She Doesn't Give You Time for Questions
Casablanca - July 1938 – Still Later that Evening
Much too soon for Guillermo's liking, the song ended. Slowly, he and his Chinese goddess drifted to a stop. The French announcer began touting a shop that carried both American cigarettes and Cuban cigars. She stirred in his arms, and reluctantly, he let her go. Their dance had dislodged one of her combs, and a wing of her long black hair hung across one side of her face.
"Thank you," she said. "That did me more good than you know."
Guillermo took hold of her hand. "Tell me your name." I can't keep thinking of you as my mystery lady.
She slipped her fingers from his and reached up to tidy her hair. "Lulu. That's what everyone calls me."
"No," Guillermo persisted. "Tell me your real name—the one your mother and father chose for you. Before whatever it was happened that brought you to Casablanca."
She looked aside. Then she forced a smile. "Ting Xia."
He let the exotic syllables sweep over him like an ocean wave. "Ting Xia." He hoped he hadn't mangled the pronunciation. "My name is Guillermo. Guillermo Ugarte. Please. Sit down with me. Let me buy you a drink." I have so much to ask you, so much I want to say.
"No," she said quickly. "You needn't spend any money on me. I enjoyed meeting you, but it is time for me to go." She'd slung her purse behind her back while they danced. Now she tucked it up under her arm again.
Guillermo reached out to brush back a stray strand of her hair. "Let me walk you home. It's late, it's not safe—"
"I know Casablanca. I don't need a protector. I have some business to complete with Signor Ferrari. Then I'll catch a taxi at the corner."
Impulsively, Guillermo grabbed Ting Xia's hand and kissed the back of it. "Please. I feel like I've known you a long—like I've been looking—but we've barely met. Please stay. Give me a chance." You said, I like you.
She ran her eyes over his face, as if memorizing the details. "No. This is how things are."
Reluctantly, Guillermo let go of her hand.
"Adieu," Ting Xia murmured and turned away.
As he stared after her, something inside him said, Not yet.
Since they'd started dancing, more customers had arrived. Guillermo watched Ting Xia weave her way through the couples gathering at the center of the room to take advantage of the hot little jazz number now blaring scratchily from the radio. As she passed, a number of people called out, "Lulu!" Two elderly Arabs playing chess nodded their greetings.
She does know Casablanca, Guillermo thought. With her in it, the Blue Parrot no longer seemed disreputable. It seemed warm and friendly.
Signor Ferrari, now bellied up to the bar, was another matter. As his Chinese Goddess approached him again, Guillermo narrowed his eyes. He didn't like the smarmy smile that came over the fat man's face when he heard what Ting Xia had to say. Ferrari set down the whisky bottle he had been about to pour and made an ostentatious salaam, beckoning her to accompany him into a backroom.
When they had disappeared into whatever private den Ferrari had chosen to complete their business, Guillermo hunkered down on the nearest chair, prepared to stare at the door until Ting Xia came out and he could make his case to her again.
Talk, laughter and music surrounded him. He might as well have been alone. He rested his chin in his hands and his elbows on his knees, both vigilant and distracted. Traveling with a tour group to escape the rut of his everyday life had been futile. He had just taken the rut with him. In two weeks of holiday, he hadn't connected with anything in this strange, glamorous land—until tonight. And tonight would be his last.
Ting Xia! By this time tomorrow, he would be staring out an airplane window, reflecting on the stars, wondering if she were gazing at them too, resigned to never seeing her again. That was how things were. That was how they had to be.
But not yet.
He recalled an engraving he had done for an edition of the Arabian Nights. In it, a beggar boy had caught a djinni by the toe, refusing to let go until he was granted three wishes. Guillermo had no idea what his three wishes would be, but he was sure that whatever they were, Ting Xia could fulfill them.
When the door to Ferrari's backroom swung open, Guillermo sat up straight. He craned his neck to see around the barmaid who'd walked up to offer him a drink. He watched the fat man swagger out, cast an assessing eye over his tavern, then join a black-bearded man seated in an alcove. Guillermo stood, tense and alert, not sure what he would say to make Ting Xia stay with him, but knowing he had to try.
She didn't come through the door.
Guillermo strode across the Blue Parrot. His resolve parted a path through the sea of talkers and dancers.
Jakob called out to him, "Gerzson, hang on a minute."
Guillermo ignored him. He rounded the bar, disregarding the bartender's affronted challenge, and ducked into the backroom.
He found himself in a shadowy storage area—cartons of booze on one side, Signor Ferrari's desk and safe on the other. Ting Xia was nowhere in sight.
Guillermo brought his fists down like hammers on his own thighs. "Scheisse! Gottfluch es zur hoelle! Dumkopf! Idiot!"
He hurried across the dirty floor, yanked open the rear door, and rushed outside. The alley was narrow and dark. It smelled of spilt liquor, rotting vegetables, and cat piss.
No Ting Xia.
He strode a few yards to the left, peering into the darkness. He turned and strode past the Blue Parrot in the other direction, trying to draw a map in his mind of where this alley might lead and what streets might lie beyond it that could take him to the marketplace and that hidden door in the blue-tiled wall.
Then he heard a scream.
Guillermo took off running.
He ran blind, bumping into piled crates, splashing in puddles, scaring rats into skittering out of his path. Soon, the alley angled off into a courtyard. On the far side, he saw a shorter alley with lights and possibly a street beyond it. Had she escaped that way? Or was she in the shadows nearby, alone and defenseless, cowering before whatever had made her cry out? His heart pounded in his throat as he swung left, then right, desperate to know which direction to go.
She shrieked again. Someone retorted in a mocking voice. Guillermo froze. It was the same arrogant English voice he'd heard that morning.
Slowly, Guillermo turned. At first, he saw nothing. Then someone in an upper story apartment lit a lamp. In the faint light, he caught a glimpse of Ting Xia's white silk dress. The two bullies had backed her against a wall.
Two. And each was at least a foot taller and a decade younger than he was. Guillermo's stomach constricted like a knot. Two.