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Black Gate Fiction: “The Case of the Murdered Silk Trader” (Casablanca Chronicles)

Monday, March 23rd, 2020 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Casablanca_RenaultSeriousOkay. I had never seen a Humphrey Bogart movie until my early twenties. Then, I went to the Ohio Theater, an amazing place on the National  Register of Historic Places, to see Casablanca on a HUGE screen. There was even organ music during the intermission. I was hooked for life and I now own almost every movie Bogart appeared in. And from that very day, Casablanca has remained my all time favorite movie, through at least two dozen viewings. I’ve got two stories set around the events of the movie, and I’m running them here in my spot today, and next Monday. This one is my favorite of the pair, and if you picture the great Claude Rains, along with the other actors from the film, I think it works pretty well. Enjoy!

I

It was early and the heat of the desert city had not yet enveloped the occupants like a suffocating blanket. Some sellers were taking their wares to the market, but it was generally quiet in the dusty streets of Casablanca as Rick Blaine sat at a table in front of his café, drinking a cup of strong Moroccan coffee. He wasn’t thinking about much of anything as a dapper little Frenchman joined him. The man sat down with a weary sigh, looking slightly rumpled.

“Good morning, Louie. Coffee?”

Captain Louis Renault, Prefect of Police in Casablanca, declined with a wave of his hand. “No thank you, Rickie. I have already had my share this morning.”

Rick grinned at him. “So, what is the final word on the late Major Strasser, of the Third Reich?” Rick asked with an easy nonchalance, but there were a few new worry lines etched in his forehead. Two nights ago he had shot and killed the German at the airport when the major had tried to stop the Lisbon plane from taking off. But Ilsa Lund had been on the plane with Victor Laslo, and Rick would do anything to see her safely out of Casablanca. So he gunned down the German as the man had tried to radio the control tower. When two cars full of local police showed up, Louie had covered for him by telling them to “Round up the usual suspects.”

Rick hadn’t seen Louie since then. He had expected the authorities to take him away for some very unpleasant questioning at any moment during the past few days, but no one had come. Now, Louie was sitting here, looking not much worse for wear.

Renault lit a cigarette, and took a deep drag. “Bet you’ve been a bit on edge the last day or two, eh Rickie?” He arched an eyebrow as he exhaled smoke.  Rick’s face remained impassive.

“Oh yes, I know you would never let it show. But both of our futures were looking very uncertain at the airport.”

The faintest shadow of a smile crossed Rick’s face. “That was a tight spot, there’s no denying that. How do things stand?” He sipped more of the strong coffee.

Renault looked at Rick coCasablanca_RickTableolly. “I spent most of that night and the following morning with Herr Heinz in the Consul’s office. As you might imagine, he was most upset at Strasser’s death, here in his own backyard.”

He paused to take another puff, and then crushed the cigarette out. “You know that I am a man of considerable charm. I persuaded him that Laslo shot Strasser before we arrived. I did not know that Laslo was on the plane and made his escape.”

Rick laughed. “And how did Herr Heinz take that?” The sarcasm dripped as he pronounced the German’s name.

“At first, he had the unreasonable notion of holding me responsible,” he said with a chuckle. “Obviously, I did not find that satisfactory. And had he followed that course, it would not have gone well for you, either.”

A grunt was Rick’s only reply.

“Heinz was worried how Berlin would view the matter, and he wanted to make sure blame was not put upon himself. Can’t say I fault him for that. But I showed him that it was to everyone’s advantage to blame Strasser.”

Rick looked up in surprise at this last revelation. The Frenchman continued. “Strasser is dead. By telling Berlin that the major was operating independently and keeping his own counsel, Heinz removes himself from any blame. And punishment.” Renault gave him a knowing glance. “There was no proof that I did anything wrong, and the good consul gained nothing by dedicating his time to holding me responsible. Of course, there was much more to it, but those are the basics.”

A waiter stopped by the table. Renault ordered a brandy. Neither said anything until the man returned with the drink. Then Rick said, “So, what about me? Will Heinz be sniffing around my place?”

Captain Renault took a drink and smiled. “No, I don’t believe he will. There is nothing for him to gain. He suspects that Laslo took the missing letters of transit, so they are gone. Berlin will blame the late Major Strasser for letting Laslo escape from under his very nose, and for getting himself killed in the process. The consul remains in charge here. You will be fine if you stay out of his affairs.”

Rick smiled and said, “You know me, Louie. I stick my neck out for  nobody.”

“So you’ve told me,” he said dryly.” Rickie, why did you shoot Strasser and let Ilsa go away with Laslo?”

“Louie, why didn’t you turn me in for shooting Strasser.”

“Quite. Serves me right for asking a direct question. The subject is closed.” He gave Rick a sideways glance. “You could have left Casablanca with those letters. I take it you’ll be staying here for awhile?”

