For Francis, life with David grows more dangerous by the day. When sober, he is charming, but when he drinks, he is violent, slashing Francis’s paintings and threatening to gut the painter, too. When David leaves London for Morocco, Francis cannot help but follow this man whom he loves but can no longer trust. In Tangier, they find a thriving community of expats who guzzle champagne while revolutionaries gather in the desert. But in Morocco’s International Zone, death does not wait for rebellion.
After Francis identifies a friend’s Picasso as a fake, the police call him in to investigate the forger’s demise. If he refuses, they will throw David in jail, where inmates and the DTs will kill him within the week. Between the bustle of the city and the emptiness of the desert, Francis finds that in Morocco, even the fakes can be worth killing for.
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Moon Over Tangier
A Francis Bacon Mystery
By Janice Law
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2014 Janice Law
All rights reserved.
A black night in Berkshire. Make that a black, cold, rainy night in the deepest, darkest countryside, a place of distant, unreliable lights; dozing animals; brambles; weeds; thistles. I hate the country, full of bad, youthful memories and things that attack my asthma and empty of all I love: the city, the bustle, the crowds, pretty boys, and rough trade.
Maybe scratch the latter, because I am bruised and bleeding and out in the mud wearing my fishnet stockings and not much else. A bad, mad night that, like so many with David, started well, started excitingly, reached certain dark, ecstatic heights before a deeper darkness, an explosion of real violence, a crazed attack.
You know me: a little pain adds spice to sex. Yes, indeed. But there's a line, and a screaming man armed with lamps and heavy ashtrays and the contents of the cutlery drawer has not just stepped, but leaped, over it. His left hand is at my throat and his right holds a knife. I kick him in the balls and run, gasping in the damp country air full of pollen, hay dust, and animal hair, out into the night. I'm just lucky he didn't keep his service revolver. Because I could be dead now.
There's a faint light behind me: the door I didn't stop to close. David will be a black shape against the light, his voice high and keening so that beyond bruises and cuts, I feel a discrete moment of pain. I know that he's gone far back, back to the war, back to his cockpit with who-knows-what wrong with an engine, flak everywhere, and a Messerschmitt coming out of the sun. A dangerous time and place.
I find my way through the cold and wet to wait out storms of both external and internal weather in the dilapidated cowshed. I don't summon the constabulary or even our neighbor, a farmer whose tastes are more advanced than I'd expected. I sit and shiver and ache, because I love David, because that's the curse of my present existence. I've found I can't live without him, even though, in certain states of mind, he beats me up, and since he hates my paintings, slashes as many as he can get his hands on.
A crazy situation, of course, and totally unprofitable. If my dear Nan were still alive, she'd have a thing or two to say. "Dear boy, stick to Mayfair!" That's what she used to tell me, back in the old days when we were on our uppers and I was an expensive "gentleman's gentleman." But even her heart, so large and resilient where I was concerned, gave out. A gradual decline ended one night while I was away in Monte Carlo, happily losing money playing roulette. A bellboy put the telegram in my hand, and I stepped off the solid and familiar world that Nan had always anchored for me into the abyss, where I found David—witty, handsome, talented, cruel. My beau ideal. Really.
Sometime in the wee hours that night, the lights went out, and I made my way through the mud to the house. He'd locked me out, but I'd hidden a key: I was besotted but not stupid. The next morning, I packed my kit, rescued a couple of canvases, and summoned a cab. Now David was sweet, now he was pleading, but my face was set. My old nanny would have been proud of my resolve, my chilly courtesy, my restraint. I was London-bound with my head churning with ideas and my fingers itching for the paintbrush. A free man, so to speak.
But a week, two weeks, a month later, I would spot him in the Gargoyle, his blond head reflected in the mirrors in the bar, and my heart would stop and then restart to hammer in my ears. The old Greeks were right: love is a recipe for disaster. Next thing I knew, we'd be cruising around Soho, drinking champagne at the Europa, even, folly unto madness, boarding the train at Waterloo for another edition of disaster in the country.
In between times, I painted, enjoying the pleasant illusion of freedom and independence, until, despite all my resolutions, I ventured out to David's usual haunts and allowed myself to be drawn in by his looks, his charm, his wit, his talent, all the qualities that comprised the other side of violence running to cruelty and flirting with madness.
He was funny; he knew interesting things; he played the piano in a way that, even tone deaf as I am, I recognized as brilliant. He'd been brave, too, one of the few who'd patrolled the skies for us and taken terrible losses and flown until they were shot down. That gave him a kind of aura. He'd had what most of us haven't: a moment of greatness. But he'd purchased it at a fantastic price and he was still paying the installments.
There was something else, even more subtle and tormenting: David liked me but he didn't love me. I was too old for his tastes, really, my youthful looks having deceived him. We drank and fought; I left him and came back; I found his indifference intolerable—and irresistible.
