Abdelilah Hamdouchi's The Last Wager takes place in modern-day Casablanca. Othman is an unemployed thirty-two-year-old Moroccan married to a wealthy seventy-three-year-old French woman, Sofia, who owns a restaurant in an affluent part of town. Just before this scene, Othman has a rendezvous with his beautiful young mistress, who tells him she has run out of patience waiting for his marriage to end. Here, Detective Alwaar is called to a crime scene in the middle of the night. When he arrives, he finds Sofia brutally murdered in bed. Did Othman do it? The cops seem to think so, but that might be their old brutal ways clashing with the new police reforms sweeping through Morocco.
When the phone rang, Detective Alwaar was on the verge of nodding off. He stayed in the other room studying horse betting numbers and chain-smoking until he slipped into bed next to his wife after midnight. He hadn't yet picked the numbers he'll bet on. He was dreaming of his favorite horse losing the race when the phone began to ring.
Who's Alwaar? If I gave him the chance to introduce himself, he'd probably just say that he's been a criminal detective for thirty years, but was never lucky enough to get promoted to captain. His real name is Allal ibn Alawaam. The inspectors under his command called him Alwaar, “rough guy,” but this nickname soon went beyond work and took on another meaning, one with a political connotation. That's because Alwaar and a group of cops like him rejected the recent reforms that curbed police violence. The times we're living in now call for ending deaths in police custody because of torture, opening up investigations into misconduct, and arresting cops implicated in human rights violations. Others were relocated as part of a campaign of disciplinary action. The response of some on the force, at first, was to stop taking initiatives, to show indifference, and to watch from afar. This behavior led to increased crime and left its trace on the street, where people lost faith in the reforms. Most of the voices that rang out linked the sharp rise in violence and continuing human rights abuses to the inability of Moroccans to respect the rule of law.
This difficult transitional period made Alwaar feel like he was out of place. His work became confusing; it was hard for him to get confessions without slapping or kicking a suspect or sending him to the torture room in the basement before interrogating him. Alwaar didn't know how to do his job without brutality. He just couldn't get used to sitting in front of a suspect without being aggressive or insulting, talking to him like they were in some café. He had to crack the whip. For a whole year he didn't do much of anything; he worked his job superficially, almost at a loss, dreaming of days past. It was in these difficult times that he discovered racehorse betting and got addicted to it. Yet little by little he began to adjust to the new situation in Morocco, especially when he relished victory in some cases. He had to obey the winds of change, even if with little faith or slack enthusiasm.
On this night, as he was finally about to fall asleep, the phone saved him from seeing his favorite horse lose the race. Alwaar hesitated to pick up, thinking it might stop ringing on its own. But when the phone kept at it, he knew the call was work-related. He leaned on his pillow and turned on the bedside lamp. He watched his wife as she turned to the other side of the bed, pulling the cover over her head so the light wouldn't disturb her. Alwaar picked up the receiver and kept silent for a moment. The voice on the other end shook him awake as if he were facing a sudden danger.
“Sir,” the voice said without the usual greetings, “this is Inspector Asu from the nightshift. We just got news that a foreign woman was murdered in her house.”
Alwaar grimaced as he got out of the warm bed.
“Who reported the crime?” he snapped, almost chastising the inspector for what happened.
“The address,” said Alwaar coldly.
“Villa Sofia, Number 23, Al Zuhur Street, Anfa.”
He leaned his shoulders back on the pillow.
“Tell the DA,” he said in total resignation. “And tell Inspector Bukrisha to make sure no one touches the body until I get there.”
Alwaar put the receiver down breathing heavily. He used to smoke more than two packs a day of cheap Marquis cigarettes and now had problems breathing. He recently had a chest exam, and the doctor ordered him to quit smoking immediately. The only thing Alwaar could do was get by on a pack and half a day instead of two or even more.
He got up exhausted and opened the closet. When he was undressed, Alwaar looked like a retired boxer. He had a puffy face and bags under his eyes. His features made him look feeble and his lifeless eyes didn't seem to focus on much of anything.
As he put on his suit, his wife stirred in bed.
“What's so important that they had to wake you up?”