“Yes Louie, I’m going to keep running my place here in Casablanca.”

Renault gave his best smile. “I am very glad to hear that. I have come to rely on my winnings here to supplement my meager pay. I’d hate to risk losing that income.”

“Speaking of pay, you still owe me 10,000 francs.”

“Let us consider that amount the cost of my services in convincing Herr Heinz that we are not to blame for the death of Major Strasser. Surely you do not think that  unfair?”

Rick Blaine gave the policeman a long, hard stare. Finally, he shook his head, “Louie, you never miss a trick, do you? If you’ll excuse me, I have a saloon to get ready.” With that, he stood up, adjusted his white jacket and went through the front doors. Captain Renault watched him thoughtfully, then got up himself and moved on down the street.

 II

It was the following day when Captain Renault walked through the doors of the Blue Parrot. After Rick’s, it was the most popular nightclub in Casablanca. It was run by Senor Ferrari, a huge man that he did not know enough about. Ferrari had already been in Casablanca when Renault was assigned by Vichy to the city. Ferrari had the clipped diction of a good Englishman, but no trace of an accent. The Blue Parrot was more of a Moroccan Kasbah than a Monte Carlo style nightclub. There was no casino, though Renault knew that there were illegal dice games in the back rooms.

But he wasn’t here for entertaiCasablanca_BlueParrot1nment. Ferrari was the leader of all illegal activities in Casablanca. Renault, like all good policemen, knew that crime was less frequent when it was organized. Ferrari kept black market activities at a reasonable level, as well as minimizing unnecessary violence.

Renault made eye contact with Ferrari, who was standing behind the large bar, idly swinging a fly swatter. The big man indicated a table with a nod of his head and started towards it. When both men were seated, Ferrari ordered bourbon. Louie had the same.

“Captain Renault,” he said in a booming voice. “It is always a pleasure to see you in my humble establishment. It’s a pity about that dead German major. I trust that Monsieur Laslo has not been found either?”

Renault looked carefully at the man. It would be worth a great deal to Ferrari if he could lay his hands on the letters of transit. But they would just represent a lost opportunity if Laslo had fled with them. “According to Herr Heinz, Laslo shot and killed Major Strasser then used the letters to escape with Miss Lund.”

A look of disappointment crossed Ferrari’s face. “That is truly a shame. Even I have never seen such a letter.” Their drinks were put on the table, and the server left without a word.

Ferrarri’s eyes narrowed a fraction. “What can I do for you today, Captain?” “I am sure you are aware of what happened to Andre Matrac last week?”

If Ferrari was hiding anything, his face didn’t betray it. “Ah yes, I believe he met with an unfortunate accident. Most regrettable.”

Renault leaned back and stared at him. “Yes, if you call being garroted and then stabbed five times an accident.” Matrac had been a smuggler, dealing in silks and alcohol. It was generally understood that he operated under an agreement with Ferrari, and he had an arrangement with the police as well.

“I don’t suppose you would know anything about it now, would you?”

A look of surprise came over Ferrari’s face. “Me; A simple proprietor? What would I know of such matters? You know that I do not purchase my liquor from Matrac. Or should I say, that I did not?”

Renault enjoyed his verbal sparring with Ferrari. In practical terms, the two were the most powerful men in Casablanca. They both played within the rules of an unwritten agreement. Renault was occasionally forced to crack down on him in some minor way, but generally left him alone. However, the killing of Matrac was not acceptable.

“Yes, I am aware of that,” he replied dryly. Matrac dealt primarily with low-end alcohol. However, the man had been the city’s leading smuggler of fine cloth. That was Casablanca’s most important market item.

“I will find those responsible for killing Matrac. I’m afraid that it just isn’t an acceptable crime. I wanted to let you know.”

Ferrari looked at Renault with his beady eyes. “I appreciate your candor, sir. Candor is a most estimable quality. But I assure you that I know nothing about it. Of course, should I happen to overhear something in here,” he waved his arm to indicate the expanse of the place. “I will certainly inform you.”

“Very good,” Renault said, rising. “I must be on my way. Thank you for your time, and your hospitality.”

Ferrari looked up at him. “You are always welcome here in the Blue Parrot, Captain Renault.” He continued watching the policeman as he left. Matrac’s death had been beneficial to Ferrari, though not for the reasons that Renault probably suspected. He’d have to keep an eye on things for the next week or two.

 

III

It was a quiet night at Rick’s Café Americain. It had rained hard for most of the evening, and people had generally stayed home. Fortunately, nights like these were rare. Rick was sitting at his usual table, with Carl, his headwaiter, standing quietly next to him.

Rick looked out over the nearly empty room. “Carl, we’re not going to break even tonight. We don’t even have half of our normal crowd in the casino.”