After my night in the cowshed, I held out for six weeks. David went off to Tangier, that paradise of slim, dark boys, lacking money or women. Silence for a time, then he sent me a telegram inviting me, asking me, virtually begging me to visit. Doubtless some beach boy had broken his heart; people who've never been down on their luck rarely appreciate the commercial aspects of the sex trade.
I could feel that he was sad, and I was tempted, although I'd promised my gallery new paintings for a show, and I was behind on my work. Virtue prevailed for a while, but when my landlord announced that he was driving from London to Tangier and invited me along, I took it as an omen. Soon we were aboard a Spanish ferry, and the ancient white city loomed against the brilliant African sky and the deeper indigo of the Mediterranean. The stark terraces, blinding and dreamlike in the sun, climbed the hill above the port in fantastic white tiers, and we entered the medina like brides in a white Rolls-Royce.
The crystalline beauty of the city dissolved almost at once. On closer acquaintance, the buildings were battered and in lousy repair; the people, thin and worn; the alleys filthy; the drains stinking. The city had a powerful odor, yet my lungs loved the dry air, and once we climbed the Mountain, the fancy home of the international community, a refreshing breeze came in from the sea.
Palms and eucalyptus and brilliant red and purple blossoms: the Riviera in Africa with much the same mix of remittance men and gangsters, financiers and smugglers, thieves and pedophiles. Lusty young queers rubbed elbows with society types, old North Africa hands, decayed military men, artists, and writers, and even an heiress with jewels as big as pigeons' eggs.
Down below in the Arab town were the folk they'd come for, the hard-working Moroccans cheap to hire for kitchens and gardens. The pièce de résistance was the corps of pretty boys who swanned along the beachfront or lived in the brothels or haunted the alleyways. Women, too, if your taste ran that way, though that was strictly behind closed doors. Except for the market women in from the countryside, sturdy lasses with huge straw hats, selling vegetables and grain out of kiosks no bigger than a London mailbox, most native ladies of Tangier were veiled and sometimes hidden.
There were some new people afoot, too: political locals eager to chuck out the International Committee of Control and take over the show. Naturally, Moroccan politics was a closed book to me; I have no time for politics, not even our own. Just the same, living as we did on the interesting borderline between the Mountain and the medina, convenient for the delights of both, we got little hints.
One night in David's rental, a rather pretty one with a roof deck looking toward the sea, I heard shouting in the street: "Nazarenes, Nazarenes!" with the thump of a rock, then another, before running feet.
"What was that all about?" I asked him.
"They hate the Christians," he said. "Nazarenes. That's us, Christians."
I was struck by the ancient term.
"That's nothing," he said. "Foreigners here are Roumis, Romans. They have a long memory."
I might well have considered that, but at the moment I was happy. David was charming, amusing, the way I remembered him best. I'm an early riser, and in the mornings, I sometimes lingered to watch him sleep. He was still quite beautiful then, slim and tanned from the sun with a little red on his shoulders where he had burned at the beach. His hair was bleached nearly white, and his face was unguarded, quiet, and kind. In those hours, I saw the man he had been before the war—intact, charming, talented, brave.
I memorized that face.
Other times I went straight to the flat I'd rented for a studio—and as a bolt hole against romantic storms. Sometimes I tried to paint his portrait, and sometimes I worked on my latest series, paintings of popes in red and purple robes inspired by Velásquez's Innocent X, the greatest of all portraits. I love the picture, and more, I love the way it suggests images to me, images of screaming, shouting men looming against darkness. Yes!
Sad to say, Tangier's brilliant sea-reflected light was not conducive to such painting. In fact, travel is not conducive to my painting, period. I always travel with intentions of being inspired and working hard. Usually the work comes to nothing. Delacroix loved the African light, so did Matisse, so did a list of Victorians as long as your arm, but it's not for me. At the moment, I am a painter of shadows and suggestion and violence.
Dark backgrounds, such as I need for my Popes, flatten out here. They look like chalkboards and suck away all inspiration. I am a London painter, first to last, and though everything was lovely at the moment, David would ensure that even a successful canvas might not survive. Sooner or later, some bad, mad, possibly wonderful night, I could expect to hear ripping canvas and cracking stretchers.
You see how I colluded in my own destruction. Although pessimistic in the long run, I am an optimist in daily life. Might as well be, given life is absurd. So we walked on the beach, and David picked up boys who would disappoint him, while I gave some painting lessons—and other things—to a charming young Moroccan. We prowled the cafes of the nighttime Petit Socco and met respectable folk at the Palace Bar in the European sector, and everyone else at the Meridian, where David delighted the house by playing the piano. He sang a little, sometimes, in a light, tuneful baritone and exchanged banter with the regulars and winked at me when he began improvising off some popular ditty.
I was happy, yet there was a shadow over the city and over David. While I consumed that wholesome tipple, champagne, he'd gone heavily into spirits, and he was beginning to lose the military smartness and toughness I'd so admired. He smacked beach boys and got beaten for his pains, and wept about their infidelities. Though I could not bear to admit it, I began to pity him.
