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© 2017 - Tangier by Stephen Holgate | Published by Blank Slate Press, 2017 | Paperback ISBN: 9781943075287 | E-Book ISBN: 9781943075294


Chapter One

Then the ship broke through the fog and he could see Tangier on the horizon, its ancient medina glowing white in the autumn sun. Unknown scents, speaking of deserts and distant mountains, stirred on the currents of the warm air.

“Africa,” Christopher Chaffee whispered, the music of the word hard and exotic on his tongue. Morocco. Land of the Arabs, edge of the Sahara.

I should have come earlier, he told himself, when I was young. But, I didn’t know—couldn’t have known—I would one day have no choice.

He stood at the rail and felt the exhaustion of the last twenty-six hours pulling at him like a drug—the plane flight from Washington, the bus trip into Madrid, the cold, rattling train ride down to the ferry at Algeciras.

Chaffee ran his fingers through his wisps of graying hair and sagged against a stanchion like the old man he would be in a few years.

Washington. If the papers got hold of this they’d play it on the front page, “Disgraced Official Flees Overseas After Resignation.”

“Screw ‘em,” Chaffee muttered. A young boy looked up at the man talking to himself. Chaffee frowned at him and the boy skittered off.

Around him the babble of foreign tongues ground at his nerves—Spanish, French, a little English, but mostly something else altogether foreign that he knew must be Arabic.

He looked again across the water at the whitewashed walls of the old quarter, the buildings crowded onto the bluffs like a jumble of discarded jewel boxes. To the east, a line of office buildings and apartment houses straggled out along the low hills.

The questions rose in his mind once more: My father’s home? My father’s grave?

Leaning over the rail, Chaffee looked back toward the wall of fog from which they had emerged. Everything—Spain, the Rock of Gibralter, Europe—everything comforting and familiar was lost to sight. He drew a deep breath and turned again to face Tangier, growing large now on the horizon.

Chaffee shuffled to the front of the customs line and the uniformed man behind the counter asked him, “Business or pleasure?”

Groggy with exhaustion and dislocation, Chaffee looked at him blankly.

“Monsieur, you are here for business or pleasure. What visa?”

“I… It's a personal visit.”

He knew not to ask what visa category applied to seeking the dead.

The man stamped his passport without looking at him and Chaffee emerged from the customs house, shouldering his way through the gantlet of gabbling young men milling along the curb, all of them too thin, too desperate, speaking a bedlam of tongues.



Senor, quiere …”

“Un hotel, monsieur?”

“Kif, mein herr? You vant to smoke some kif?”

He collapsed into the back seat of the first taxi in line, the springs groaning under him. The car had no seatbelts and Chaffee careened from side to side as the driver dodged through traffic like a man playing a video game. He was about to tell the driver to stop and let him walk when he pulled up to a dingy three-story building on a narrow street. Its wooden door held an unpolished brass plaque stating “Hotel les Ambassadeurs.”

“My God, is this it?” the American asked.

The driver squinted at Chaffee in the mirror like a croupier wondering if the loser of a foolish bet would make a scene. “Hotel les Ambassadeurs,” he said in heavily-accented English. “Like you say.”

When the travel agent back in Georgetown recommended the place, Chaffee had pictured a large modern hotel faced with sheets of glass and graced with a fountain in front of a wide drive. Men in fezzes would bow and open the door for him as he arrived. But the agent read the newspapers too and probably assumed Chaffee couldn’t afford that kind of place anymore.

Chaffee gave the driver a five dollar bill. When the man smiled for the first time since they’d left the port he knew he had overpaid.

An old man in a fez walked by. Chaffee opened the door for himself.

Behind the front desk stood a short, dapper Moroccan in a brown suit. “Monsieur?”

For most of his childhood Chaffee had spoken French with his mother—her native language—until one day when he was fourteen she said, “It’s time to stop this,” and abruptly switched to English, disincorporating without explanation the French village that had consisted of just the two of them. Since then he had always expected that, when needed, his French would come back to him like water flowing from a rediscovered spring. Instead, he could barely manage to find his words in English. “Chaffee. A reservation. I have a reservation.”

“Chay-fee.” The dapper man consulted a large book in front of him, flipping its pages back and forth before slapping it closed and shaking his head. “No, monsieur, I have no reservation for a Monsieur Chaffee.”