Carl was a short, happy, portly Hungarian who oversaw all of the waiters and also managed the kitchen. He was very good at what he did and Rick paid him well to stay in his employ.

“Mister Rick, even in the desert, it must rain once in a while.”

He smiled. “It’s not the rain I mind, it’s the drought of customers that it causes.”

Just then Carl was summoned to the kitchen. “Ack, what has Henri done now?” Muttering to himself, he left the table.

Henri was an excitable Frenchman who was Rick’s best cook. Unfortunately, he seemed to get upset at the slightest provocation, and Carl complained that he spent as much time calming down the chef as he did working in the dining room. As long as Henri didn’t go after anyone with a knife or cleaver, Rick was happy to have him on board.

A few couples were out on the floor, dancing to a slow tune by the orchestra. The band didn’t sound as if their hearts were really into it tonight. Rick couldn’t blame them. A feeling of lethargy was in the air. After the excitement with Ilsa and Laslo, he didn’t mind some quiet. Once it was evident that Heinz was not, in fact, going to have him arrested for killing Strasser, his life at the café had gone back to normal. One night, he had sent Sam out and locked up the place himself after closing. With no one there, he sat at a table with a bottle of whiskey and drank until he passed out. That speech to Ilsa about “being noble” was all very nice, but he still wasn’t sure why he’d done it. So, he drank a toast to Ilsa and her husband, and then just kept drinking.

He awoke early the next morning, smelling like he’d slept in a whiskey bath. He cleaned himself up and got ready for another day. He had closed the door on Paris. It had not been easy, but that part of his life was finally over. Back in America he had left one woman that he loved, and in Casablanca he had sent away another one. That was quite an impressive record, if a lonely one.

Renault came across the room and joined him. “Hello, Rick. Quiet night in here.”

“Thank you for reminding me. It would help my bank account if you refrained from visiting the roulette tables tonight. I’m already taking a loss at the bar and the kitchen.”

Casablanca_RickLouieRenault laughed. “Come now, I don’t win that often.” Rick just gave him a pained expression. “All right, I admit that I do well here. That’s why I keep coming back. Having a high ranking official such as myself lends an air of class to the place.”

“Uh-huh,” from Rick, not impressed.

“Did you have any dealings with Matrac?”

The question caught Rick off guard. The expression on his face showed it. “Matrac? What would I want with him? He sold rotgut, and besides, I get all of my supplies through Ferrari.”

“I didn’t mean to imply that you were in business with him. You wouldn’t serve what he sold.” He paused and took a drink. “I have to admit that I miss Ugarte.”

This brought a snort of disbelief from Rick. “Oh, don’t be a hypocrite. With Ugarte dead, you have one hundred percent of the exit visa market in Casablanca. His death will contribute to your early retirement.”

Rick left it unsaid that it was almost certainly Renault who had Ugarte killed while in police custody. True, it had been on Major Strasser’s orders, but that didn’t make Renault any less guilty.

“No, no, I don’t miss that aspect. But he was the slimiest character in the underworld here. For a price, I could always find out what I needed to know from Ugarte. I’m hearing unsettling rumors that Ferrari was behind Matrac’s death.”

“So, you think Ferrari bumped off Matrac.” He looked thoughtfully into the distance, rubbing his earlobe between thumb and finger. “Maybe Matrac was holding out on him, or was trying to muscle in on Ferrari’s liquor game. There’s nothing unusual in that.”

The Frenchman looked at Rick carefully. “I imagine your experiences in America taught you all about such things.”

Rick didn’t even blink, just stared at Renault, who shrugged his shoulders in return. “Just thought it was worth a mention. No, what I’m hearing indicates that Matrac was operating normally. Ferrari removed him for some other reason, but nobody seems to know why.”

Rick lit a cigarette. “Louie, why do you care? Matrac was a low level runner, and his demise doesn’t make any difference in Casablanca. So Ferrari bumped him off. What does it matter?”

A speculative look from Renault: “I see that the cynical loner is back again. As for Matrac himself, he is of no importance to me. But I must know why he was killed. I will not lose control in this city. Matrac’s killing does not make sense. That means something is going on that I don’t know about. That can lead to other things happening without my notice. I am content with the level of power that Ferrari wields here. It’s part of my job as Prefect of Police to see that it doesn’t increase.”

Rick looked thoughtfully at his friend. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you so worried before, Louie. This is really sticking in your craw, isn’t it?” There was no reply. “If I hear anything, I’ll let you know.”

Renault relaxed and his tone lightened, “Thank you, Rick. I never doubted it for a moment. I actually look forward to these little opportunities to do real police work. I was quite a detective in my day, you know.”

An interested look came over Rick’s face. “That’s the first time you’ve told me  that.”

With a twinkle in his eye, the captain said, “You aren’t the only one with secrets, Rickie. We all have our stories of how we came to Casablanca. Perhaps someday I shall tell you mine. As it is, I think I shall call it a night. I have a visa problem to attend to in the morning.”