But things did not start to unravel until one night when we were coming back through the medina very late. I think we were near the police station—our geography at that moment being uncertain—when we heard a groan and a soft scuffling sound.
David gave a wolfish grin, but this wasn't some furtive coupling. Intense events leave deep tracks in memory. My days as an ARP warden during the Blitz had left me alert to damage and ready to act: locate the victims, stop the bleeding, summon the required emergency services. Certain sounds bring back the smell of powdered stone and incinerated wood, of leaking gas mains and mud and all the darker smells of violated human bodies.
"Over here," I said. A pale, grayish form, a djellaba-clad body with bare feet. But no boy. A thin, bearded face, a hawk nose, bruised and bleeding cheeks. When I touched his back, trying to help him up, he screamed.
"Hospital? L'hopitale?" Most natives had either some French or Spanish.
Though he could barely speak, he was very definite. "Non, non!"
"C'est ils qui sont fait."
That decided it. "Find a taxi, David."
"And take him to the house? He could cut our throats. He'll be one of the stone-throwing Istiqlal, wild men out of the Rif. Leave him."
His voice was abrupt, military, a relic of command, but the war had left me with my own imperatives. "Get a taxi now," I said. "He can come to the studio. He's in shock, probably concussed."
I must have hit the right tone, because David went out to the edge of the Socco, where he found a cab and, more surprising, a driver willing to take the injured man in his vehicle. Between us, we got him into the car, although David insisted on getting out at his place.
When we reached the studio, I told the cabbie that I needed help. "I'll pay you," I said, the magic words of the city.
"Not important if you keep him safe."
I took a good look at the man: another thin, bronzed face, wild beard, black eyes. A Berber from the mountains like the injured man?
"Yes," I said.
"Nadir is a good man," he said.
We half-carried, half-dragged his now semiconscious friend upstairs to my studio.
"He needs a doctor," I said after we had settled him on the little divan and I'd brought water and seen the state of his back.
"Too dangerous. Lucky they didn't kill him."
I nodded. I'd heard some things about the Tangier police; plus, I have a deep suspicion of all local constabularies, who either want to arrest me or co-opt me. "We need bandages, salve, disinfectant."
"Give me money and I will get." He was tall for a Berber and the single bulb in the ceiling threw deep shadows over his hooded eyes and under his thin, aquiline nose. Patriot? Thug? Police informer? The wee hours throw up so many possibilities.
"Right." I gave him some dirhams and told him what we'd need, mentally bidding both money and him farewell. I cleaned the injured man as best I could, rid him of his filthy djellaba, wrapped him in a blanket, and had him pee in my turpentine bucket. I was glad to see no sign of blood.
I left his wounds bare in hopes of bandages, and I was brewing mint tea for him when the cab driver entered with two small packages. One held bandages and the other iodine and a local salve that, from the smell of it, seemed potent enough to either kill or cure our patient.
Between us, we painted the injured man's back with iodine, a painful business. We bandaged him up, treated the cuts on his face with salve, and got some hot liquid into him. Bandaged and warm and propped up on the divan, he was able to speak briefly to the cab driver in his own language.
I repeated my concerns about a doctor. "He may have broken ribs or some internal injury."
The cabbie nodded. "First, he must leave the city."
I could only agree.
"No chance tonight. They will be watching all the roads." He gave me a reproachful glance as if I should have known this, as if I should be conversant with the local gendarmerie.
I find it amazing how often innocent gestures on my part involve the police. The offer of a little first aid had slid into hiding a badly injured man, who was important enough, or dangerous enough, to attract police surveillance, maybe even roadblocks.
"Tomorrow?" I suggested hopefully.
"Perhaps. It will take time to arrange. Nadir is a good man," he repeated.
I could only hope so.
I slept on the floor and rose at dawn to check my patient. No more cold sweat—nice regular breathing. All good. When the market opened, I went out for bread and oranges. Nadir ate a little of each, drank more tea, and fell back to sleep, while I struggled to work without much success. Life in the white city, though easy, was proving to have many distractions.
I'd expected someone to collect my patient soon, but when noon came and went, I told him that I would have to go out. "Friends will miss me," I told him in slow, easy French. "I don't want them to come to the studio."
"Good," he said.
I showed him how to lock and unlock the door from the inside and went out to the souk. David was in a cafe, flirting with a pretty brown boy with curly black hair. "How's the Good Samaritan?" he called.
"Can't claim any credit. Cabbie handled everything," I said, lying without hesitation. Later, I was aware that this was another little break between us, but at the moment I just hoped for the right tone, and I guess it was, because David asked if I wanted to see a film or go to the beach.
"Lunch first, then we'll see."
Excerpted from Moon Over Tangier by Janice Law. Copyright © 2014 Janice Law. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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