The street that led to the crime scene was broad and almost empty. It was about seven a.m. There was no traffic and few pedestrians were out. He rounded the corner into a narrow street where the dumpster was located and entered the swarm of official vehicles of all sorts: police cars, Civil Protection Department vehicles, ambulances, cars belonging to the forensics technicians—the FTs, as they called them in the force. As he got out of his car he heard a voice from the crowd held back by the crime-scene tape saying, “There he is! Detective Hanash, the chief investigator.”
His temples throbbed. It happened every time he encountered a homicide. He stopped a few feet away from the two plastic bags that contained the severed body parts and casually scanned the vicinity. It was one of his first steps when reaching a crime scene. He was like a filmmaker selecting the best angle to place the camera. It was his habit to proceed slowly and deliberately, sometimes infuriatingly so. To those unfamiliar with him, it gave the impression that he didn’t know what he was doing, but actually he was giving rein to his detective instincts, hoping they would give him the first ﬂash of inspiration to help him draw up his action plan.
His right-hand man, Inspector Hamid, came up and grumbled a greeting of sorts. He was especially grumpy-looking this morning. That was due less to the hideousness of this crime scene than to the fact that he had been torn from his bed while suffering a vicious hangover. He recited the steps that police and forensics had taken so far as though taking an oral exam.
Inspector Hamid lived alone in a small apartment not far from Hanash. He had lost his mother some months ago and her death came as much more of a shock than he would have imagined. She had suffered from Alzheimer’s and he had looked after her by himself. He cooked for her, bathed her, treated her like a disabled child. He had put marriage out of mind as long as she was alive. But now that she had passed away and that burden had been lifted, he once again tended to his grooming and clothing. In his early thirties, he had a tall, erect, and athletic build. Sharp, perceptive eyes were set in a poker face with an enigmatic smile that never left his lips. He was Hanash’s most trusted man.
Hanash could tell that Hamid was hung over and that he’d taken a cold shower and downed several cups of coffee just so he could keep his eyes open. Then he’d dressed so hastily that he hadn’t buttoned his shirt properly. Not that there was anything wrong with that. Today was supposed to be a day off, after all.
Aware that his breath still smelled of last night’s booze, Hamid addressed his boss from a distance. “I’m sorry you had to call off your trip, sir.”
“I left Naeema at home in tears.”
Hamid had become like a member of Hanash’s family. After his mother’s death, Naeema looked after him like an orphaned child. Eventually all formalities between him and Hanash’s family vanished and he became an essential presence on all occasions, and even when there was no occasion at all.
“What do you have so far?” he asked Hamid as he contin- ued to scan the area, taking in every detail.
“Female, adult, light complexion . . . um . . . age, weight, hair color, other features indeterminate.”
“What are you saying?”
“Extreme violence, sir. The victim’s been expertly cut up.” The forensic technicians had nearly finished their tasks of searching for anomalous marks, lifting fingerprints, and collecting any items that might offer a clue to the killer or killers. A forensics photographer was snapping pictures of the dumpsters and their surroundings. When he saw Detective Hanash approach, he halted his work, stood up, and nodded a greeting. The other technicians did likewise. Hanash muttered a greeting in return as he stepped toward the two bags and took a first look. He grimaced in revulsion and jerked back, suppressing a violent desire to spill the nonexistent contents of his stomach. “Those are just the lower limbs . . . minus the genitalia,” spat out Hamid.
Hanash issued his first instructions of the day: “Search for the rest of the body parts. They may not be far away, in other bins.”
Covering his nose with a handkerchief, he bent over the bags again. Hamid took a step forward and said, “We got the guy who called in this atrocity. He’s over there.”
He pointed toward a waste picker standing next to a policeman, who guarded him as though he might ﬂee.
