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Authors: Paul Sussman

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BOOK: The Labyrinth of Osiris
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They hadn’t mentioned who they were, but then they didn’t need to. Egyptians, like all subjects of authoritarian states, have an instinctive radar when it comes to those tasked with upholding the law. An instinctive radar, and also an instinctive dislike.

‘We keep ourselves to ourselves,’ added the man, squinting at them.

For form’s sake the two detectives showed their badges. There was an uncomfortable pause as the headman just stood there, eyes flicking from Khalifa to Sariya and back again. Then, hawking noisily and spitting in the dust, he led them into the house, shouting to someone to bring them tea.

It was cool inside, dark, sparsely furnished, the floors bare concrete overlaid with mats. The headman led them down a corridor, up a set of stairs and out on to the building’s roof, the late morning heat once again enveloping them. Most of the space was taken up with a carpet of drying dates, but there was an awning on the far side with a table and chairs beneath. He led them over to it. The village spread beneath them, surrounded by fields and olive and citrus groves, although Sariya suspected they were up here less for the view than because the headman didn’t want to entertain police inside his house. They sat and Khalifa lit a cigarette. He didn’t offer the pack to their host.

‘So?’ asked the man, not bothering with preliminaries.

‘I want to talk to you about the Attia family,’ said Khalifa, waving his cigarette in a roughly easterly direction, back towards the farm in the hills. ‘I believe you know them.’

The headman grunted. ‘
Meseehi-een
,’ he said. ‘Christians. Troublemakers.’

‘How so?’

The man shrugged, avoiding the question. ‘I hear their water’s gone bad,’ he said. ‘Allah always punishes the
kufr
.’

‘Mr Attia seems to think the punishing is being done by someone a little closer to home.’

‘Attia can think what the hell he wants. When a perfectly good water source suddenly goes rotten for no reason, that’s God’s work. How else do you explain it?’

Khalifa drew on his cigarette and hunched forward. ‘You don’t like Christians?’

‘God doesn’t like Christians. It says so in the Holy Koran.’

Khalifa half opened his mouth as if to take issue with this, but seemed to think better of it and instead took another drag.

‘What are your relations like with the Attias?’ he asked.

‘We don’t have relations with the Attias. They keep themselves to themselves. And so do we.’

‘They pipe their drinking water off your system.’

The headman made no response to this. Hardly surprising, given that the arrangement had most likely been made without the knowledge of the Luxor Water Company and was therefore illegal.

‘How much do they pay you for it?’ asked Khalifa.

‘Enough.’

‘More than enough, I expect.’

The headman bristled. ‘It was them who approached us. If they don’t like it they can go elsewhere. We’re doing them a favour.’

Khalifa said nothing, just fixed the man with a cold stare and took another pull on his Cleopatra. A young woman appeared at the top of the stairs with a tray of tea. She waited, head bowed, until the headman waved her over, whereupon she laid the tray on the table and hurried away. Although she was wearing a loose headscarf and kept her face down, the bruising around her left eye was unmistakable.

‘Your daughter?’ asked Sariya.

‘Wife,’ replied the headman. ‘Any other questions? Want to know when I last took a shit?’

The detectives exchanged a glance, Khalifa giving a barely perceptible shake of the head to indicate that Sariya should not rise to the insult. Somewhere below them a camel started honking.

‘Apparently Mr Attia’s cousin had problems with his water as well,’ continued Khalifa. ‘A couple of months back.’

‘So I heard.’

‘You have any problems with your water?’

‘Not for the last forty years.’

‘Before that?’

‘Before that there was no village here.’

Khalifa nodded and stood. Taking his tea from the tray, he walked to the edge of the roof and looked out over the fields. Fifty metres away water was gushing from a pipe into a large concrete cistern from which it ran off into a network of irrigation channels. As well as maize, olives, oranges and
bersiim
, there were fields of
molocchia
, mulberries, melons, tobacco and what looked like guava – an island of green in the midst of a vast yellow ocean.

‘You’ve done well here,’ he said.

‘We like to think so.’

‘Plenty of water.’

The headman mumbled something inaudible.

‘Mr Attia tells me it comes out of the mountains.’

‘So the experts say. We just use it. We’re farmers, not . . .’ He frowned, searching for the right word.

‘Geologists,’ offered Sariya.

