The Hidden Assassins


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‘He’s got some work on his hands.’

‘He’s a good man,’ said Ferrera. ‘An unusual man. He’ll get to the bottom of it.’

‘We all know who it is, though, don’t we?’

‘Not yet.’

‘The Moroccans.’

‘It’s too early to say.’

‘You ask around. We’ve all thought about it. Ever since March 11th we’ve watched them going in there and we’ve been waiting.’

‘Into the mosque, you mean? The mosque in the basement.’

‘That’s right.’

‘They’re not all Moroccans who go to mosques, you know. Plenty of Spaniards have converted to Islam.’

‘I work in construction,’ he said, uninterested in her balanced approach. ‘I put together buildings like that. Much better buildings than that. I work with steel.’

‘In Seville?’

‘Yes, I build apartments for rich young professionals…that’s what I’m told anyway.’

Fernando’s head had been turned upside down and now he was trying to put the furniture straight. Except that, occasionally, he noticed the furniture’s emptiness and it tipped his mind back into the abyss of loss and grief. He tried to talk about building work but got lost in moments of imagination as he saw his wife and daughter falling through steel and concrete. He wanted to get out of himself, out of his body and head and into…where? Where could the mind go for respite? A helicopter battering the air overhead knocked his thoughts into another pattern.

‘Do you have children?’ he asked.

‘A boy and a girl,’ she said.

‘How old?’

‘The boy’s sixteen. The girl’s fourteen.’

‘Good kids,’ he said; not a question, more of a hope.

‘They’re both being difficult at the moment,’ she said. ‘Their father died about three years ago. It’s not been easy for them.’

‘I’m sorry,’ he said, but wanting her tragedy to bury his own for a while. ‘How did he die?’

‘He died of a rare type of cancer.’

‘That’s hard for your kids. Fathers are good for them at that age,’ he said. ‘They like to try things out on their mothers to give themselves the confidence to rebel against the world. That’s what Gloria told me, anyway. They need fathers to show them it’s not as easy as they think.’

‘You might be right.’

‘Gloria says I’m a good father.’

‘Your wife…’

‘Yes, my wife,’ he said.

‘Can you tell me about your own kids?’ she asked.

He couldn’t. There were no words for them. He measured them out with a hand up from the floor, he pointed out of the window at the destroyed apartment block, and finally he pulled the painting out from his shirt. That said it all—sticks and triangles, a tall rectangle with windows, a round green tree and behind it a massive orange sun in a blue sky.

A colossal crane arrived, preceded by a bulldozer, which cleared the land in between the destroyed block and the pre-school. Two tipper trucks manoeuvred around the back of the crane and a digger began to scoop rubble and dump it in the tippers. In the cleared land the crane settled its feet and a team of men in yellow hard hats began preparing the rig.

Around the front of the building, on Calle Los Romeros, a change of clothes had arrived from the Jefatura for Falcón. The rest of the homicide squad were busy working with the local police, identifying vehicles and their owners. Comisario Elvira had turned up in full uniform and was being given a tour of the site by the Fire Chief. As he moved around, his assistant called all the team leaders involved in the operation to a meeting in one of the classrooms in the pre-school. As the entourage headed for the pre-school a woman approached Elvira and gave him a list with twelve names on it.

‘And who are these people?’ asked Elvira.

‘They are the names of all the men in the mosque at the time of the explosion not including the Imam, Abdelkrim Benaboura,’ she said. ‘My name is Esperanza. I’m Spanish. My partner, who is also Spanish, was in the mosque. I represent the wives, mothers and girlfriends of these men. We are in hiding. The women, especially the Moroccan women, are scared that people may think that their husbands and sons were in some way responsible for what has happened. There’s a mobile number on the back of the list. We would ask you to call us when you have some news of their…of anything.’

She moved away, and the pressure of time and lack of personnel meant that Elvira let her go unfollowed. Calderón made his way through the crowd to Falcón.

‘I didn’t realize it was you, Javier,’ he said, shaking him by the hand. ‘How did you get into that state?’