They were distracted by a sudden commotion. At first, Hanash thought they must have found the rest of the body. Instead, the assistant chief of police—the ACP—ﬂanked by two smug-looking officials, appeared with a sour look on his face, as though peeved that no one had rushed forward to greet him. Pale, with deep-set eyes, he was in civilian clothes since it was a weekend. His two sidekicks looked more like businessmen than higher-ups in the law-enforcement hierarchy. Hanash came up, shook their hands respectfully, and said wryly, “Come this way, please.”
He led the ACP to the first bag. Flies ﬂew off it. The official’s nose wrinkled as the nauseating stench assaulted him and forced him to stagger backward.
“We found two bags here. They contain only the lower limbs of the victim,” Hanash informed him.
The ACP raised his voice to an authoritative growl to disguise his discomfort. “And the rest of the body? You haven’t found it yet?”
“We’ve initiated a search in the nearby neighborhoods.”
Hanash thought the official both pretentious and premature. Nevertheless, he responded, “Nothing yet, sir.”
“And the murder weapon? Have you found it yet?”
Hanash failed to suppress a scornful grunt. Talk about a dumb question, he thought. Did the ACP think the killer had slaughtered his victim and severed her limbs right here and then left behind his knife as a gift to the police to make their job easier? Officer Hamid came to the detective’s aid. Forcing his mouth into a deferential smile, he told the assistant chief: “We have the person who called in the homicide.”
The ACP ignored the officer, as though he were too low to address. Still glowering at Hanash, he said with undisguised disdain, “Send the limbs to the medical examiner and keep me posted on the progress at every stage.”
Hanash nodded curtly and turned away before the official swiveled to head back to his car, accompanied by his two companions.
Hanash gave Hamid a commiserating smile. That ACP was a pompous ass. Then he cast another look over the “crime scene”—metaphorically speaking, since the actual murder must have taken place elsewhere. The team from CPD—the Civil Protection Directorate—had taken custody of the plastic bags and were toting them to their vehicles. He had some brief conversations with a couple of field-evidence technicians, but didn’t press for details because none would be available until after the autopsy and lab tests.
More immediately, he was eager to hear that they found the rest of the body. His first impression was that this homicide had been planned with great precision, that the perpetrator probably acted alone, and that he had cleverly eliminated his traces.
Hanash knew from experience that revenge was generally the motive behind such gruesome incidents and that the perp would not have the slightest doubt that his victim deserved this fate.
As he waited for one team of inspectors to return from their search of other dumpsters and for a second team to return from canvassing residents in the vicinity, he scanned the windows of the nearby apartment blocks. A number of heads ducked out of sight as though to escape his probing glare. He scowled in their direction as though they were accomplices. From his feel for the case so far, the perp wouldn’t be from around here. He would have transported the bags by a vehicle of some sort from a remote location, following a carefully conceived and well-executed plan.
Hanash caught sight of Hamid speaking with one of the forensic technicians. He felt confident that Hamid was doing his job as professionally as always, despite a splitting headache from his Friday-night drinking session. Hamid left nothing to chance. He had an eye for details, refrained from drawing rash conclusions, and hated idle speculation.
The detective was not keen to question the waste picker. If the guy had anything to say, he would have already told Hamid. Maybe he was pretending to know something important as a way to command some respect. No one from the sector of waste pickers, garbage grubbers, and dumpster divers had been promoted to CI yet, unlike parking attendants, street peddlers, shoe shiners, and some itinerant vendors. Waste pickers and their ilk were foul and dirty. They drove bicycle carts as they made the rounds of bins, poking through bags of garbage in search of the most trivial items that, to them, had some value, and tossing them into their carts to ﬂog later in the junk market. For the sake of a few dirhams, waste pickers would claw through garbage bags, scatter trash and filth all over the place, and land street cleaners in trouble with residents.
To Hanash, the waste picker was barely a notch above a beggar. Despite this, he beckoned to the waste picker, who lurched toward him with his head bowed. Hanash took in the pockmarks in his dark complexion. But otherwise he seemed like a tall and sturdy young man. He could have been a construction worker or a porter and earned many times more than what he made from rummaging through refuse. But appearances can be deceptive. Perhaps he suffered from some incurable disease, Hanash thought as he inspected the young man’s face more closely.
