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Authors: Paul Sussman

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BOOK: The Labyrinth of Osiris
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‘Reminds me of the Tel-Aviv
sherut
,’ said Baum.

They all looked at him, waiting for the punchline.

‘None come along for ages, and then you get two at the same time.’

The joke, such as it was, referred to the fact that after almost three years without a homicide within the walls of the Old City, suddenly, in the space of a fortnight, the Kishle team found themselves dealing with two. Ten days ago a
yeshiva
student had got himself stabbed in the gut down at the bottom end of Al-Wad in the Muslim Quarter. And now this.

‘We’re already overstretched,’ said Baum. ‘We might have to call in some guys from Russian Yard.’

‘We can handle it,’ growled the chief, looking at Shalev, who nodded. There was no love lost between the city’s stations, especially Kishle and Russian Yard. It was bad enough they had to share the yard’s photographer. Chief Gal wasn’t about to start turning over his turf to their investigating team as well.

‘I need to be getting back,’ he said, glancing at his watch. ‘Meeting at Safra Square. Lucky me.’

He zipped his jacket up to the neck. As well as his Commander’s Insignia, there was a menorah-shaped gold pin on its left breast: the Presidential Award for Outstanding Service.

‘I need a result on this, Leah,’ he said. ‘And quick. The press are going to be all over it. OK?’

‘OK,’ said Shalev.

He eyed her and Ben-Roi from beneath bushy brows. Then, with a last look towards the altar table, he stepped down into the cathedral, waving at Baum to follow.

‘Keep me informed,’ he called over his shoulder.

‘Me too,’ shouted Baum.

Ben-Roi and Shalev glanced at each other.


Maniak
,’ they both said in unison.

For a couple of minutes they stood watching as the CITs methodically went about their business, then Ben-Roi asked if he could take a closer look at the body.

‘Dressing-up box is over there,’ said Shalev, pointing to an open case sitting on the floor at the far end of the room, beside the stack of chairs. Ben-Roi went over and pulled on shoe covers, body suit and gloves, then walked the length of the room and dropped to his knees beside the altar table.

‘Knock knock.’

Schmelling gave a thumbs-up to indicate Ben-Roi could approach. You needed to be careful with Schmelling. He was notoriously protective of his crime scenes.

There was only about 70cm of head space beneath the table and Ben-Roi was a big man, long-limbed and broad-shouldered, unlike Schmelling, whose size was all in the waist and buttocks. Even crawling, it was a squeeze, his back scraping against the underside of the table.

‘They should have got a smaller detective,’ said Schmelling.

‘They should have got a bloody midget,’ retorted Ben-Roi, puffing. He reached the body, which was right up against the wall, and went down on his elbows, backside in the air. Schmelling shuffled round slightly to give him more room. There was a flash from Kletzmann’s camera.

The victim was wearing a green canvas raincoat, jumper, slacks and sensible shoes, and up close looked even larger than she had done from the doorway. Huge breasts, bulging belly, heavy thighs – she must have weighed upwards of 100 kilos. Her eyes were partially open, the sclerae tinged a dull brown colour. A balled-up handkerchief, stiff with dried blood, protruded from her mouth; there was more blood caked across her chin, neck and the collar of her jumper. A yellowed indentation circled the lower part of the neck.

‘Garrotted,’ said Schmelling. ‘With a wire, judging by the cleanness of the depression. We need to get her down to Abu Kabir for a proper examination, but it looks like whoever did this knew their business. See –’ he indicated the ligature mark. ‘We’ve got some parchmented abrasion and very minor linear abrasion, but there are no obvious congestive features and only limited petachial haemorrhaging.’ He pointed to a faint scatter of reddish dots just beneath the eyes. ‘All of which tells me the garrotte stayed in pretty much the same place throughout the killing, and with constant, heavy pressure. Given the size of the victim, and the fact that she was clearly struggling’ – he touched his finger to a series of scratch marks around the neck, presumably where the woman had clawed at the garrotte – ‘that takes a lot of strength and a lot of skill.’

He almost sounded impressed.

‘Fuck me,’ muttered Ben-Roi.

‘Not her though.’

‘Sorry?’

‘Her clothes are all intact and there are no obvious signs of interference below decks.’ He nodded towards the victim’s groin area. ‘Whatever else his motive was, I’d lay pretty good odds it wasn’t sex. Or at least not the way you and I do it.’