‘I had to stop someone from throwing himself into the wreckage to rescue his wife and daughter.’

‘So, this is the big one,’ said Calderón, not bothering to engage with what Falcón had said. ‘It’s finally happened to us.’

They continued to the school, where the police, judges, fire brigade, bomb squad, rescue services, trauma units, medical services and demolition gangs were all represented. Elvira made it clear that nobody was allowed to say a word until he had delivered the plan of action. To focus their attention he asked the leader of the bomb squad to give a brief report on the initial analyses of fragments from the blast. They showed that the apartment block had been devastated by a bomb of extraordinary power, most probably situated in the basement of that section of the building, and whose explosive was probably of military, rather than commercial, quality. This expert opinion silenced the assembled company completely and Elvira was able to hammer out a coordinated plan in about forty minutes.

At the end of the meeting Ramírez headed Falcón off as he was making for the latrines to change his clothes.

‘We’ve got something,’ he said.

‘Talk me through it while I change.’

As soon as he was dressed, Falcón found Comisario Elvira and Juez Calderón, and asked Ramírez to repeat what he’d just told him.

‘In the immediate vicinity of the building, excluding vehicles buried in the rubble, we’ve found three stolen cars plus this van,’ said Ramírez. ‘It’s parked right outside the pre-school here. It’s a Peugeot Partner, registered in Madrid. There’s a copy of the Koran on the front seat. We can’t see in the back because it’s a closed van and the rear windows have been shattered, but the owner of the vehicle is a man called Mohammed Soumaya.’

8

Seville—Tuesday, 6th June 2006, 11.35 hrs

The car park was directly behind the destroyed building and next to the pre-school. There were some trees, which provided a canopy to a sitting area near Calle Blanca Paloma on one side and a five-storey apartment block on the other. There was only one access road to the car park. While Calderón, Elvira, Falcón and Ramírez made for the Peugeot Partner, Elvira’s assistant logged on to the police terror suspects list and entered Mohammed Soumaya’s details. He was in the lowest risk category, which meant that he had no known connections to any body, organization or persons with either terror or radical Islamic background. The only reason he was on the list was that he fitted the most basic terrorist profile: under forty years of age, a devout Muslim and single. Elvira’s assistant entered the names from the list of all the men in the mosque at the time of the explosion, which had been given by the Spanish woman, Esperanza. There was no Mohammed Soumaya among them. He patched the names through to the CNI—the Spanish intelligence agency.

Two breakdown vehicles were working in the car park to remove cars whose owners had been identified and screened. Most of these cars had windows smashed and bodywork damage from flying debris. The Peugeot Partner’s two rear windows were opaque with shattered glass and the rear doors were dented. The side windows were clear and the windscreen, which had been facing away from the explosion, was intact. The copy of the Koran, a new Spanish edition, was visible on the front passenger seat. Two forensics in white hooded boiler suits and latex gloves were standing by. There was a discussion about booby traps and a bomb squad team was called over, along with a dog handler. The dog found nothing interesting around the car. The underside and engine compartment were inspected and found clear. The bomb squad man picked the glass out of one of the smashed rear windows and inspected inside. The rear doors were opened and shots taken of the empty interior and its carpeted floor. A fine, crystalline, white powder, which covered an area of about 30 cm by 20 cm, had been spilled on the floor. The excited sniffer dog leapt in and immediately sat down by the powder. One of the forensics took a hand-held vacuum cleaner with a clear plastic flask attached and hoovered up the powder. The flask was removed from the vacuum cleaner, capped and given an evidence number.

The forensics moved round to the front of the car and bagged the new copy of the Koran, whose spine was unbroken. In the glove compartment they found another copy of the Koran. This was a heavily used Spanish translation, with copious notes in the margins; it proved to be exactly the same edition as the one found on the front seat. This was bagged, as were the vehicle documents. Falcón took a note of the ISBN and bar codes of both books. Under the passenger seat was an empty mineral water bottle and a black cotton sack, which contained a carefully folded green-and-white sash whose length was covered in Arabic writing. There was also a black hood with eye and mouth holes.