“You’re the one who found the two bags, aren’t you? What did you see?” Hanash asked.
The waste picker looked at him with the stunned gaze of someone who had just emerged from a horror film. He shook his head, unable to speak. Hanash gave him an encouraging nod, to no avail. So he commanded, “Open your mouth. Speak. What were you doing here?”
“I . . . I was just trying to make a living as usual.” His body trembled, almost feverishly. “I open up bags to see if they have anything worth taking. Those two bags looked weird at first sight.”
“Did you open them?”
The young man shuddered. But he nodded and continued as though accustomed to offering help. “I thought the first bag might contain an infant. I once saved a baby’s life. I found him in a dumpster in a cardboard box. The cats would have torn into him if I hadn’t gotten there in time. I called the police. They came and thanked me. Their chief even gave me a pack of cigarettes.”
“I said, did you open the bag?”
“Well . . . yes and no, sir. It was already slightly open. I took a look. Then, when I reached inside . . .”
Tears streamed from his eyes. He gulped for air, staring at Hanash as though he had seen a ghost. He clamped his lower lip between his teeth and let out an agonized whimper.
Hanash gave the young man time to catch his breath.
“If only I hadn’t,” the man went on. “I felt soft human skin. I thought maybe it was an animal. But when I saw the toes . . . Oh, I wish I’d never seen that!”
“Did you see who put the bag in there?”
Hanash fixed him with a stern, skeptical glare. “What time did you get here?”
The young man looked down at his watch and answered confidently, “At a quarter to six.”
“Now, think carefully. Did you see anybody here or in the vicinity, even in one of the streets nearby?”
The young man spoke nervously, caught off guard by the question. “If this weren’t a Saturday, there would have been some activity around that time. People on their way to work
. . . But this being a Saturday, people were sleeping in. So . . . no, sir, I didn’t see anyone. The streets were completely empty. Whoever put those bags in there must have done it sometime in the middle of the night.”
Hanash eyed him suspiciously. “How do you know that?” he asked and scrutinized the young man’s face as he answered. “It’s my job, sir. I can tell each of the residents here from their garbage. I’m absolutely sure that the man who did this is not from this part of town.”
Hanash’s eyes widened in surprise. He thought about holding on to this young waste picker for a bit, perhaps even adding him to his list of CIs. Maybe he knew more than he let on.
Their eyes met and Hanash ﬂashed him a smile. The waste picker quickly averted his gaze. Hanash decided to leave the question as to whether to bring in CIs until later. He didn’t have enough to go on yet, and in general, homicides such as this are crimes of passion. They’re committed for personal reasons, often by people with no criminal record who had been living calm, ordinary, and respectable lives until something made them snap. He recalled the last case of this sort. The horror of it had stunned the entire country and pre- occupied newspapers and social-networking sites for weeks. It involved a simple quarrel between the owner of a popular kofta restaurant and a neighbor who grew so fed up with the smoke from the grill that he began to blackmail the restau- rant owner. One night, the latter lured the neighbor into the restaurant, stabbed him, chopped him up, and sold his ﬂesh mixed into the ground beef.
At last the search team returned, weary and dirty, failure written on their faces. Hamid went up to Hanash and shook his head sadly. “Negative on the dumpsters in this vicinity. I instructed another team to broaden the search and to coordinate with other teams, even if they have to cover the whole city.”
Hanash nodded sympathetically. Then he curled his lip as he cast a last critical look around him. This wasn’t where the murder was committed, after all. The crime scene was elsewhere. The body was only dumped here. Why this place, exactly? Where did he dispose of the upper portion of the body? You can’t ID a victim without a face or hands to get prints from.
As he turned toward his car, he jerked his head at the waste picker and instructed the policeman guarding him, “Take him to the station, run an ID check, and take his statement.”
From The Butcher of Casablanca by Abdelilah Hamdouchi. Used with the permission of the publisher, Hooploe Press. Copyright © 2020 by Abdelilah Hamdouchi.