“A woman . . . foreign . . . was murdered,” he replied out of breath as he was tying his faded necktie.
With a mechanical movement, Fatima sat straight up as if she hadn't just been deep asleep. She was maternal-like, the mistress of the house in the strictest sense. She was a skilled at cooking, washing clothes, and cleaning. Her favorite past time, however, was gossiping with the other women in the building. For years, she was-and still is-the official spokesperson in everything concerning Casablanca's security. Tomorrow morning, she'll spread the news of this crime among the women of the building. Before she even prepares breakfast, she'll get them ready with details of the next installment.
Alwaar finished putting on his suit and adjusting his pale red tie. He then took his gun from its hiding spot in the middle of the folded clothes in his closet and tucked it into his belt. Fatima looked at him closely with a hint of compassion.
“What happened to the commissioner's promise of giving you a desk job until you retired?” she said about to get up.
Alwaar waved his hand in a motion indicating his resignation.
“This is always their solution when something big happens. They make the rounds and call everyone. In the end, I'm the only guy they find. Today's detective doesn't have enough experience for them.”
“All this trouble,” she said grumbling while helping him put on his coat, “and they haven't even promoted you to commissioner.”
Did she mean to hit him at his most vulnerable spot? Alwaar took a few steps back, almost stepping on her foot. Whatever he did, he couldn't hide his frustration whenever the subject of his promotion came up. He seemed confused and irritable.
“What good would being commissioner do me?” he asked searching for something in the pockets of his thick coat. “My days at work are numbered. At my age, people only ask for health and well-being.”
That was his way to ease his grief and hide his bitterness. As for the truth of the matter, even mentioning not being promoted incensed him and made him feel that all his dreams had gone up in smoke. Old age seemed like a poisoned coldness creeping slowly toward him. He continued searching in the bottom of his pockets.
“If you're looking for your notebook, it's in front of you on the table,” said Fatima as if she were settling something obvious.
She followed him to the door and after he left, she turned the locks and resigned herself to being alone.
She never guessed that her children would grow up so fast, get married and vanish into thin air. The oldest son lives in France, while his brother is a cop-like his father-in Meknès. As for their daughter, Samiya, she also took the same profession as her father. Last year she passed the academy's entrance exam on the first try and is now training in the police academy in Kénitra.
Alwaar stopped his Fiat Uno directly in front of the cop car opposite the villa gate. He looked at his watch before heading in and saw it was 1:15 AM. He filled his lungs with the clean air of this high-class neighborhood and then went toward the gate where a uniformed cop was standing. The cop greeted the detective with an official salute but Alwaar didn't even notice him.
The first thing that struck Alwaar was the vast size of the villa's garden. It was lit up with thick neon lights that made it look like the middle of the day. The grass was bright green and perfectly trimmed like the artificial turf on a sports field. The edges were lined with multicolored flowers and in the distance there was a deep blue swimming pool that was as wide as a hotel pool. The non-stop dog barking put Alwaar on edge so he rushed toward the house. Once inside, he felt like he was in a castle. A magnificent crystal chandelier adorned with traditional designs hung from the ceiling. There was a marble fountain in the middle of the reception hall, and the ground shined with polished marble that made you feel sorry for walking on it, no matter how expensive your shoes were. All the furniture was refined and revealed a foreign taste with native Moroccan touches.
Inspector Bukrisha hurried to him with his round belly sticking out. He appeared older than his age despite being twenty years younger than Alwaar. He had a brown face and curly hair, but it was difficult to pin down the exact color of his eyes. He constantly exaggerated his gestures to reinforce his naturally hoarse voice.
“The crime took place in the bedroom,” he said excitedly.
The detective started walking toward the stairs but stopped in his tracks. He looked at the man sitting on a leather couch with his face between his hands and his chest trembling.
“Who's this guy?” said Alwaar winking at Bukrisha. The inspector cracked a smile that confused the detective.
“The victim's husband.”