Rick continued sitting at his table and lit another cigarette. He hadn’t particularly liked Matrac. He had no business problem with him, since he didn’t conduct any with the man. But Matrac reminded him of some of the small-time thugs he’d known in Chicago. They were always looking for the big score; the score that would push them up the ladder. Rick knew that you had to work your way up. There were no shortcuts. Matrac was one of those guys who wanted to suddenly climb to the upper ranks. Rick recalled that most of his kind had ended up taking the big sleep in the windy city. Matrac’s end was the same, except there wasn’t as much wind in the desert.

He supposed Louie was wrong about Ferrari’s reason for getting rid of Matrac. If he were betting, he’d lay money that the Frenchman had been trying to expand his liquor operations around Ferrari. He had a pretty good handle on the silk market, and Rick couldn’t imagine why that activity would have gotten him killed. Regardless, it didn’t affect Rick at all. Louie could play Sherlock Holmes and try and figure things out. He had a saloon to take care of.

 

IV

The police station was alive with the bustle that exists at all such institutions. Officers came and went, while others sat at their small desks. Lost children cried and drunks yelled from the cells in the back,

muffled by the closed door between them and the front of the building. Captain Renault sat in his office, staring at the wall-sized map of Morocco. Actually, the map was just some place for his eyes to rest; his mind was elsewhere. Two weeks had passed and he still did not know what had happened to Matrac.

Casablanca_RainesCloseUpIdly flicking a cigarette, he wondered what he was missing. Renault had been the top investigator on the Marseilles force before the war. However, he had become openly critical of the Germans and their supporters in the French government. His sarcasm was causing embarrassments for his superiors and he had been sent to Casablanca as a result. The Frenchman had learned his lesson. He had been with the force that captured Berlin in the first war, and his heart still belonged to France. But Vichy had ruled France while he was here, so that was the master he served. As he’d told Strasser, he went whichever way the wind blew. But Laslo had renewed Rick Blaine’s dormant patriotism, and to a degree, Louie’s. Perhaps his self- respect was coming out of its slumber as well.

Renault had a comfortable life in Casablanca, and he wasn’t going to turn it upside down. But his professional instincts had been aroused. This investigation was his first real police work in years. Unfortunately, it was not going well. He simply couldn’t figure out who gained from Matrac’s death. No one had moved in to take over the lucrative silk trade, which made no sense. Ferrari should have bottled that up within days.

Thinking about it wasn’t helping this afternoon. He turned his attention to the matter of an American banker who needed an exit visa. The man actually had the proper credentials to leave, but Louie was on a streak of bad luck at the roulette wheel, and he suspected that the banker had the money to buy what he needed. Having been delayed three straight days, he would now pay Renault’s price. With Ugarte dead, they all would have to, eventually. That thought brought a smile to his lips as he rang a buzzer under the desk. A smartly dressed aide came in immediately.

“Casselle, when Mister Stevens, the American, arrives again to discuss his visa, let him wait twenty minutes and then show him in. I believe that arrangements can be made today.” Casselle saluted crisply and went back out of the office.

 

V

Rick walked through the bazaar, which was full in the late afternoon. He paused and wiped the back of his neck with a kerchief. The humid summers of Chicago couldn’t compare to the dry, desert heat of this city. He reminded himself to get another lightweight suit.

He continued on and entered the Blue Parrot, asking the barman for Senor Ferrari. Rick was well known here, and the man beckoned him to follow. He had Rick wait at a door in the back and then went inside. He returned immediately and motioned Rick in, closing the door behind him and departing.

Ferrari was sitting behind his desk, his corpulent body more than filling up the chair. Rick was reminded of a detective novel he had read in America. The detective was extremely large, due to his fondness for beer and dislike of exercise. Ferrari motioned for Rick to sit in a wicker chair and poured him bourbon from a decanter on his desk. Rick took a drink and lit a cigarette.

“Always good to see you, sir. What brings you to my humble establishment this afternoon?” Ferrari spoke with clipped tones, as if he dreaded wasting a single syllable.

Rick blew smoke out of his nose and said “I got a visit from your boy Jafeer today. He told me that my alcohol prices are going up. Way up.” He said this with a flat voice that indicated the matter needed some further discussion.

“Rick, my friend, it is a simple matter of supply and demand. With the unfortunate death of Matrac, there is less liquor coming into Casablanca. More businesses are requiring my goods. It is natural that the market reflects a change in price because of this.”

“Yeah. Uh-huh.” He blew smoke towards the ceiling.

Ferrari went on as if he hadn’t heard. “However, you are my best customer, and while Jafeer did make these visits as per my instructions, I did not intend for him to see you. My prices remain unchanged for Rick’s Café.”

