I look through his inboxes. He has three addresses: one for activity as an author, almost entirely devoted to his publicist, whom he bombards with slightly flirtatious and falsely jocular messages: “I wonder why I haven’t been invited to the radio program From the Bookshop, since I understand it’s about literature, and I happen to write books . . . I’m also asking myself if you’re wearing that red dress that makes you look so fetching.” One wonders whether perhaps he’d like to be able to control himself and slow it down, but he sends her ten emails a day. If the girl has gaps in her press events, he immediately jumps on them: he tells her what’s out there, in any form of media, relating to novels. His second address is personal, for close friends and family. I can’t find any mention here of his young daughter’s disappearance. He simply tells people regularly that he’s “feeling terrible” and blows off various parties, anniversaries, or dinners. The third is a secret one, devoted to his mistresses, and he keeps every message. You can reconstitute for the last two years the clumsy and rather brief sequence of his consecutive mistresses, in order of breaking it off. He’s a coward. When he dumps one of them—and he only does so when he’s sure of a new one, no gaps between adulteries—he just stops answering, and there are plenty of messages from the rejected women, not even opened but saved to their files. Rafik is tackling the Word documents, versions of his CV, sketches for blurbs on the back of his books, the first few lines of a text about “Women,” an official letter to the telephone company that hasn’t canceled his contract, and a few notes about Paris brothels of the last century. The fast succession of pages on the screen makes me feel sick, I want to take a break.
“The only interesting thing is he doesn’t mention his daughter at all.”
“That’s normal, he’s a man, men don’t like to moan.” He explains this to me as if I have never had the good fortune to observe at close quarters how life is lived by men, that little-known species of human beings who, we all know, go through life standing tall and dignified, strong and silent. Rafik is opening the hard disk of the stepmother, and I get the impression now that I’m being punished. She is passionately interested in new recipes for roast duck, or beef, or lemon tart. She posts on Mumsnets: pathetic little blogs about the books her daughters are reading. I’m already on automatic pilot when I move on to the emails. She sends a terrifying number of them. And she is soon talking about Valentine. “It’s terrible to see her empty room.” Yes, we didn’t expect her to announce right away that she’s contemplating turning it into a dressing room for herself. “I hug my own daughters, praying never to be in this ghastly situation of not knowing where they are.” After thirty seconds’ attention, I can already feel the sirens of total boredom calling me, but then if we go back a bit, just before the disappearance, it gets more interesting. “It’s begun again. And in the kitchen again. She pushed me against the sink, shouting the most awful things, I’d just advised her to be a bit more careful what she eats, she called me all the names under the sun. Now, I’m afraid when I hear her come into the house. She goes to her room without a word to me, but I know she’s there, and I’m afraid any minute she’s going to come out and hit me. I’m afraid at night before I go to sleep, I think: What if she got hold of a knife and came and cut my throat? François keeps telling me not to worry, she’ll get over it, but he’s never seen her when she gets in a rage. She’s unrecognizable, she’s a monster.”
Rafik is silent, tense, opens all the emails one by one, and I’m sitting upright, my eyes riveted on the screen. Several sensations go through me, happiness at finding something, but also a certain pleasure in imagining that bitch, in her beige body-warmer, who looked down on me in her living room this morning, squirming against the kitchen sink, terrorized by her stepdaughter. “This morning Valentine slapped my face before she went to school. I know you’ll say I should tell François and that I shouldn’t stay here in the house with her. I spent all day crying.”
Rafik asks me at the same time as he reads: “What was she like, the stepmother?”