Down the first floor was a wide hallway with a number of doors, all of which were well lit. On each side of them were tables with antiques and vases, together with more decorative chairs than fit the space. The bedroom was at the end of the hallway. It was a wide room with two wardrobes and a vanity. There was a door inside the room leading to the bathroom. As for Sofia's body, it was lying on the bed drenched in blood. Her nightgown was open at the waist. Her right arm was extended as if she wanted to grab something. The left hung down to the ground. She was lying on the edge of the bed and looked like she was about to fall off, but death froze her in this position. Alwaar stared at her pale aged face and understood the meaning of the inspector's ambiguous smile. He looked for Bukrisha among the cops in the room.
“The young guy downstairs, that's her husband?”
Bukrisha shook his head with a stunned look on his face. This woman was old enough to be her husband's grandmother.
“He's the one who called in the crime?” asked Alwaar.
“Yeah, he's the one,” said Bukrisha, trying to clear his voice.
The detective's eyes widened and he moved his head slowly. He asked one of the cops-an enthusiastic young man who joined the force only two years ago-to stop taking photos. Alwaar moved back and examined the body from the different corners of the bedroom.
His first step was to verify that the crime scene hadn't been tampered with. He especially wanted to be sure that the murder weapon, a knife covered in blood next to the corpse, was in the same position they found it in. The detective had the forensics cop take a close-up of the knife. Alwaar then scanned the bedroom floor, which was covered with a beautiful traditional Moroccan carpet. He saw a framed picture near the bedside table. He bent over and examined the photo without touching it, so as not to compromise any prints. When he straightened up, he felt a light dizziness. He pressed his hands on his temples and took a deep breath. The room was swarming with men: Alwaar, Bukrisha, the forensics agent, three inspectors, and a team of ambulance men who were crowded at the door.
Alwaar moved to the window and opened it up. He looked out on the calm beautiful street, trying to get a hold of himself. Whenever he carried out the initial stages of a murder investigation, he felt a mysterious heaviness, a kind of distraction that impeded his determination.
For Alwaar, this is the most difficult stage of the investigation. He would obstinately refuse to believe what the evidence was telling him. Instead, he would insist on reading it from every angle before moving to the next step. Alwaar was so slow that he would test the patience of his assistants, who were standing around awaiting orders.
He finally got down to business. He moved toward the decorated table, opened the top drawer, and took out a box lined with silk. He opened the lid and found it full of valuable jewelry: gold earrings, a diamond necklace, and a ring with a sparkling jewel. He immediately ruled out theft as a motive for the murder. This sped things up. He then looked into the bathroom and was transfixed. He wasn't searching for clues, as much as he was dazzled by its splendor: there was a wide bathtub big enough for a giant, gleaming white towels, each arranged on top of the other, a bunch of nightgowns hanging on hooks, and an innumerable amount of creams, combs, oils, perfumes, soaps, and shampoos.
In the entryway, Othman was sitting in shock. His eyes were red from weeping and his lips were taught. He was sighing deeply, having trouble breathing. Soon, he managed to get control of his trembling.
Alwaar walked over to Othman and sat down in front of him, taking out his notebook. Alwaar gave him the once-over before introducing himself.
“I'm the homicide detective in charge here and this is my assistant,” he said pointing to Inspector Bukrisha. “You're the victim's husband?”
Othman shook his head without having the strength to look into Alwaar's eyes.
“What's your name?”
“Your wife's name?”
The detective took his time writing down the information in his notebook. This gave him the chance to check out Othman again.
“Fine,” said the detective in an irritated tone. “We want to hear from you what happened.”
Othman closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He stuttered more than once before he could speak.
“We got home from the restaurant around 11. Sofia went up to the bedroom ahead of me. I took the dog out for a walk. When I came back,” he suddenly broke out in a fit of tears, “I found her like that . . . “
A powerful feeling of weakness overwhelmed him and he started weeping out loud. The detective observed him in a cold, professional way. Othman got up, grabbed a box of tissues, took one out, and wiped his eyes. As he moved to sit down, he almost fell over.
“Calm down,” said Inspector Bukrisha impatiently. “We know this is hard for you but we've got our job to do.”
Othman nodded in a motion indicating that he understood.
“You said you found her like that,” said Alwaar pressing him.
Othman was having a hard time talking. He gave the two men a miserable look.