“But my travel agent…”


Chaffee tried to summon something of his old bull persona, the gruff manner that had once turned his aides’ knees to jelly. “My reservation was for a week.” But the note of righteous displeasure he meant to hit had in his weariness slipped out as the squeak of a querulous old man.

The man behind the desk raised his eyebrows as if to ask, “Are you still going on about that?” but said only, “It is not a problem.”

And apparently it wasn’t. The small room on the top floor lacked air-conditioning, a television and a bathtub, but the bed was comfortable and a pleasant breeze came in through the open window, which gave on a view of the port and the Straits of Gibraltar.

Despite years of advice not to sleep before evening if he was to recover from jet lag, Chaffee lay down and shut his eyes. Just for a moment.

A telephone ringing. That’s how it had begun. He’d been sleeping and the telephone rang. Even after picking up the receiver he hadn’t understood at first why she was calling.

“But that’s what I’m telling you.” Impatience gravelled her voice, “Your father’s not dead.”

“How could he not be dead, Mother? He’s always been dead.”

Her scornful breath hissed in his ear. “For you, of course. For me, no.” Despite fifty-five years in the United States, her French accent had never surrendered to its environment.

“What the hell are you talking about, Mother? You’ve done what?”

“I’ve received a letter from your father.”

“What? Be serious. You can’t expect me to believe that—”

“Calm down, Christopher.”

“Mother, you can’t have received a letter from a dead man.”

Calme toi, Christopher. Je suis sure.”

“Sure of what, for chrissake?”

“Are you listening at all, Christopher? I told you. He sent it during the war. Your father. He sent it in nineteen forty.”

Had she gone mad? Chaffee swore he could hear a thin sweat of dread forming on his brow.

“Nineteen forty,” he repeated. Fifty-five years ago. The year he was born.

He managed to collect himself, refused to give his mother the satisfaction of knowing she’d astonished him. “All right, he sent a letter from prison before he died. Why do you have to call me at… What time is it anyway?”

“He didn’t send it from prison.”

“You said he was in prison. Locked up in Vichy during the war, and they all died there.”

“I never said they all died. I said he died. That’s all I was told. Now I think he didn’t die.”

“Why in the world do you think—”

Je le sente. I feel it. J’ai la lettre. Sans aucun doute. Et—”

“Speak English. When did you start speaking French again? Don’t do that to me.” She went quiet and he muttered into the silence. “How could a letter take fifty-some years to—?”

“How do I know? The embassy sent it. They found it weeks ago they said. Then they found me.”

“But your name is Chaffee, not Laurent anymore. How could they have—?”

“I don’t know. All I know is the embassy—”

“Which embassy?”


“Which ‘theirs?’”

“Mine—back then. His. The French Embassy…  Say something, Christopher.”

“Don’t let any of this get into the papers.”

“The papers? Why should they care about you anymore?”

“I’m just saying…”

Bouf! You’re still angry about—”

“Damn right I’m angry. Those bastards at the Washington Post…”

“Christopher, they’re not the ones who should have—”

“I’d already paid the agency back. I’d still have my job if those sonsabitches at the Post hadn’t decided they wanted to nail someone in the administration. Decided to make a big deal about a couple thousand dollars in travel expenses. I mean, I’m the director of a federal agency—”

“Not any more, Christopher.”

He muttered unintelligibly, gripped again by the anger of destroying his career over something so banal, writing a three instead of a one in the thousands column of his travel voucher. Allright, doing it several times. Over a number of years. Always citing non-existant receipts he claimed to have lost. He'd led his agency well, for years. He deserved a break he told himself. When he thought of what he could have made in the private sector.

“I’m just saying it didn’t have to be a big deal. No one was telling me I had to resign. Then it got into the papers. And that’s when you find out who your enemies are.”

“Yes, Christopher, did you read the latest edition of the paper?”

“No. I don't even look at the goddamned thing any.

What did it say?”

“It says there might be a.

What is the word?”

“How should I know what word you—”

“Indict. Is that a word? It said they might indict you. Christopher, are you there?”

“Jesus,” he whispered.

“What? I'm only telling you what's in the—”

“Drop it. Just drop it, Mother.”

“Hmm. All right.” He could see her making that Gallic shrug. “But this letter from your father.”