Ben-Roi winced. The thought of Schmelling on the job was almost as distressing as the corpse itself.

‘The handkerchief?’ he asked.

‘Again, I can’t say anything definite till we get her in for autopsy, but there’s some non-specific bruising around the underside of the chin which makes me think the killer probably hit her there and she bit her tongue. It definitely happened before the garrotting.’

Ben-Roi raised his eyebrows questioningly.

‘There’s too much blood for it to have happened after,’ explained Schmelling. ‘She still had pressure in the system.’

He made her sound like some sort of steam train.

‘The sniffer dogs picked up blood traces between the cathedral and here,’ he continued. ‘So at this stage I’d hazard the chain of events was: he hit her, garrotted her, stuffed a handkerchief in her mouth, dragged her in here and hid her.’

‘If you can just tell us who he is, we can sign the case off and all get home early.’

Schmelling chuckled. ‘I just describe the crime, Detective. It’s up to you to solve it.’

Kletzmann’s camera flashed again. Ben-Roi brought up an arm and wiped it across his brow. It was hot under here with the halogen lamp and he was starting to sweat.

‘Mind if I give her a quick pat down?’

‘Be my guest.’

He shuffled a few inches forward and went through the victim’s pockets. There were a couple of pens and a pack of paper tissues in the raincoat, but no wallet, keys, ID card, cell phone – none of the things you’d expect to find. The slacks proved slightly more useful, one of the pockets yielding a crumpled rectangle of paper that on closer examination turned out to be a library request slip. ‘General Reading Room,’ murmured Ben-Roi, repeating the words printed in red ink across the centre of the slip. He held it out to Schmelling.

‘Say anything to you?’

The pathologist glanced at the slip and shook his head. Ben-Roi turned it over, then reached across, picked up one of Schmelling’s plastic sample bags and dropped the form into it. He wiped his forehead again, took another look at the body, then crawled over to the sausage-shaped, brown leather holdall sitting just beyond the victim’s feet.

‘Is the bag hers?’ he called to no one in particular.

‘We’re assuming so,’ came Shalev’s voice.

Ben-Roi asked if Kletzmann and the CITs had done their stuff on it and when they answered in the affirmative he grasped the handles and crawled out from beneath the table, pulling the bag with him. He stood, stretched the cramp out of his legs, laid the bag on top of the table and unzipped it. It was full of clothes, clean clothes, all jumbled up as if it had either been packed in a hurry or else someone had already gone through it. Ben-Roi guessed the latter. He rummaged around and pulled out a large white bra. Very large.

‘Definitely her bag,’ he called, holding it up.

‘God Almighty, you could fit a pair of elephant’s bollocks in that,’ chuckled Kletzmann, taking a shot.

‘Please, gentlemen, show a little respect. If not for the dead, then at least for a house of worship.’

A short, plump man was standing in the doorway, his beard white and neatly trimmed. He wore a black cassock, slippers, a circular velvet hat and, around his neck, a flat silver cross, its arms decorated with intricate floral patterning and opening into distinctive double tips. Ben-Roi vaguely recognized him from his one previous visit to the compound two years earlier. His Eminence something-or-other.

‘Archbishop Armen Petrossian,’ said the man as if reading his thoughts, his voice slow and husky, barely audible. ‘A terrible business. Terrible.’

He walked across the room, his gait surprisingly sprightly for someone who must have been well into his sixties, if not older. When he reached the altar he bent and looked underneath, then straightened again and laid his hands on the table, head bowed.

‘That such things should happen in a house of God,’ he murmured. ‘Such sacrilege. It is beyond understanding, beyond . . .’

He broke off, bringing a hand up to his forehead. There was a silence, then he turned towards Ben-Roi. His stare was unusually intense.

‘We have met, I think.’

Ben-Roi was still holding the bra in his hand.

‘Two years ago,’ he said, stuffing the undergarment back in the bag. ‘The seminary students.’

‘Ah yes, of course.’ The archbishop nodded. ‘Not the Israel Police’s finest hour. I hope in this case you will be able to show a little more –’ he paused, choosing his words – ‘balance.’

He made his way back across the room.

‘Find whoever did this,’ he said when he reached the door. ‘I beg you, find them, and find them quickly. Before they bring any more misery into the world.’

He met Ben-Roi’s eyes again, then turned and stepped down into the cathedral.

‘Do you know who she is?’ Ben-Roi called after him.