“She was barely alive,” he said doing what he could to continue. “She was on her last breath. She tried to speak. She opened her mouth but no sound came out. I was terrified. I didn't know what to do. I knew she was going to die. She motioned to a photo of her son she had in her hands, almost like she wanted to say goodbye to him. She tried to hold onto it but it fell. I was shocked and confused. I screamed out and my entire body was shaking. I had never seen a murdered person before. I hate seeing blood. When I got hold of myself a bit, I saw she was still moving. I immediately called an ambulance and the police.”
The detective looked up and exchanged a glance with the inspector, who was standing with his elbow on the edge of a marble heater. Alwaar took something down in his notebook.
“Listen, Othman,” he said in an official tone. “I'll be honest with you. You're the only person who knows what happened. You've got to remember all the details.”
Othman grimaced as his eyes widened.
“That's what happened. I told you all the details.”
The detective felt Othman's story didn't check out. There was clearly something wrong with the knife. It wasn't normal for killers to leave the murder weapon at the crime scene, unless circumstances forced them to. Also, the knife wasn't still in the victim's stomach, but was pulled out and left next to her on the bed. The detective swallowed with difficulty and didn't rush to any conclusions. It was normal for him to move slowly and to expand the details. For him, the murder weapon is the fundamental clue in discovering the killer. And this very point was shrouded in obscurity.
The technicians finished their work. Alwaar ordered them to leave and had the ambulance men take the body to the morgue.
“I want to inform one of her close friends,” said Othman stammering.
After thinking for a moment, the detective nodded in agreement. Othman went to the phone on top of the small bar in the corner of the reception hall, picked up the receiver, and dialed the number. The phone rang for a while. He almost put the receiver down when someone finally picked up.
“Hello? Monsieur Michel? I'm sorry to wake you up,” he said in a rattled voice. “Sofia was murdered. I was outside walking the dog and when I came home, I found her murdered in the bedroom . . . with a knife . . . Yes, the police are here with me now. Will you tell Jacques?”
Othman hung up. He then opened a nearby glass cupboard and took out a big copper lighter. He lit a cigarette and sat down again.
“Who's Michel?” snapped Bukrisha.
“A close friend of Sofia's who works at the French cultural center.”
Alwaar took the information down in his notebook.
“And Jacques?” he asked without raising his head.
“He's her son. He was here last week and went back to France.”
His eyes filled up with tears again. He placed a hand on his head and then stroked his mustache nervously. He gave the impression he was living a nightmare. The detective looked at him closely, trying to sense what Othman was really feeling. Was his grief genuine or was he fighting to hide the truth?
“What time did you take the dog out?” Alwaar asked opening up a second line of questioning.
“When did you get back?”
“About half an hour later.”
“Did you meet someone while you were out? Did one of the neighbors or anyone else see you?”
“No, I don't think so. I stayed in the square with the dog. I played with him for a bit and then came back. The street was completely empty.”
“Do you usually take the dog out?”
“Every day, except for Saturday and Sunday.”
“When you came back, how did you find the door of the house?”
“Just as I left it. Locked.”
“Did you forget to close it when you went out?”
“No. I'm sure I locked it.”
“Fine,” said Alwaar looking at his notebook. “The motive of the crime wasn't theft. The proof is that your wife's jewels are still here.”
Instead of putting out his cigarette in the ashtray, Othman, clearly irritated, crushed it with his foot on the ground. Alwaar watched him closely.
“There aren't any signs of a break-in on the windows or doors. How did the killer enter the house?” asked Bukrisha roughly.
Detective Alwaar didn't like this question. He gave Bukrisha an annoyed look.
“Do you have other valuable things here besides jewels?”
Othman didn't seem to get the question.
“Do you have money here?” he added to be clear.
“No. We leave the daily take from the restaurant there.”
“Where's the restaurant?”
“In Ain Diab.”
The detective asked for more information about the location. He soon figured out where it was. He needed a cigarette, but he never let himself smoke during an interrogation. He stared at Othman and then went through a number of ideas in his mind. He came to and returned to his routine questions.
“Who lives with you here?”
“No one. It's just my wife and me.”
“Don't you have a maid?” asked Bukrisha to keep Othman talking.
“There's Rahma but officially, she works in the restaurant. She comes here every morning to do some house work.”
