- Published: 29 March 2022
- ISBN: 9781787635098
- Imprint: Bantam Press
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 416
- RRP: $32.99
This is the Night They Come For You
It is the middle of a hot and clammy afternoon at Police Headquarters in Algiers. Superintendent Mouloud Taleb, with no pressing business requiring his attention, is content to wait until the clock reaches a respectable hour before taking his leave. At this late stage in his career conspicuous dedication to duty will gain him nothing but the suspicion of his colleagues, so he generally tries to act even more disengaged than he feels. But, even so, 3.45 is too early by anyone’s standards to be making a departure. He is going to have to sweat it out a little longer – literally so, since his office receives no cooling sea breezes and commands only an unappetizing view of the blank concrete wall of the next building.
Since coronavirus made its impact on the country in March, HQ has been more thinly staffed and there has been markedly less crime to investigate for those officers still putting in an appearance. The Hirak protests have been stutteringly revived, but they lie well outside Taleb’s area of responsibility. Though he could not afford to say so at the time, he heartily approved of the organizers’ demands for a root and branch reform of the government and silently rejoiced when President Bouteflika gave way to pressure and resigned. Alas, many of Bouteflika’s apparatchiks remain in place and Taleb is surprised they have not yet concluded that the time really has come for him to retire. It’s hardly their fault he has very little to retire to, although that is in a sense an arguable point. Like so many of his fellow citizens, Taleb is as much a victim of history as a survivor of it.
Much the same could be said of his relationship with Nassim cigarettes, one of which he lights to relieve his boredom. He rises and moves idly to the window, where he gazes down into the street and discovers that very little appears to be happening in the outside world.
Glancing at a ghostly reflection of himself in the dust-filmed glass, he sees a lean, heavy-browed man with thinning curly grey hair, dressed in a crumpled brown suit and a faded yellow shirt, open at the neck. He should be wearing his tie, in case anyone calls in to see him. But no one is going to call in to see him. Friends made in earlier days in the service are all either dead or long retired. He’s a forgotten man.
But not by all, apparently, since at that moment his telephone starts to ring. With an eagerness he feels ashamed of, Taleb springs to the desk and picks up the receiver.
‘Taleb?’ The voice sounds unaccountably but unmistakably like that of his boss, Director Bouras, who should surely at this hour be in the arms of the mistress he’s reliably rumoured to keep in an apartment in the Oliviers district. But then maybe he is in her arms. Taleb amuses himself for a fraction of a second by wondering if he will hear some purring endearment in the background.
‘Are you busy?’
‘Not if you need me.’
‘Amazingly, Taleb, it seems I do.’
‘Are you in your office, Director?’
‘Where else do you think I’d be?’
‘Well, since you rang in person . . .’
‘My secretary is not in today.’
‘Of course. Well then . . .’
‘You’ll be here just as quickly as your emphysemic lungs will allow, yes?’
‘Yes, Director. Exactly.’
Pausing only long enough to take a last drag on his cigarette before stubbing it out, Taleb yanks open the drawer of his desk where he left his tie and makes a grab for it. He didn’t untie it before removing it earlier, just loosened the loop, and now it contrives to lasso the trigger of his service pistol as it leaves the drawer, hoisting the weapon out and sending it crashing to the floor, where, to Taleb’s relief and faint surprise, it doesn’t go off. With a shake of the head at his own clumsiness, he carefully retrieves the gun, puts it back in the drawer and locks it safely away.
A few moments later, tie in place, he climbs the stairs to the upper floor of Police Headquarters, where the Director’s lair is to be found. He wonders if the crack about emphysema is a prelude to an unrefusable offer of retirement. As far as he knows, he doesn’t have emphysema, just a morning coughing routine and breathlessness on steep flights of stairs. He has no intention of asking a doctor for an opinion on the subject. Could that be it, then? A compulsory medical examination? No. That would be handled by Personnel. The Director would play no part in it, other than saying a few platitudinous words about distinguished long service at a brief farewell ceremony. A summons of this nature suggests a different kind of problem altogether. And since there’s no significant ongoing case in which Taleb is involved, he’s perplexed as to what the problem might be.
But temporary perplexity is at least rewarded by immersion in the air-conditioned cocoon of the Director’s spacious office, with its wide view of city and sky. The less appetizing features of
Algiers – the dilapidated apartment blocks, the rusting satellite dishes sprouting from roofs like mushrooms, the traffic-snarled streets, the haze of pollution – are happily absent from this vista of dockside cranes and stately tankers gliding across the placid broad blue Mediterranean. Status has brought with it for Farid Bouras a sanitized panorama of Alger la blanche.
He is a smooth-skinned, good-looking man running to corpulence and baldness. He didn’t get to occupy such a post without lengthy lunches with influential figures in the hierarchy and it’s beginning to show. Many moral corners have had to be cut on his path to the top and the awareness of this hovers between the two men like an unspoken reproach. If Taleb were as corrupt as Bouras, it would make their relationship a great deal easier, especially since, ironically, they actually like each other.