The archbishop was already walking away.

‘I have no idea,’ came his voice. ‘But you can rest assured I will pray for her. Pray with all my heart.’

T
HE
E
ASTERN
D
ESERT
, E
GYPT

Inspector Yusuf Ezz el-Din Khalifa of the Luxor Police stared down at the dead water buffalo, its mouth choked with flies, its eyes dull and mucousy.
I know how you feel
, he thought.

‘Three months it took me to dig that waterhole,’ the buffalo’s owner was saying. ‘Three months with nothing but a shovel, a
touria
and my own sweat. Twenty metres through this shit –’ he kicked at the rocky ground – ‘and now it’s poisoned. Useless. God have mercy on me!’

He sank to his knees, fists clenched, arms raised to the sky. A pitiful gesture from a broken man. Again the thought crossed Khalifa’s mind:
I know how you feel
. And also:
We might have had a revolution, but for most of us life’s still a bitch.

He stood gazing at the muddy pool and the corpse slumped beside it, the only sounds the hum of flies and the farmer’s sobs. Then, pulling out his Cleopatras, he dropped to his haunches and proffered the pack. The man swiped a
djellaba
-sleeve across his nose and took one of the cigarettes.


Shukran
,’ he mumbled.


Afwan
,’ replied Khalifa, lighting the cigarette and firing up another for himself. He took a drag, then reached over and slipped the pack into the man’s pocket.

‘Keep them,’ he said.

‘You don’t have to . . .’

‘Please, keep them. You’re doing my lungs a favour.’

The man gave a weak smile. ‘
Shukran
,’ he said again.


Afwan
,’ repeated Khalifa.

They smoked in silence, the desert undulating all around them, barren and rock-strewn. It wasn’t even mid-morning and the heat was already fierce, the landscape seeming to throb and shimmer as though gasping for breath. It was hot in Luxor, but at least the Nile breeze brought some small measure of relief. Here there was none. Just sun and sand and stone. A vast, open-air furnace where even the camel thorns and acacia bushes struggled for life.

‘How long have you been out here?’ Khalifa asked.

‘Eighteen months,’ replied the man, sniffing. ‘My cousin was already here, a few kilometres –’ he waved a hand to the north. ‘He told us you could just about make a living. There’s water if you dig deep enough. It comes out of the mountains.’ He waved a hand again, east this time, further out into the desert, where a brownish blur of high
gebel
loomed on the horizon. As he did so, Khalifa noticed a small green cross tattooed on the upper side of his hand, just below the thumb joint, very faint. The man was a Copt.

‘There are flash floods,’ he was saying. ‘The water soaks down through the rocks, forms underground channels. Deep. Run for miles. Like pipes. If you can get to them you can grow some corn and
bersiim
, support a few cattle. There’s alabaster in the hills and I dig that as well, sell it to a guy from El-Shaghab. You can just about make a living. But now . . .’

He puffed on his cigarette and gave another sob. Khalifa reached out and squeezed his shoulder, then stood, shielding his eyes against the sun’s glare.

The farm, such as it was, sat near the mouth of a broad
wadi
. There was a ramshackle dwelling – mud-brick and palm thatch – the waterhole and, lower down, a cluster of fields irrigated by channels running off the waterhole: one growing maize, one
bersiim
, one
molocchia
. Khalifa’s deputy, Sergeant Mohammed Sariya, was standing down there, examining the withered crops. Beyond, a dusty track wound away through the hills towards the Nile Valley forty kilometres to the west, a tenuous umbilical cord linking the farm to civilization.

‘We’re from Farshut originally,’ said the man, pulling on his cigarette. ‘Had to get out because of the violence. They hate Christians up there. The police never did anything. They never do anything unless you’re rich. I wanted to give my family a better life, my kids. My cousin came here a few years ago, said it was OK, no one bothered him. So we came too. It’s not much, but at least it’s safe. And now they want to drive us away from here as well. God help us! What are we going to do? Please, God, help us!’

His sobs grew louder and he slumped forward, pressing his forehead into the dirt. Twenty metres away Khalifa could see the man’s wife and three children standing in the door of their hut, watching. Two boys and a girl. The same as Khalifa’s family. He stared at them, his mouth tightening fractionally as if he was trying to swallow something back. Then leaning down, he pulled the man upright and brushed the dust off his hair.

BOOK: The Labyrinth of Osiris
11.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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