‘Let’s not get too excited until we’ve had an analysis of that powder in the back,’ said Calderón. ‘His occupation is “shop owner”, it could just as easily be sugar.’

‘Not if my dog sat down next to it,’ said the bomb squad man. ‘He’s never wrong.’

‘We’d better get in touch with Madrid and have someone visit Mohammed Soumaya’s home and business premises,’ said Falcón, and Ramírez moved off to make the call. ‘We want detail about his movements over the last forty-eight hours, as well.’

‘You’re going to have a job on your hands just to find all these people who had a view of this car park, and the front and rear of the destroyed building,’ said Calderón. ‘As the bomb squad guy said, it was a big bomb, which means a lot of explosive arrived here, possibly in small lots and maybe from a number of different suppliers, and at different times.’

‘We’re going to need to know whether the mosque, or any of the people in the mosque, were the subject of surveillance by the CGI’s antiterrorist squad or the CNI’s intelligence agents and, if they were, we’d like that information,’ said Falcón. ‘And, by the way, where are they? I didn’t see anybody from the CGI in that meeting.’

‘The CNI are on their way down here now,’ said Elvira.

‘And the CGI?’ asked Calderón.

‘They’re in lo
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ckdown,’ said Elvira, quietly.

‘What does that mean?’ said Calderón.

‘It will be explained to us when the CNI get here,’ said Elvira.

‘How much longer will it be before the fire brigade and the bomb squad can declare all these apartment blocks surrounding the destroyed building safe?’ asked Falcón. ‘At least if people can come back to their homes we’ve got a chance of building up our information quickly.’

‘They know that,’ said Elvira, ‘and they’ve told me that they should be letting people back in within the next few hours, as long as they don’t find anything else. In the meantime a contact number’s been issued to the press, TV and radio for people to call in with information.’

‘Except that they don’t know of the Peugeot Partner’s importance yet,’ said Falcón. ‘We’re not going to get anywhere until people get back into their apartments.’

The Mayor, who’d been stuck in traffic as the city had ground to a halt, finally arrived in the car park. He was joined by ministers of the Andalucían Parliament, who had just come from the hospital where they’d been filmed talking to some of the victims. A gaggle of journalists had been allowed through the police cordon and they gathered around the officials, while camera crews set up their equipment, with the destruction providing the devastating backdrop. Elvira went across to the Mayor to give his situation report and was intercepted by his own assistant. They talked. Elvira pointed him across to Falcón.

‘Only three of the twelve names given to us on that list appear on the terror suspect database,’ said the assistant, ‘and they’re all in the lowest risk category. Five of the twelve were over sixty-five. Morning prayers isn’t such a popular time with the young, as most people have to get to work.’

‘Not exactly the classic profile of a terrorist cell,’ said Falcón. ‘But then we don’t know who else was in there yet.’

‘How many under the age of thirty-five?’ asked Calderón.

‘Four,’ said the assistant, ‘and of those, two are brothers, one of whom is severely disabled in a wheelchair, and another is a Spanish convert called Miguel Botín.’

‘And the remaining three?’

‘Four, including the Imam, who isn’t on the list the woman gave us. He’s fifty-five and the other three are in their forties. Two of them are claiming disability benefit from the state after suffering industrial accidents, and the third is another Spanish convert.’

‘Well, they don’t sound like a special forces unit, do they?’ said Calderón.

‘There is one interesting point. The Imam is on the terror suspect database. He’s been in Spain since September 2004, arriving from Tunis.’

‘And before that?’

‘That’s the point. I don’t have the clearance for that level of information. Maybe the Comisario does,’ he said, and went to rejoin the media scrum around the Mayor.

‘How can somebody be in a low-risk category and yet have a higher level of clearance for his history?’ asked Ramírez.

