“Possibly,” said Blum. He stacked the magazines together
again. “But I can do okay in Cairo too. Don’t
you at least want these few? I can give you a good price.”
The Pakistani seemed to be waiting for something.
Blum did him the favour of killing another mosquito,
but Mr Haq clearly had something else in mind. He sat
on the bed with his hands folded and stared into the
last of the daylight.
“I have good contacts in Jeddah,” he said quietly.
“One American made a fortune in three months there
with watered whisky.”
“Maybe he needed it,” said Blum.
“And you don’t, Mr Blum?”
“Not enough to get mixed up with the Saudis.”
“I always knew the Germans were prosperous.”
“I must go, Mr Haq.”
“Do forgive me for not having offered you
anything . . .”
“I’m here to offer you something.”
“Here, have some of this chocolate. Maltese, but it
doesn’t taste bad.”
Finally Mr Haq deigned to buy two magazines, but
he haggled over fifty cents so long that when Blum
closed the door he had a bitter taste in his mouth, and
not just because he was thirsty.