An insincere smile crossed Rick’s face. “Yes, I figured that it was just a misunderstanding. That’s why I came over to see you. And am I to assume that your carrying charges won’t be increased as well? If they are, I’ll need to increase the size of my orders.”

Ferrari clapped his hands together. “You are a most amusing man, Mister Blaine. Yes, most amusing. I never know what you will say next.”

Rick continued to look at him. “Yeah, I’m a regular one-man Abbot & Costello. What about it?”

“My small fee will remain unchanged. I think you are getting quite a bargain for my services. Yes, I do.”

Rick relaxed. “That’s why I bring you my business. Of course, since you have a monopoly now, I guess I’d have to anyways. Has Renault talked to you about Matrac’s death?”

Ferrari’s eyes hardened just momentarily, but Rick noticed it. “Matrac’s death was most unfortunate. The captain did stop in, but of course, I had nothing to tell him.”

Nodding his head thoughtfully, he replied “Sure. He was the only other guy running liquor in this town. I know he was paying off to you, but not enough that it wouldn’t have been worth your while to have the whole pie.”

Casablanca_RickFerrariAnother laugh. “As a fellow businessman, you know that competition keeps a man honest. He can’t get sloppy and rest on his laurels if someone is out there working against him. Matrac was good business for me. I deeply regret his loss.”

Now Rick gave a genuine laugh. “You fat hypocrite, you don’t miss him at all. You’ll probably install some flunky to run the silk trade in his place, and now you have all of the liquor market.”

Ferrari’s voice hardened a little. “And does this upset you?”

Blaine threw his hands up in a defensive gesture. “Oh no, not me. I’m perfectly content dealing with you. It’s sort of like one-stop shopping. I don’t care what you do, as long as it doesn’t harm my saloon.”

Ferrari was back to his jovial manner. “I assure you that I value you as a customer and my other activities will not affect you at all.”

Finishing his bourbon, Rick replied, “Will my shipment be in tomorrow?” “I believe everything is on schedule. Shall I send it over upon its arrival?”

Smiling, Rick said, “Yes, that will be fine” He opened the door and started through, then turned back: “And Ferrari,”

“Yes.”

“Don’t underestimate Renault. You know he’s smarter than he lets on. I’d watch my step around him.”

“That is sound advice. Most sound. I shall certainly keep it in mind.”

Walking back into his own place, he was greeted by an anxious Carl. “Herr Rick, Sacha was very sick, so I sent him home. I could not find Peter, so I had one of the boys from the casino work the bar. He is not doing so well.”

Rick looked over and saw one of the young men who was a blackjack dealer, moving about behind the bar. He seemed to be one order behind and could not quite catch up. He knew that the man, a transplanted Brit whose name was Edwin, would eventually be buried. He told Carl to get back to his duties and went over to the bar. Tapping the busy Edwin on the shoulder, he told him to go back to his regular duties. Rick received a gratified smile in return and looked at the bar. The kid hadn’t done a terrible job with the stock, for a rookie.

Standing behind the bar, looking at the bottles, Rick was reminded of his time tending bar in a Chicago speakeasy. He had been pretty good at it, doubling as a bouncer. His move upwards in the outfit had started then. He took an order for a gin fizz and deftly made it. For the rest of the night, he kept busy behind the bar. His mind stayed on the work of mixing drinks, and he found himself enjoying it. Maybe it was the simplicity of the task.

 

VI

 Casablana_BoisRenault was standing inside a stall in the bazaar. He needed some information, and the man nervously fidgeting in front of him was the one to provide it. The stall’s owner was busy trying to exculpate himself at the moment. “Really, captain, I had no idea that the necklaces were stolen. I mean, how could I know? I’m just a simple businessman, trying to make an honest living.”

This last brought a snort from the Frenchman. The seller was known as “Rob Me Blind” Dribbler. He earned the sobriquet from saying that the buyer was robbing him blind during every purchase. It didn’t matter what the final price was or how big his profit. And Dribbler never sold at a loss.

Dribbler was also one of Casablanca’s leading purveyors of stolen goods. “Look Dribbler, I’m not interested in the jewelry, although that is a beautiful set of cuff links you have there,” he said, his voice trailing off.

Dribbler quickly picked them up and pressed them into the policeman’s hands. “For you, no charge. A gift as a token of thanks for making the streets safe.”

“Thank you,” he said, pocketing them. “Now, tell me what has happened in the silk trade since Matrac was killed.”

Dribbler immediately looked wary. “I didn’t have anything to do with Matrac. I don’t know anything about it.”

Renault was getting annoyed. “Knock it off Dribbler. You’re beginning to upset me.” Few in Casablanca had heard the tone of voice that he was using now. No one had heard it twice. “Now, what is the supply of fine cloth like these days?”