“Letter?” Caught in his own obsessions, it took Chaffee a moment to come back. “yeah, the letter. It doesn’t make any sense. If he’s been somewhere else all this time, why wouldn’t he have contacted us? Why would he still be in … Where did you say it came from?”

“Morocco. Tangier. I don’t know why anything. But I feel it strongly, I know he’s not dead.”

Chaffee sighed. “And I suppose you want me to go there and look for him.”


“You’re out of your mind.”

“I’m serious.”

“So, why don’t you go?”

“The trip would kill me.”

Chaffee started to say something irretrievable, but stopped himself. “Look, Julie’s still working. She can’t get away long enough to—”

“You can.”

“Sure. Why not? I’m unemployed now.” A river of silence flowed through the telephone. “So you expect me to drop whatever I’m doing and just—”

“Do you have a choice?”

“Sure. I can say no.”

“No. You can’t, Christopher.”

He slammed the phone down but it wouldn’t stop ringing. In fact, it had been ringing even while they spoke.

Finally, Chaffee understood and woke up, groped for the receiver.

“Yes, what?”

“Monsieur Chaffee? This is the front desk. You asked for a wake-up call.”

Chaffee had no memory of making any such request. “What time is it?”

“It is three o’clock, Monsieur Chaffee.”

He’d been asleep for two and a half hours.

“Yes. All right. Merci.” He slumped on the edge of the bed and caught the stink rising from his clothes.

“Migod,” he sighed. Indicted. Simpson over at Justice had always disliked him, would do it just to make his disgrace complete. A lawyer. He'd have to get an attorney. Dunford. Deppey. Deptford. That was it. Best criminal lawyer in town. A bit of cocktail chatter came back to him, that hiring William Deptford was the surest sign you were guilty as hell.

Chaffee opened his suitcase and pulled out a fresh shirt, nearly as rumpled as the one he wore. From its folds a piece of paper fluttered to the floor. The photocopy of his father's picture.

His father. Since boyhood the words had carried a sanctified gravity. While other kids had dads, he had a photo, this photo. It stood on the buffet in his mother’s dining room behind an unlighted candle, like an abandoned shrine. A formal portrait, very much of its time, of a man in his late twenties dressed in a dark pin-striped suit, strong, thin face, skin porcelain smooth. A handkerchief, folded just so, peeked out from his breast pocket. His faint complacent smile reflected the hauteur appropriate to a young man recently appointed to the Foreign Ministry.

How many times during his boyhood had visitors remarked on Chaffee’s strong resemblance to the handsome man in the photo? They invariably added that he would one day live up to his father’s myriad virtues, his intelligence, grace, and his bravery in the face of tyranny that led to his imprisonment and martyrdom. Yet the tone of their voices spoke more of skepticism than certainty and their praise left him feeling somehow diminished.

When he had asked his mother about him, she had little to say. She spoke of his idealism, his love of country, his hatred of its enemies, of Hitler and the Nazis, until it wore on his nerves.  A saint’s virtues. Noble. Bloodless.

When no one was home, Chaffee would gaze at the photo, vowing that one day he would buy himself a suit like the one in the photo, would look just as handsome, just as untouchable. But, as for his father’s virtues, they were what had that led him to prison without ever meeting his son, and he wanted nothing to do with them. He would be no one’s martyr.

As a boy, Chaffee had tried to imagine playing ball with his father, eating dinner with him, riding in a car—having a dad like the other guys. Instead, he could only picture him like this, in the dark suit with the handkerchief poking from his pocket.

It was funny, he thought, the peculiar nostalgia one can have for moments that should have happened but never did.

Chaffee stood in the middle of his hotel room and put the photo in his pocket next to the copy of the letter from his father. Another copy. He had wanted to bring the original letter, but when he went to see his mother the day before he departed she had refused to give it to him.

“It might have some clues in it,” he had argued, “Something in the type of paper or the ink or something.”

“Clues,” she scoffed, “you’re not Sherlock Holmes, Christopher.”

“I won’t lose it.”

“Of course you won’t,” she replied, meaning that he couldn’t lose what he didn’t have. Grudgingly, she had agreed to let him make a photocopy.

Letter and photo in hand, Chaffee descended the stairs into the lobby, stepped out into the sunlit street and headed toward the French consulate.