‘Whatever,’ said the headman. ‘It’s good water, there’s a constant supply. You have to go down deep for it, but it’s there. That’s all we care about.’

‘And you’ve not had any problems?’ asked Khalifa.

‘None. I just told you that.’

Khalifa looked out a moment longer, sipping his tea, then turned. ‘So why do you think Mr Attia’s water’s gone bad?’

‘I just told you that as well. Allah always punishes the un believers. It’s His will.’

‘And do you think anyone in the village may have taken it upon themselves to help God’s will along a bit?’

The headman snorted and dropped his head back, launching a thick wad of spittle off the roof and down into the street below, his lips pulling back to reveal uneven rows of brown teeth, like lines of snapped twigs.

‘Why don’t you stop pissing around and just come out with it?’ he said, eyes swivelling towards Khalifa. ‘You’re accusing us of poisoning their well.’

‘Did you?’

‘No we didn’t. If we wanted them out, why the hell would we supply them with drinking water?’

It was the same point Khalifa had raised back at the farm.

‘Maybe you’re looking to up the supply,’ he suggested, dragging off the last of his cigarette and flicking the butt in the same direction the spittle had just gone. ‘Squeeze even more money out of them.’

The headman gave a dismissive grunt.

‘Or maybe someone did it without you knowing?’

‘I’m the headman. Nobody farts in this village without me knowing about it. Whatever’s happened to those people, it’s nothing to do with us. They’ve got their lives, we’ve got ours. It’s not our problem. Anything else?’

There wasn’t really. Khalifa threw out a few more questions, more, it seemed to Sariya, to show the headman they meant business than because he thought he was going to get anything useful out of him. Apparently Mr Attia’s cousin had had a dispute with one of the villagers a couple of years back over the ownership of some pigeons, but the matter had been resolved to the satisfaction of both parties. And the village imam originally hailed from Farshut, like the Attias, although as far as the headman knew they had never crossed paths. That was about the sum of it. With the conversation going nowhere, the detectives drained their tea and ended the meeting.

‘I’m going to be keeping a close eye on all this,’ said Khalifa once they were back out on the street, turning to the headman and pinning him with a hard stare. ‘A very close eye. If the Attias have any more problems, anything at all, I’ll be back.’

‘Bully for you,’ said the headman.

They climbed into the car and Sariya started the engine.

‘And for what it’s worth,’ said Khalifa, winding down the window, ‘the Holy Koran specifically teaches respect for the
ahl el-kitab
, Jews and Christians.’

The headman shrugged and spat. ‘If we need a new imam I’ll be sure to contact you,’ he said.

Khalifa eyed him, then nodded at his sergeant and they drove away.

‘You think he’s telling the truth?’ asked Sariya once they were clear of the village and bumping along the track back to Luxor.

Khalifa shrugged. ‘God knows. For those sort of people, lying’s such a way of life, half the time even
they
don’t know when they’re telling the truth.’

He pulled out his cigarettes, then reconsidered, returned them to his pocket and instead took a mint from the pack on the dashboard.

‘He’s a wily old bugger, that’s for sure. Certainly wasn’t giving anything away. Whether there’s anything
to
give away . . .’ He folded his arms and sat back, sucking meditatively, staring out at the desolate landscape. ‘Someone’s got it in for those people,’ he muttered, talking more to himself than his deputy. ‘Someone wants them out of there.’

Beside him Sariya couldn’t help smiling. A penniless peasant family with water problems out in the middle of butt-fuck nowhere, an area so remote it wasn’t even clear which force had jurisdiction over it – every other detective in Luxor would have relegated the thing straight to the bottom of their in-pile, if not direct to the wastepaper bin. Only Khalifa would have taken it so seriously. Given it all the thought and attention he would a major case. Best cop in Luxor. In the whole of Egypt. And no one was going to tell Mohammed Sariya any different.

‘You know what I feel like,’ he said, dabbing the brakes as they approached a deep rut in the road, ‘a big glass of iced
karkady
.’

Khalifa looked across at him, and then away. ‘Ali’s favourite drink,’ he said.

Sariya wasn’t sure how to respond to that and so just focused on the driving, taking them over the rut and picking up speed again, heading west, the rocky wilderness pressing in all around.