Dribbler relaxed a little. He began to believe that Renault wasn’t here to roust him. “It’s terrible, captain, just terrible. I have never seen such a scarcity of silk and burlap. No one has filled Matrac’s role. I have trouble keeping my tables full. I even approached Senor Ferrari about it.” Dribbler immediately threw his hands over his mouth.

Renault raised an eyebrow. “Did you now? What did he have to say?” There was a slight undertone of menace, leaving Dribbler with no doubt that dancing around the answer would cause him a great deal of grief.

“He seemed, well, aloof. He said it was just a matter of time before some enterprising individual moved on it. It was as if he didn’t care at all.”

“That is quite interesting. Why would Ferrari let it sit there, unattended?”

“I don’t know, captain. Really, I don’t. But I didn’t get the impression that he was going to do anything about it.”

“Thank you Dribbler, you’ve been of great assistance,” Louie said, with a pleasant smile. “I’m sure that if you hear anything else about this matter, you will bring it to my attention?”

“Of course. Anything at all.”

“Very good. And I recommend that you dispose of those necklaces somehow. I don’t think it would be good if you had them the next time I visit, eh?” he said, with raised eyebrows.

Standing at the edge of the market, sipping an ice tea with whiskey, Renault pondered what he had just learned. Ferrari had the most to gain from Matrac’s death, but he had made no move to profit from it. Things just did not add up the way they should. Renault admitted to himself that he was getting frustrated with his lack of progress. He needed to talk things out.

Later that evening, he sat across from Rick, playing a game of chess. Renault was not bad at it, but he was an indifferent player. Rick played the game with a studied determination, often reading books on tactics and strategies. Renault broke a silence with “Rickie, who do you think killed Matrac?”

Rick was holding a pawn above the board. He looked up at Renault with raised eyebrows. “Is this some kind of trick to distract me?” He eyed Renault critically. “No, no, it’s not. Why are you so interested in this affair?”

Louie looked at his closest friend in Casablanca. “Not only was I once a very good policeman, I daresay that I was one of the best in all of France. Crime is very orderly here in Casablanca. I keep it that way. This killing makes no sense. I don’t like untidy corners.”

“I’m impressed with you Louie. You sound like a real Prefect of Police.” This brought a frown from Renault.

“Very funny. But I do intend to solve this case.”

Rick looked at him thoughtfully and put the pawn back on the board. Lighting a cigarette, he said: “If Ugarte were still alive, he’d be my first suspect. The two probably had a falling out over something, and Ugarte bumped him off. Come to think of it, Ugarte wasn’t dead when Matrac was killed. So maybe it was he.”

Renault looked at him thoughtfully. “Yes, that is possible. But if so, then I will never be able to prove it. No, I must pursue other avenues of inquiry. If I cannot solve the case, and if Ugarte still looks like a suspect, then I will consider blaming him.”

“I’m sure you’ve already talked to Ferrari.”

“Oh yes, that is where I started. He has behaved most oddly in this matter. He claims to know nothing about it, and he has done nothing, at least overtly, to move in on the silk trade. I am puzzled.”

Rick tapped his index finger on the head of a knight. “That doesn’t sound like Ferrari, that’s for sure. He moves faster than a Jewish banker when there’s a chance to make money.”

Casablanca_Chess“No one is supplying high value fabrics, and Ferrari can’t have picked up too much liquor trade yet. This whole thing really puzzles me, Rickie.”

Rick’s thought was that it sounded like some outside mob was trying to move in and get a foothold in Casablanca. Ferrari was too well established to take down, but Matrac had been a little guy. Replacing him would be a good start. But that was American gangland thinking. That sort of thing didn’t happen in Casablanca. No, something else was going on.  “I don’t know, Louie. You need to find out more. But what I do know, is that this,” he said, moving the knight he had tapped earlier, “is checkmate. Another game?”

Renault shook his head absently. “No, not tonight. You’ve got me thinking. I believe I shall retire and attempt to sort things out.”

Rick looked at the clock and let out a long, slow whistle. “Louie, it’s only 9:00. I’ve never known you to go to bed before 11, and that’s on a quiet night.”

Renault ignored the comment. “Yes, good night to you, too. No need to show me out.” He closed the door behind him. Rick still didn’t understand why the man was so intent on catching Matrac’s killer. He suspected that things had changed in Casablanca when he pulled the trigger on Strasser and let Laslo and Ilsa fly away.

 

VII

Captain Renault felt as if the pieces were finally starting to come together. He didn’t have all of them fitted properly, but a pattern that made sense was forming. He was walking the main thoroughfare, looking for a very distinctive man. He saw his quarry with his back to a patio railing and talking to a foreigner. As Renault approached him, he heard the man saying “.. vultures everywhere.” Renault cleared his throat and tapped the man on the shoulder.

The man, dressed in black, was completely startled to see Renault there. “Bois, could I have a moment of your time?” he said politely.

