Authors: Peter Morfoot
‘Why? Because we are faced with a very delicate situation here. Whatever we may think of our Muslim friends worshipping on the street – practically within sniffing distance of the Basilique’s censer, indeed – our investigation must not only be seen to be a thorough one, it must be conducted tactfully, sensitively, diplomatically. Any other approach and
streets may descend into chaos.
streets may become littered with burning cars as happened in Paris four years ago.’
As he listened, Darac saw the lean, red-headed figure of his other trusted lieutenant, Alejo ‘Bonbon’ Busquet, step out of the prayer room and exchange a few words with a uniform. It was difficult to tell what was on Bonbon’s mind; his foxy face was invariably creased into a grin. The uniform pointed at the Mercedes.
streets.’ Darac nodded. ‘Uh-huh.’
‘Our streets, yes!’
‘Okay – first, monsieur, I have no real idea of what’s happened here, and as Professor Bianchi is only just beginning her preliminary exam, I suspect neither do you. Second, should the dead man prove to have been murdered during ritual prayers by one of us “real, pure-blooded” Frenchmen, I fully realise I will need to tread carefully.’
As if throwing down the gauntlet, Frènes whipped the silk handkerchief from his forehead and finally turned to face him.
‘Tread carefully? If there are toes to be trodden on, Captain, you tread on them. If there are feathers to be ruffled, you ruffle them. You delight in so doing.’
Frènes raised his hands palms upwards.
‘There we have it.’
‘Bravo. It’s still bullshit.’
‘I’m sure that your musician friends, and yes, even some misguided individuals in the service, find your irreverent approach amusing, Captain. I do not. We cannot tolerate it on this of all occasions. Understood?’
‘“We”, Monsieur Frènes? Let me ask you something. How did your superior, the examining magistrate, react to your recommendation I be excluded?’
‘As you well know, Examining Magistrate Reboux is not my superior. Our roles run parallel…’
The vein in his temple throbbing with his growing exasperation, Darac got in close.
‘Listen, I don’t care if you and Reboux run parallel, opposite, upside down or up each other’s arses. How did he react to your suggestion?’
A moth flying too close to the flame, Frènes fluttered back into his own space.
‘Naturally, he agreed with me.’
‘Alright, he agreed with you. I’ll bet
Frènes’s eyes were as black and expressionless as buttons. But they slid tellingly downwards.
‘…And without Agnès’s agreement, you’d have to apply for a formal suspension to sideline me. A suspension on suspicion I
step over the line? It’s possible you’d pull it off, but it would be a long shot. Am I wrong?’
Before Frènes could reply, there was a rap on Darac’s window. He turned. The burning bush had appeared. A sign from above! Either that, or it was the sun catching Bonbon’s shock of red hair.
‘Am I wrong, monsieur?’ Frènes made no reply. ‘Thought so.’ Darac opened the door. ‘How’s it going, mate?’
‘Not so bad, chief. Yourself?’
Frènes had already heard enough – and not only because he sometimes struggled to understand the syncopated rhythms and altered vowel sounds of Bonbon’s Perpignan accent.
‘What do you want, Busquet?’
‘Oh yes, monsieur.’ For the
th time that morning, Bonbon dragged his police armband back up his beanpole of an arm. ‘I thought you ought to know something about the dead man before you make a complete… Before you get any further.’
‘Well – what about him?’
‘What about him?’ Drawing out the moment tried Frènes’s patience all the more. ‘Oh, just that he wasn’t a Muslim.’
‘But… he was bowing down to the east and all that nons— He was praying.’
‘I’ve just questioned the young guy who was worshipping next to him.’ Bonbon’s armband was already making the journey south. ‘His mind on higher things, he didn’t realise anything was amiss straight away. Eventually, though, he became aware that the man on his right didn’t know the score. He was just copying everyone else. And that was also the conclusion of a couple of onlookers. They’d spotted it from the start. The guy had no idea what to do, they say. He was faking it.’
‘Oh, thank God.’ Exhaling deeply, Frènes gave his forehead a prolonged dab. ‘But why would anyone do that?’
Darac got out of the car and leaned in.
‘That’s the first thing I aim to find out, monsieur. I take it you have no objection if I get on with things?’