‘Sit down, Taleb,’ says Bouras, with a lordly sweep of the hand.
Seating for visitors to Bouras’s office comes in the form of a buttoned-leather sofa said to have been imported from Italy. It looks expensive but is notoriously uncomfortable. The general belief is that the Director enjoys watching his underlings try to remain upright on its slippery upholstery. Taleb assumes an unabashed slump between two cushions that he knows from experience to be a secure perch.
It affords a good view of a white rectangle on the wall behind Bouras’s desk, marking the spot where for twenty years hung a framed photograph of President Bouteflika. Following Bouteflika’s forced resignation last year, it has not been replaced, despite the election of a successor. Its absence suggests a certain lack of confidence in the new regime, which Taleb shares.
‘How old were you at independence, Taleb?’ Bouras asks, as if genuinely interested in the answer.
‘Do you remember the day?’
‘I remember my father smiling. It was not a common sight.’
‘Did he smile more often after independence?’
‘Less, if anything.’
‘So, there we have it. The history of the republic encapsulated in the history of your father’s smile.’ Bouras broods on this thought for a moment, then says, ‘Do you believe in the existence of hizb fransa, Taleb?’
‘No, Director, I don’t.’ Unlike many of his countrymen, Taleb gives no credence to the conspiracy theory that the French left a fifth column of saboteurs behind them when they left in 1962 – hizb fransa, the ‘party of France’ – dedicated to undermining the new republic in any way they could. He believes that if de Gaulle had been able to pull that off, the old fox would surely have found a way to prevent independence altogether.
‘But if it did exist,’ Bouras muses, ‘it would account for the damage done to the state by such people as Nadir Laloul and Wassim Zarbi, wouldn’t it?’
‘Have you asked to see me to discuss Laloul and Zarbi, Director? If so, let me be clear. They and their kind have always been motivated by personal greed, not the service of some higher cause.’
‘Didn’t they start out as zealots rather than criminals?’
‘Perhaps. But it didn’t take them long to make the transition.’
‘And in Zarbi’s case he paid for that with twenty years in prison.’
‘Yes. He paid the price. But Laloul did not.’
‘Which still rankles with you, I see.’
‘I would be happy to bring him to justice before I retire.’
‘Well, then . . .’ Bouras beams at him. ‘I have good news for you, Taleb. You may be able to do just that.’
Taleb feels a stirring of professional pride deep within him. It is disquieting, but also reassuring, as he imagines it would be to rediscover his libido in the wildly improbable event of some sultry temptress attempting to seduce him. Laloul, embezzler of billions from the national oil company, Sonatrach, left his old confederate Zarbi to face the music when he fled the country shortly after Bouteflika’s takeover in 1999, with his stolen fortune already squirrelled away in secret offshore bank accounts. Taleb was part of the team put on the case. Beyond Zarbi, who was handed to them on a plate, their investigations led nowhere but dead ends and walls of silence, as was entirely predictable – and was indeed predicted by most of the officers involved. That was simply the way it was. That was Algeria.
‘We have a lead on Laloul, Director?’ Taleb asks hopefully.
‘Not exactly. We haven’t found Laloul. But we have lost Zarbi.’
‘A condition of his release late last year was that he couldn’t spend a night away from his villa without official permission. But earlier this month…he went missing.’
‘I heard nothing of this.’
‘The DRS kept it to themselves.’ Ah, the DRS: Algeria’s secret intelligence and security organization, viewed by all – including Taleb – with a mixture of fear and suspicion, capable of anything, accountable for nothing. He is unsurprised by their reticence. Zarbi worked for the DRS – and its previous incarnation, the Sécurité Militaire – for more than thirty years. His complicity in Laloul’s fraud was an embarrassment to the organization and Toufik, its notoriously ruthless director, didn’t hesitate to throw him to the wolves. The episode’s still an embarrassment twenty years later and a serious surveillance failure isn’t something the DRS’s current leadership will have wished to advertise.
But Bouras has overlooked a nicety that might cause him embarrassment in some circles and Taleb decides gently to point it out. ‘That would be the DSS, Director?’ Not long after Toufik’s removal from its helm, the intelligence service rebranded itself with a subtle change of initials and some opaque reorganization that supposedly rendered it more accountable – though to whom was not entirely clear.
‘Yes, of course.’ Bouras appears annoyed with himself. ‘How could I have forgotten? The DSS.’
‘Do they know where he’s gone?’
‘No. At least, they claim they don’t. But out of the country. That much seems certain. A seagoing launch believed to have been leased on Zarbi’s behalf has vanished from its berth at Sidi Ferdj.’
‘Does he have his passport?’
‘Not his real one, no. But with his background I don’t think he’ll have had too much trouble acquiring one, do you?’
‘All the more reason for the DSS to have kept a close eye on him,’ Taleb grumbles.
‘I would have gained little by emphasizing that point. What I have gained is an agreement for this department to be involved in the search for him. The DSS’s incompetence left them poorly placed to argue. And our new president is not as enamoured of them as his predecessor, hence this opportunity. The search for Zarbi may lead us to Laloul, Taleb. If I’d been abandoned to a twenty-year jail term by a supposed friend – who’s led a life of luxury ever since – I think I might want to…pay a call on him.’
