In a Country Where They Turn Back Time
Casablanca - July 1938 – Morning and Early Evening
Guillermo Ugarte watched the Chinese woman thread her way through the bazaar. She looks even more out of place than I do.
Amid throngs of Moroccan housewives in modest headscarves and European sightseers with Parisian hats and short coiffures, this woman wore her black hair loose and shimmering down her back. She glanced furtively about, as if wary of attracting attention, but her navy blue trenchcoat betrayed her. How could such a sweltering outfit fail to raise questions among the pale summer suits and flowing cotton robes everyone else at the marketplace had been sensible enough to wear? When she twisted to look behind her, Guillermo caught a blaze of orange silk at her throat.
Abruptly, somebody grabbed his elbow. "Gerzson."
Guillermo grimaced. Even in Casablanca, his friend Jakob insisted on calling him by the Hungarian name he used when he was back in Budapest, engraving illustrations for Arany Publishing House. Maybe if he didn't answer to it, Jakob would take the hint.
"Gerzson!" his friend insisted, "look at me."
Reluctantly, Guillermo turned his back on his mystery woman to smile faintly at his fellow tourist's attempt at humor: a red fez perched above his fleshy, good-natured face and a stuffed spiny-tailed lizard clutched in his beefy hand. A foot taller than Guillermo and twice as fat, Jakob had a talent for making everything familiar and everyone part of the family—a talent that a few years earlier had helped ease Guillermo's transition from being an alien Spanish Jew in Austria to being an alien Spanish Jew in Hungary. Guillermo could never stay annoyed at Jakob.
Playing along, Guillermo stuck his finger in the dead lizard's mouth and pretended he'd been bitten. Jakob laughed, then prattled on about how amazed their co-workers would be by the copper hookah, embroidered lambskin caftan, and carved elephants he would be bringing back home.
As he kept his head nodding, Guillermo felt his smile slip a little. This trip to Morocco was supposed to have been his homecoming—hadn't his father been born right here in Casablanca? Instead it was Jakob who jollied the old men at the coffeehouse into pointing the way to the best shops, who bargained the merchants down to their only-for-locals prices, who made the belly dancers at their hotel giggle.
Guillermo—he stood to the side and watched, as much a foreigner here as he was everyplace else he had ever been.
He stole a glance over his shoulder. The Chinese woman was nowhere to be seen. Quickly, he scanned the crowd. He raised his chin when he glimpsed her ducking behind a stand hung with brass lamps. His eyes lingered on her as she passed into the shadows along a blue-tiled wall. When she reached a low, wooden door, he saw her knock in a strange pattern—tap, tap, pause, tap, tap, tap. The door inched open, and she slipped inside.
Gone. Gone forever.
Guillermo blinked. Then absentmindedly, he scanned the market stalls. Vibrant rugs, silver tea sets, and sparkling coin necklaces vied for his attention. He should buy some trinkets. People would expect it of him. Come Monday, even his ex-wife Frieda would be asking, "So, what did you bring me?" And when he handed her the leather handbag, the scarf or whatever nonsense he finally settled on, she would wrinkle her nose and say, "Was it worth it, Willi—all the money you wasted on your great, grand adventure? Did you find what you were looking for?"
The high-pitched English voice startled Guillermo. He turned his head. The speaker was a tall blond young man in a safari outfit—nearly half Guillermo's age. The blond's companion could have been his twin except that he had red hair. The two were making their way through the mob of shoppers almost as determinedly as had his mystery woman. Guillermo strained to hear what they were saying. Being a polyglot had its advantages.
The blond growled. "She came this way. I know she did."
"I told you we shouldn't try to handle this ourselves," the redhead soothed.
"Bloody hell," the blond said again, then turned on his heel to push through the bazaar in a different direction.
She, Guillermo repeated to himself. Had those two been the menace that had made his mystery woman watch her back? He knew their type. Born bullies. Hadn't he had to defend himself against such arrogant fellows most of his childhood? How dare they—two strapping young men—stalk a lone, defenseless woman?
Guillermo passed a hand across his forehead. It came away damp. The sun was high—almost at the point that would shut the marketplace down for its midday nap. His father may have been born in Casablanca, but he had been born in Vienna. He wasn't used to such heat. It did strange things to his mind.
"Jakob," he said. "Help me get a good price on those ceramic beads over there. They'll make nice gifts."
Twenty minutes later, nine strands of pretty little beads snugly wrapped in newspaper under one arm and four pairs of goatskin slippers dangling from the other, Guillermo dutifully followed their tour guide, Madame Bertuska, back through the maze of streets that led to their hotel.
"I advise you all to get a good rest," she called gaily over her shoulder to her dozen charges. "No skipping your nap to play pinochle. Tomorrow we'll be flying home. So tonight, I have planned an extra special treat. We're all going to the Blue Parrot."
In honor of his last night in Casablanca, Guillermo put on his new white suit. The boxy shoulders gave his slight build some elegance—at least that was what he had told himself when he'd plunked down more for it than his engraver's salary could justify. If only his face had more leading man qualities. The chipped mirror on the back of the hotel room door reflected the features that had earned him the nickname gnome the day he'd started Volksschule. His dark brown eyes were so large, they dominated his face, and his flat ears were nearly pointed.
With a shrug, he raised his comb to his short black hair and slicked it to the right. Then the door swung toward him, and he jumped back. Jakob ambled in, vigorously toweling his curly brown hair.
"Knock, why don't you?" Guillermo muttered.
Jakob raised a bushy eyebrow at his roommate's fancy attire. "I'll remember for later. I wouldn't want to disturb you with a lady."
Guillermo's short glimpse of his mystery woman's profile flashed through his mind—high patrician forehead, exotic slanted eyes, and long, curved lips. "No," he replied dryly. "You might have broken my nose."
Jakob grinned his apology and bumped the door shut with his rear end. He was wearing the same tan suit he'd worn to the marketplace, not minding that hanging it in the bathroom while he showered had wilted any claim to pressed creases it once had held.
Guillermo bit his lip. Now the vanity of his own outfit seemed a trifle foolish, but he'd look even sillier if he changed it now.
"Don't forget to switch your papers from your other pants," Jakob reminded him. "You could get into a lot of trouble in Casablanca if you're stopped and don't have your papers."
Guillermo patted his hip pocket. "Don't worry. I have my passport and visa right here."