Bukrisha sat down on the edge of the couch, placing all his weight on his knees. He wanted to ask Othman if he had kids, but then he remembered Sofia's age. He thought his question would be insulting.
'They have dogs,' Bukrisha said to himself disdainfully.
The detective turned over a new page in his notebook. After a moment of silence, Othman relaxed a bit.
He seemed to think the questions were over. As he sat there, the detective looked up more than once to keep an eye on Othman.
“When did you marry her?” he asked finally.
“About five years ago.”
“How did you meet her?”
Othman sat up suddenly. Did the question shake him? He hesitated for a bit before answering.
“Through her first husband.”
The two men suddenly became interested. They waited for Othman to start talking again but he seemed reticent.
“He was Moroccan too?”
“Yeah, from my quarter. Unemployed like me. He was an immigrant in France. He married Sofia there and convinced her to come to Morocco and set up a restaurant.”
The detective looked around the grand reception hall. Othman didn't go into the details on his own. He had to be pushed.
“Why did her first husband divorce her?”
“They had a misunderstanding.”
“The real problem,” hesitated Othman as he took out another cigarette, “is that she found him here with another woman.”
“Was the first husband younger than her?”
Othman felt embarrassed and lowered his head. He had hoped the line of questioning wouldn't go in this direction. Despite what he wanted, this point was too tasty for the detective to ignore.
“Fine,” said Alwaar after Othman didn't reply. “You met your wife through the first husband who was from your neighborhood. How did it happen?”
“He didn't introduce me to her,” Othman said firmly as if he were fighting to distance himself from some accusation. “But he did tell me about his life with her. After he divorced her, from what I heard from him, I knew she liked men. I tried and it worked out.”
Bukrisha smiled mockingly.
“Her first husband's here in Casablanca?” he asked in his hoarse voice.
“No. He has a business in Marrakech.”
The detective flipped through his notebook quickly.
“And the son, Jacques, the one you had your friend tell about the murder, how about him?”
Othman lit his cigarette with the big copper lighter, which let out a high flame. He exhaled the smoke and looked anxiously at the detective.
“When she was young, she had a French husband. He died in a car accident.”
“Is her son the one with her in the picture we found on the ground?”
“Yes,” said Othman timidly.
The detective stared at him with a look of disgust. He realized Sofia's son had to be a lot older than this husband of hers who was sitting in front of him.
“You said he visited recently . . . “
“Yes,” Othman said cutting him off. “He went back to Paris a week ago.”
The detective clearly looked tired. He yawned in an unseemly way and then grinded his dentures. He closed his notebook and began circling the couch.
“Who do you think had a reason to kill your wife?” he asked Othman directly.
“I don't know,” Othman replied in a dry wavering tone.
“You took the dog out for a half hour walk,” said the detective as if going over the basics. “When you returned, you found your wife murdered. There wasn't a break-in or any sign of forced entry on the windows or doors. There isn't anything stolen and you don't suspect anyone.”
He continued moving around the couch slowly.
Othman remained frozen with the cigarette burning between his fingers.
“That's enough for now,” the detective said suddenly after thinking for a moment. “I'll be waiting for you in my office tomorrow morning.”
He took out his card, held it up before Othman, and put it on the heater. Bukrisha got up staring aggressively at Othman. It was hard for him to end the interrogation like this, without resolution. If the detective left the matter to him, he would have openly accused Othman of the crime.
“You didn't see anything and you didn't hear anything?” growled Bukrisha. “You don't have any idea about what happened?”
Othman ignored him and walked the two to the door. In the garden, Alwaar looked over at the dog that had been barking earlier.
“A German Shepherd, right?”
“Yes,” replied Othman tersely to end this ordeal.
He said good-bye to the two cops in front of the villa's gate. He turned off the garden light, returned to the hallway, and leaned back on the couch. He sat up suddenly and his eyes widened. He then lowered his head and hit his fist against the wall, cursing over and over again.
From Abdelilah Hamdouchi, al-Rihan al-Akhir. al-Muhammadia: Muttaqi, 2001, pp. 19-36. Copyright Abdelilah Hamdouchi, 2001. Translation copyright Jonathan Smolin, 2006. All rights reserved.