Still off-balanced, the man could only nod his head. Renault turned to the foreigner; “Excuse me. I’m sorry to intrude.” He moved the darkly escorted man to an alley entrance. “Look Bois, I want answers, and I don’t want any foolishness.” It was clear to the man that Renault was serious.

“Captain, I will certainly help you in any way that I can.”

“I want to know how Ugarte and Matrac were working together.”

Bois’ face indicated that he wasn’t particularly pleased with the subject of the discussion, but Renault cut him off before he could speak. “Listen to me. If you don’t give me the answer I want, I’m going to take you in and hang every unsolved crime on you.”

The man cringed. “No, no, I will tell you what you want. I understand that Ugarte and Matrac were going to join forces to expand their power. With Matrac’s control of the silk market, and Ugarte’s contacts throughout North Africa, they believed that they could take away a share of Senor Ferrari’s black market activities.”

This was the missing piece Renault had been looking for. He couldn’t figure out why Matrac had been killed. Now he knew. It also provided a missing piece of the Ugarte puzzle. Bois was just staring at him, slowly edging his way out of the alley. Renault waved him away. The man all but ran.

Renault was once again sitting in Ferrari’s office. The big man was waiting for the prefect to get on with the purpose of his visit.

Draining his drink, Renault sat the glass down and said, “I’m going to tell you a story, Senor Ferrari. Please pay attention.”

Casablanca_FerrariThe big man kept his eyes on the policeman and said nothing.

“You are the head of the black market here in Casablanca. I permit you to remain so. Matrac was the leading fabric smuggler, and a small-time liquor smuggler. He paid you a percentage of his profits, so you let him remain in business.”

Ferrari neither acknowledged nor denied this, so the Frenchman continued.

“Ugarte was a major character in the city’s underworld. In fact, I would say that his killing of the two German couriers and obtaining their letters of transit was the biggest crime anyone has perpetrated since I arrived.”

Ferrari spoke in an even voice; “Surely, captain, you are not implying I had anything to do with that.” Renault smiled. “No, of course not. I just mention it to establish that Ugarte was no errand boy.’

He lit a cigarette, stared reflectively at the smoke and continued. “Reliable sources tell me that the two men were preparing to work together in an attempt to claim a bigger stake of illegal activities here. They did not approach me. I’m sure you would have heard about it, though.”

Ferrari continued to show no expression.

“Now, I was puzzled about Matrac’s death. The natural reason for someone to kill him would be so that they could assume his spot in the silk market. But nobody, including you, did so. Therefore, I knew something else was behind his death. However, if he was killed to keep him from building his base of power, now things look a bit differently.” Renault was watching the big man very carefully. Ferrari was a master at bluffing, and he maintained an interested, but noncommittal, look.

“If the primary purpose of killing him was to simply keep him from expanding his activities, then there would be no hurry to take over his business. That could wait a short time.”

“Now we turn to Ugarte.” This statement seemed to surprise Ferrari, who shifted in his chair. Renault permitted himself a smile at this small victory.

“We still do not know who tipped us off about Ugarte killing the two German couriers for the letters of transit. Once again, with the knowledge of his proposed alliance with Matrac, things become clearer.”

Renault stood up now, putting both hands on Ferrari’s desk and leaning in towards the man. “You killed Matrac because he was getting grand designs, and you couldn’t have that. I’m sure you also saw it as an opportunity to gain the fabric trade, but you let that lie. It shifted my suspicion away from you.”

Casablanca_RenaultHeadShot“So, you had gotten rid of your main competitor. Then, the opportunity arose to take care of Ugarte as well. You told us about the letters of transit, and my men arrested him. Even had he not been killed trying to escape,” Here, Ferrari smiled knowingly at the policeman. Renault continued as if he hadn’t noticed. “He would likely have been taken away by the Germans. Now, another would-be threat was removed.”

Ferrari laughed. “That is quite a story, Monsieur Renault. But you certainly can’t prove any of that, even if it were true, which it most certainly is not. Why, it’s as believable as some fantastic tale about a jewel- encrusted bird.”

Renault’s eyes were hard as steel. “You are right, Senor Ferrari. I cannot prove it. But we both know that this is what happened. Listen to me, and listen carefully. You exist as you do because I choose to let you. You overstepped your bounds when you killed Matrac. Ugarte I take responsibility for. If you ever do something like this again, I will remove you form the board here in Casablanca. Do not doubt it. And don’t worry yourself about matters such as proof or evidence. They won’t be germane. Have I made myself clear?”

Ferrari looked very carefully at the Prefect of Police. In spite of Rick’s warning, he had underestimated this man. “I can assure you that such an event will not occur in the future under my direction, sir.” he said, raising his own glass in a toast.

Renault smiled and bade him farewell.