‘Let’s look at the certainties, or the almost certainties,’ said Juez Calderón. ‘We have a bomb explosion, whose epicentre seems to be the mosque in the basement of the building. We have a van belonging to Mohammed Soumaya, a low-risk category terrorist—who we are not sure was in the building at the time of the blast. His van bears traces of explosive, according to the bomb squad dog. We have a list of twelve people in the mosque at the time, plus the Imam. Only three, plus the Imam, make it on to a list of low-risk category terror suspects. We are investigating the deaths of four children in the pre-school and three people outside the apartment block at the time of the explosion. Anything else?’

‘The hood, the sash, the two copies of the Koran,’ said Ramírez.

‘We should get all those notes in the margins of the used copy of the Koran looked at by an expert,’ said Calderón. ‘Now, what are the questions we want answered?’

‘Did Mohammed Soumaya drive this van here? If not, who did? If that powder is confirmed as explosive then what was it, why was it being gathered here, and why did it detonate?’ said Falcón. ‘While we wait to hear from Madrid about Soumaya we’ll build up a picture of what happened in and around this mosque over the last week. We can start by asking people whether they remember this van arriving, how many people were in it, did they see it being unloaded and so on. Can we get a shot of Soumaya?’

Ramírez, who was on the phone again, trying to sort out someone to look at the copy of the Koran, nodded and twirled an index finger to show that he was on to it. A policewoman came from the wreckage site and informed Calderón that the first body in the collapsed building had been found—an old woman on the eighth floor. They agreed to reconvene in a couple of hours. Ramírez came off the phone as Cristina Ferrera arrived from the pre-school.

It was agreed that Ramírez would continue working on the vehicle identification with Sub-Inspector Pérez, Serrano and Baena. Falcón and Cristina Ferrera would start trying to find the occupants of the five-storey apartment building with the best view of the car park where the Peugeot Partner had been left. They went down the street towards the police cordon where a group of people had gathered, waiting to be able to get back into their apartments.

‘How was Fernando by the time you left him?’ asked Falcón. ‘I didn’t catch his surname.’

‘Fernando Alanis,’ she said. ‘He was more or less under control, considering what had happened to him. We’ve exchanged numbers.’

‘Has he got anybody he can go to?’

‘Not in Seville,’ she said. ‘His parents are up north and too old and sick. His sister lives in Argentina. His wife’s family didn’t approve of the marriage.’

‘Friends?’

‘His life was his family,’ she said.

‘Does he know what he’s going to do?’

‘I’ve told him he can come and stay with me.’

‘You didn’t have to do that, Cristina. He’s not your responsibility.’

‘You knew I’d offer though, didn’t you, Inspector Jefe?’ she said. ‘If the situation demanded it.’

‘I was going to put him up at my place,’ said Falcón. ‘You’ve got to go to work, the kids…you don’t have any room.’

‘He needs a sense of what he’s lost,’ she said. ‘And who’d look after him at your place?’

‘My housekeeper,’ said Falcón. ‘You won’t believe me, but I really did not intend for that to happen.’

‘We have to pull together or we let them win by falling apart,’ she said. ‘And you always choose me for this type of work—once a nun always a nun.’

‘I don’t remember saying that.’

‘But you remember thinking it, and didn’t you say that we weren’t just foot soldiers in the fight against crime,’ said Ferrera, ‘but that we’re here to help as well. We’re the crusading detectives of Andalucía.’

‘José Luis would laugh in your face if he heard you say that,’ said Falcón. ‘And you should be very wary of using words like that in this investigation.’

‘Fernando was already accusing “the Moroccans”,’ she said. ‘Ever since March 11th they’ve been watching them go into that mosque and wondering.’

‘That’s the way people’s minds naturally work these days, and they like to have their suspicions confirmed,’ said Falcón. ‘We can’t take their prejudices into this investigation. We have to examine the facts and keep them divorced from any natural assumptions. If we don’t, we’ll make the sort of mistakes they made right from the beginning in the Madrid bombings when they blamed ETA. Already there are confusing aspects to the evidence that we’ve found in the Peugeot Partner.’


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