J
ERUSALEM

First Sergeant Leah Shalev’s office was a cramped, windowless room on the ground floor of the David Police Station, one of half a dozen similarly cramped, windowless rooms on a corridor running off the station entrance tunnel. At 11.20 there were six of them in there for the initial case briefing, including Shalev herself, who was seated behind her desk and, as the investigator on the case, led the meeting.

The Investigator model was, so far as Ben-Roi was aware, unique to the Israel Police. In other forces, detectives were responsible not only for the actual investigating, but much of the time-consuming bureaucratic bullshit that went with it: budgets, form-filling, report-writing, departmental liaison. In Israel the two roles had been separated. While the detectives got on with the sharp-end job of asking the questions, doing the interviews, running the informers, the investigator’s task was to oversee and coordinate the whole thing. It was the investigator who was first on the scene of any crime, who managed the
Tik Chakira
– the Case File – who apportioned jobs, shouldered the paperwork, kept the Attorney General’s office up to speed. All the distracting crap, basically. It was an important, if unglamorous role, and was recognized as such – hierarchy-wise, investigators outranked detectives. Some of Ben-Roi’s more
loh boger
– immature – colleagues, the detectives with an overdeveloped sense of their own importance, thought it was
they
who should pull rank, but Ben-Roi wasn’t bothered. Personally, he was just happy to be able to get on with his job unhindered by all the tedious administrative bollocks. As he liked to think of it, the investigator ran the case, but it was the detective who actually solved it.

‘OK, guys,’ said Shalev, slapping a hand on the table to get everyone’s attention, ‘let’s get going.’

She used ‘guys’ literally – Leah Shalev was the only woman in the room. As well as Ben-Roi there were Uri Pincas, Amos Namir – a grey-haired Sephardi who had the distinction of being not only the longest-serving detective on the squad but also the grouchiest – and Sergeant Moshe Peres, who would be coordinating whatever uniformed support was needed.

All of these people knew each other, had worked together many times. The odd one out was a slim, boyish figure with circular glasses and a knitted blue
yarmulke
on his head, sitting slightly apart from everyone else in the corner of the room. The youngest person there by a good ten years, his name was Dov Zisky, something Ben-Roi had only discovered five minutes previously when Leah had introduced him to the group. He’d transferred over from Lod, apparently, where he’d only recently qualified as a detective, although he barely looked old enough to be out of school. Barely looked old enough even to be shaving.

‘I’m assuming everyone’s up to speed on the basics,’ Shalev was saying. ‘Unidentified female, garrotted, Armenian Cathedral.’

Nods all round. Zisky had taken a fancy-looking moleskin notebook from his pocket and was scribbling in it.

‘Forensics have already sent the first samples over to Mount Scopus, so hopefully we’ll have something by close of play today. Likewise the autopsy – I’ve told Abu Kabir to fast-track it.’

‘Avram Schmelling couldn’t fast-track his own piss,’ muttered Namir.

Shalev ignored the comment.

‘We need an ID on the victim. That’s a priority. We also need to be thinking about what’s driving this guy. The victim’s wallet and personal effects seem to be missing, so was this first and foremost a robbery? Did he have some personal grudge against her? Did she just happen to be the one who got his blood up: wrong place, wrong time?’

‘Religious angle?’ asked Ben-Roi. ‘She was in the middle of a cathedral, after all.’

‘Possible,’ replied Shalev, ‘definitely possible. At this stage everything’s in the frame. Whoever our man is—’

‘Or woman.’

The voice was Zisky’s. Soft, cultured, effeminate. The voice, thought Ben-Roi, of a screaming gayboy. Judging by the looks the guy was drawing, it was an assessment shared by his colleagues.

‘The killer might be a woman,’ Zisky added, glancing up from his notebook. ‘We don’t know it’s a man. Not yet.’

Pincas and Peres were smirking. Amos Namir looked like he was about to blow a gasket.

‘What the hell are you talking about? From what I heard the victim weighed over a hundred kilos. How the fuck’s a woman—’

‘It’s a fair point,’ said Shalev, motioning Namir to be quiet. ‘At this stage we need to keep all our options open. So: whoever our man
or
woman is, there’s a strong possibility they’ll try it again. We need to move fast on this, gentlemen. Not easy, I know, with half the team working the student murder, but we’ll have to make do.’

BOOK: The Labyrinth of Osiris
3.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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