‘That could be so,’ Taleb agrees.
‘Yes. And perhaps you can do better than the DSS in following whatever clues there are to follow. As the only senior officer involved in the original inquiry who’s still on the active list, you’re the obvious choice. You’re also an assiduous detective. No one has ever doubted that.’ Bouras’s tone suggests this is a quality to be set against several other deficiencies which mercifully he’s not about to list. ‘I’ve arranged for you to meet a DSS agent at Zarbi’s villa in Hydra at eight tomorrow morning. You’ll be working together on this. Her name is Souad Hidouchi.’
‘Yes, Taleb. She is a woman. You remember them?’ Bouras’s expression suddenly freezes. He raises his hands apologetically and runs one of them over his forehead. ‘I am sorry. Forgive me. I intended no disrespect to you or the memory of your late wife.’
Taleb composes a rueful smile. ‘It’s all right, Director. It’s been a long time.’
Bouras sighs. ‘Still…’
‘I didn’t know the DSS had started using female agents.’
‘Oh yes. There are new brooms everywhere, sweeping out the old ways. We must adapt or be cast aside. Learning to work collaboratively with another department will be good for you, Taleb.’
‘But will their objectives be the same as ours, Director?’
‘That will be for you to find out. It is our objective – apprehending Laloul – that I expect you to pursue, whatever the DSS’s priorities may be.’
‘You will report progress to me and me alone. This is a highly sensitive matter.’ Bouras lowers his voice and leans forward across his desk. ‘Le pouvoir has not ceased to exist simply because the younger generation insists it should.’
Ah, le pouvoir. Unlike hizb fransa, there’s good reason to believe, as most Algerians do, that some power over and above the republic’s constitution – some authority that is almost inhuman, despite humans being its ready and willing accomplices – has always had and always will have the final word in the nation’s disputes. And that authority is known to all simply as...le pouvoir: as tireless as it is merciless, always ready to crush any organization – any citizen – who dares to dream of a free and uncorrupt Algeria; the ultimate arbiter of all their fates, that will not be defied and cannot be defeated.
Taleb nods. ‘Superintendent Meslem always said our difficulties in the case were caused by the actions of those far above Laloul and Zarbi in the hierarchy who were protecting themselves.’ Meslem was the lead officer in the inquiry, long since retired and deceased. But Taleb knows Bouras will remember him, as he does, as one well familiar with the machinations of le pouvoir.
‘Just do your best, Taleb,’ Bouras says with quiet emphasis. ‘Don’t take any unnecessary risks. And don’t do anything you know I wouldn’t approve of. Is that clear?’
Bouras takes a mobile phone out of one of the desk drawers and slides it towards Taleb. ‘Keep me apprised of progress by standard means. But use this for emergency communications. It has a number on it where I can be contacted. But in an extreme emergency only. It would be best for both of us if you never needed to use it at all.’
‘Then I hope I never will.’
‘So do I, Taleb, I assure you.’
A brief silence falls, broken by a faint squeak emitted by the sofa as Taleb stands to pick up the phone.
‘You’ll want to look through the files on the case, no doubt.’
‘Such files as there are, Director, yes.’ As he recalls, the Ministry of the Interior requisitioned the files, but Meslem, as he also recalls, contrived to hold some material back.
Bouras flaps his hand in a gesture of dismissal in which there’s also a hint of a blessing. ‘Then I won’t detain you any longer.’
On the way back down to his office, Taleb pauses on a half-landing to light a cigarette and gaze out through the grimy window at the no less grimy city, some seedy tracts of which are visible from this vantage point. He knows these crumbling steps and winding streets and malodorous back alleys from long and often bitter experience. They are the map of his career and his life. He also knows their inhabitants, possibly better than they know themselves: hard-pressed, dry-humoured, trapped together in a struggle to thrive, or, if not to thrive, at least to survive. Such is the city of his birth and such are its people.
Taleb feels an unfamiliar lightness of heart as he stands there. He should have found some excuse to refuse the Director’s assignment. No good can come of seeking the truth about how Laloul was able to embezzle so much money over such a long period without being detected. Too many people had and still have too much to lose for such a quest ever to be allowed to succeed. And yet…and yet. He is actually keener to take on the challenge than he would ever have imagined. What is he looking for? Kudos? Redemption? Excitement? The truth – the real truth – against all the odds? He’s not sure. But something more than his existence has supplied him with for far too long. Yes, that’s what he’s looking for. A purpose, a meaning. A last shot at…
‘Still with us, Taleb?’ comes a voice from behind him.
It’s Megherbi from the vice division, obsequious to his superiors, contemptuous of those he considers beneath him.
‘It seems they still have a use for me,’ Taleb responds as Megherbi starts down the next flight of stairs.
‘Hard to believe.’
‘But true nonetheless,’ Taleb murmurs under his breath.
And as he watches Megherbi go, he takes a long draw on his cigarette…and smiles.
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