‘Uh… under the circumstances, I suppose you may as well continue. As soon as you know the dead man’s religious status for certain, let me know, Captain. Understood? In the meantime, I shall issue a statement to the media about this discovery.’
‘That should pour water on any burning rags.’
‘Exactly.’ Frènes nodded, missing the gibe.
‘And you can stand the bully boys down now, monsieur. We won’t be needing them.’
‘If by “bully boys”, Captain, you mean the CRS…’
‘Don’t look so offended. You’ll be saving money.’
Darac turned to take his leave but Frènes had one further point.
‘Bear this in mind, Captain: if it transpires that the dead man indeed wasn’t a Muslim, you will
need to tread carefully.’ Frènes folded the handkerchief back into his breast pocket almost reverently; silk dampened in the line of duty. ‘Should one of them prove guilty of murder, ensure that you do everything – and I mean everything – by the book. If you don’t, I shall apply for that suspension anyway.’
There was no need to ask Frènes who he meant by ‘them’.
‘I’ll keep you informed, monsieur.’
As they strode away, Darac gave Bonbon a pat on the shoulder.
‘Timely rescue, man – thanks.’
‘Two minutes in Frènes’s company and I feel as if I can’t breathe.’
Bonbon hoisted his armband up the pole once more.
‘Agnès came through for you as well, I imagine.’
A black van brushed Darac’s elbow as it crept past, heading for the tent.
‘God, we’re going to miss that woman.’
Bonbon took a packet of wrapped sweets from his pocket.
‘Only like we’d miss our right arms. Mint pillow?’
‘No Kola Kubes today?’
‘The stall in Cours Saleya was out of them.’
Ahead, a couple of cheerful types hopped out of the van. As one opened the rear doors, the other slid a wheeled stretcher out on to the pavement and locked its legs with a practised flick of the wrists.
‘I hate to share even a thought with Frènes…’ Darac paused as the morgue boys crossed in front of them with the trolley. ‘…but why
a non-Muslim diving in amongst their prayers?’
Bonbon allowed the softening sweet to roll around his tongue.
‘A bet? Or just to see what it was like? Maybe an actor researching a part?’
‘What – and someone took offence and killed him?’
‘The only person who seems to have taken offence at anything was a passer-by. An old woman.’
‘As Vichy, by the sound of her. The imam was pretty forgiving about it, I must say.’
Over Bonbon’s shoulder, Darac spotted a smiling, dignified-looking figure appear in the doorway to the prayer room.
‘That’s him, isn’t it?’ he said, pulling at the hem of his polo shirt to lap a little air around his torso. ‘I recognise him from
‘Monsieur Abdel Asiz, yes. Nice man, warm, urbane – not what you might imagine an imam to be like. And co-operative. He asked all the congregation to stay behind to talk to us, for instance.’
‘And did they?’
‘As far as we know.’
‘He was inside the prayer room throughout the service?’
‘Yes, another man, one Hamid Toulé, was leading the outdoor congregation – and by leading I mean literally standing in front of them – but he didn’t see anything, either. It’s not surprising. They don’t look around like people do in church. Even when they’re not prostrating themselves.’
Outside the prayer room, a uniform approached Imam Asiz and suggested he go back inside. Pointing at his watch, he exchanged a few remarks before complying.
‘He’s concerned we might still all be here when the next prayer service is due to start.
, it’s called.’ Bonbon spelled it. ‘Short and sweet. The word – not the service.’
‘When is it?’
Bonbon’s elastic band of a mouth stretched into a wider grin.
‘All of three hours away.’
Darac let out an involuntary laugh.
‘Tell him we should’ve finished in the prayer room itself by then but the outdoor area will be cordoned off for a lot longer than three hours.’ Making a shade of his hand, Darac scanned the area. ‘We’ll have to find somewhere else for them.’
‘That might not go down too well with the local traders. Christ!’ Bonbon screwed up his face, suddenly – a meandering trickle of sweat had found its way into his eye. There was nothing for it. Reaching into his back pocket, he unfolded his police-issue cap and corkscrewed it on. Filaments of red frizzy hair escaped its elasticated rim; he looked as if he was wearing a head wreath made of copper wire.
Still scanning the area, Darac pointed to a spot between the apse end of the Basilique and the car park.