Sitting once again in Rick’s office, he finished his champagne cocktail. Rick was smiling at him. “So, you really confronted the fat man? And he took it lying down?”

“Rickie, you doubted me a few weeks ago when I told you that in Casablanca, I am master of my own fate. Ferrari knows his place, and I don’t believe he will try anything like that again.

“I am a little more impressed with you, Louie.”

Renault smiled and looked at his empty glass. It felt good to be a policeman again.

OTHER BOGART POSTS:

The Caine Mutiny
The Return of Doctor X
How George Raft Made Humphrey Bogart a Star
The Maltese Falcon on Screen


Bob_Houston_HatCroppedBob Byrne’s ‘A (Black) Gat in the Hand’ was a regular Monday morning hardboiled pulp column from May through December, 2018 and again from August through December, 2019. 

His ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column ran every Monday morning at Black Gate  from March, 2014 through March, 2017 (still making an occasional return appearance).

He organized ‘Hither Came Conan,’ as well as Black Gate’s award-nominated ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard’ series.

He is a member of the Praed Street Irregulars, founded www.SolarPons.com (the only website dedicated to the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street’) and blogs about Holmes and other mystery matters at Almost Holmes.

He has contributed stories to The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories – Parts III, IV,  V and VI. Rumor is that submissions are down and he’s returning to the series in 2020.

6 Comments »

  1. Great story, Bob. CASABLANCA is my favorite movie, and you’ve done it justice. I’m looking forward to the next story.

    Comment by westkeith - March 25, 2020 9:34 pm

  2. Loved reading this, and would love to read more!

    Comment by Michael OBrien - March 26, 2020 2:51 am

  3. Thanks Keith and Michael. I really do love this movie. The other story takes place before the film, so I got to write in a little Ugarte. Peter Lorre was fantastic, even though he didn’t last very long!

    Comment by Bob Byrne - March 26, 2020 7:59 am

  4. I really enjoyed this. You certainly nailed how Rick and Renault interact – I kept seeing the whole thing as a black-and-white movie, unfurling before my eyes. If I was directing that movie, I’d have one scene – directly after the introductory scene, showing Matrac’s murder (obviously without revealing the murderer’s identity). Alternatively maybe Renault inspecting the murder scene?

    The paragraph. ‘He hadn’t particularly liked Matrac’ would make a great piece of dialogue (ie, maybe include it in the previous interaction between Rick and Renault? Or maybe I’m just thinking of what might get lost if the story were turned into a script?)

    Renault. I think you need a scene that establishes Renault’s motivation from the get-go. Something pushes him outside his comfort zone. His daughter is getting married and he needs silk for her wedding dress but there’s none to be had. Ugarte may have been an unpleasant fellow, but Renault was on good terms with the man’s mother and promises to find out who killed him. Somebody makes a disparaging remark about Renault’s ability to solve crimes, and some remnants of his professional pride make him determined to prove them wrong, etc, etc.

    The climatic scene. Renault’s theory is all supposition. He has no clear proof. I think it would be kind of cool if Ferrari were to deny, deny, deny, even as Renault outlines what happened (primarily for the reader’s benefit) until Renault puts some crucial piece of evidence found at the crime scene down on the desk. There is a pregnant pause, then Ferrari becomes a lot more conciliatory. Needless to say, the piece of evidence would be of the ‘planting and paying-off’ variety. Ferrari carried out the murder himself for some reason, and left some telling keepsake at the scene of the crime, the presence or absence of which becomes indirectly obvious during the first scene in which he and Renault interact.

    ‘darkly escorted’?

    Hope this doesn’t sound too critical – needless to say, I have plenty of time on my hands right now! And like I say, I really enjoyed it.

    Comment by Aonghus Fallon - April 1, 2020 8:16 am

  5. Hi, Bob. This was enjoyable. Casablanca is easily one of my favorite movies too. I dabbled in that world (sort of) in a story that appeared in Amazing Stories. It’s called “A Wow Finish.”

    I’ve reprinted it at Curious Fictions.

    https://www.curiousfictions.com/stories/947-james-van-pelt-a-wow-finish

    Comment by James Van Pelt - April 1, 2020 4:33 pm

  6. All fair points Aongus.
    (Good to see you commenting again!)

    I wrote this in one sitting, several years ago. If I got serious about it, I’d watch the movie about five times in a row (which would be a treat for me), and really write the story out in full, with more planning.

    I had written another Casablanca story first (it’s so cheesy, I haven’t decided to run it here, even though I said I would).

    And while I was still in the mood, I decided I wanted to write one about Renault, and have him be a real crime solver. I came up with this.

    I even started a third, focused on Ferrari. I might do this up proper some time. I just absolutely love picturing Claude Rains as I write scenes. He was simply fantastic in this film.

    Comment by Bob Byrne - April 2, 2020 8:03 pm


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