‘Maybe we could put the worshippers there for the time being. That shouldn’t irritate the non-Muslim locals. And if it does, that’s just too bad.’
‘I’ll tell the imam it’s sorted.’
‘So none of the Muslims saw anything. What about those CCTV cameras?’
‘They don’t cover the area directly outside the prayer room so there’ll be no shots of the incident itself. But we should get the comings and goings either side.’
‘Such as that old lady you’d started to tell me about?’ Darac’s gaze fell on the two lowest-ranked members of his team. Questioning witnesses on the far pavement, the youngsters seemed to be making heavy weather of it. ‘What do we know about her?’
‘Ah, yes – the old lady. She’s out shopping, comes on the congregation, and having to make a detour around them, passes the time by giving them a real tongue-lashing.’
‘I know it happens but this time, there’s a twist. As she turns at the end of the back row, she stabs our fake Muslim in the arm. Not that she realised he was a fake, presumably.’
Darac turned back to Bonbon.
‘Stabbed? Well then…’
‘Don’t get excited. She… did it with her shopping trolley.’
‘A Ben Hur-style drive-by?’ Darac nodded, scarcely able to keep back the laugh. ‘So we get a make on a shopping trolley and we nail a killer? Sweet.’
when the prayer meeting came to an end seconds later, the man
dead. And so far, everyone swears nobody else touched him – not the young man praying next to him, nor the one in front, nor any of the other passers-by, or any of the spectators. She was the only one.’
‘Someone must have touched him eventually. Or how did they realise he was a goner?’
‘No. No one did. He was so still and unresponsive, it was obvious, they say. Like a freeze frame in a movie.’
‘Uh-huh.’ Darac put his hands on his hips and stared at the floor. ‘Just to get this straight, Bonbon… The dead man was the last to join the congregation and he occupied the back right-hand corner position?’
‘Yeah – making it easier for him to slip in unnoticed.’
‘Anyone see him before the service began?’
‘No one in the congregation.’ Already uncomfortable in his cap, Bonbon took it off. ‘A couple of the onlookers did and there could be others.’
‘How did he seem to them? Solemn, neutral, agitated?’
‘Nervous, one of them thought.’
‘Uh-huh.’ Darac pursed his lips as he stared away for a moment. ‘This old woman. Do we know who she is?’
‘Not as yet. Sounds quite a character. Someone will know her.’
‘The one who was praying next to the dead man – he’s waiting in the prayer room along with the imam and the other Muslims you kept back for further questioning?’
‘Under the watchful eyes and ears of Seve Sevran, yes.’
‘Seve? Perfect choice. Have you needed his translation skills?’
‘Not so far – I’ve understood everyone perfectly. And before you ask, they’ve got my accent down, as well.’
‘They can follow that ping-pong Perpignan you call French?’
‘Every syllable. And it’s not ping-pong. It’s table tennis.’
Perpignan? Doesn’t really cut it.’ Once again, Darac lapped a little air around his torso. ‘Got a list of names?’
Bonbon took out his notebook and started riffling through pages.
‘Seve’s wife’s in hospital again, you know… It’s here somewhere.’
‘I heard. Doing a lot better, though, Granot tells me.’
‘Can’t be easy though, can it? For either of them. Here we go.’ He handed it over. Under ‘Imam Abdel Asiz’ were two lists of names. One was headed ‘Praying Close to the Dead Man’ and was accompanied by a diagram; the other was ‘Seen Dead Man Previously’. There were twelve names and addresses altogether. ‘As I said, no one saw anything earlier, but when they looked at the body afterwards, you’ll notice five of them remember seeing the man before.’
Darac took out his own notebook and jotted down the names.
‘When and where did they see him?’
‘Here on Rue Verbier. Just passing by. They couldn’t be specific about the times.’
‘Okay. The dead man’s next-mat neighbour…’ Darac checked the notes. ‘Young Monsieur… Slimane Bahtoum. He hadn’t seen the dead man before, I notice.’
Feeling the sun burning through the frizz to his scalp, Bonbon brought out the cap once more. Abandoning the head-wreath look, he opted simply to rest it on his head.
‘So what did you make of this Slimane Bahtoum? Despite the fact that no one saw him do anything, he’s in Position A, isn’t he?’
‘He’s twenty – a young twenty at that.