Read Death on the rive nord Online

Authors: Adrian Magson

Death on the rive nord

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Death on the Rive Nord




First, to my big brother, Barry,who taught me some swear words I didn’t know …and to Ann, who helps me not to use them.





October 1963 – the Somme Valley

Armand Maurat was in the presence of death. He couldn’t see it, couldn’t hear it … but it was there, sticking to him as relentlessly as the tail lights of the Berliet truck he was driving.

His stomach lurched as the narrow road dipped unexpectedly, catching him off guard. Outside the cab, a cold spray was being blasted across his windscreen by a solid, vengeful easterly, reducing visibility to a blur of trees and hedgerows and an occasional sign pointing to a remote village tucked away in the darkness.

He reached out and banged the radio perched on the dashboard. It responded with a hiss of static, but even that drifted and ebbed as the sound waves became blocked by a nearby hill. Cheap crap, he thought savagely. Bought under the counter at a transit warehouse outside Paris, the packaging had guaranteed high-quality music but delivered mostly mush – or worse, what passed for singing these days.Give him Aznavour any day, even Brel. Depressing son of a bitch, Brel; enough to make a weak man jump off a bridge. On a lonely drive in the dark, though, it suited his mood of isolation.

He’d been on the road for over fifteen hours straight so far; first heading from his home in Saint-Quentin, where he lived with his mother, to a transit depot beyond Dijon to pick up a load of car parts for an assembly plant near Amiens; then dropping further south to an isolated depot near Chalon-sur-Saône to pick up his second consignment. This part of his trip wasn’t going to be mentioned anywhere; no paperwork, no names, no records. Staying clear of major towns and bypassing areas of known police activity had put dozens of kilometres on the journey, but he was now curving westward towards Amiens and hadn’t much further to go. Then he could be shot of his special load and whatever misfortune they might have brought with them, and get back home.

His lips moved silently, subconsciously mouthing the instructions he’d been given. His face looked unhealthily drawn in the light from the instrument panel, and he shook his head periodically to counter the deadly, hypnotic beat of the wipers. Not that falling asleep at the wheel would be his worst problem; if he missed his mark, the reaction waiting for him when he didn’t make the delivery would make hurtling off this godforsaken stretch of tarmac the least of his worries.

He checked the time. Gone three. He was on schedule. There should have been a clear sky, according to the weather reports, heralding a mild frost and a clear day to follow. Good driving weather. A trucker’s weather if you didn’t mind concentrating for long stretches. But if there were any stars out there, they were hidden behind a dense layer of low cloud.He might as well have been in a dead landscape, with only the occasional farmhouse light showing through the gloom to indicate any signs of life beyond his cab.

He shivered and hit the demister switch. Thoughts of life or death served no purpose right now, and reminders of his own mortality were the last thing he needed. Welcome as the cash was, he knew he was ultimately playing with fire. The kind of people he was dealing with, if anything happened beyond his control, shit would follow as surely as Sundays.

He turned his head and spat the soggy remains of aDisque Bleuthrough a gap in the side window and longed for a raw marc – brandy – to wet his throat. A nice Calvados would be even better, but beggars couldn’t be choosers.

The road dipped again past a narrow turning on his right. The sign said Vailly, a tiny hamlet too small to appear on his road maps, but one he’d been told to watch out for. Not long now. He began to ease off the accelerator, the engine noise diminishing from its clattering roar to a more subdued rumble, like it had sounded when he’d first bought it three years ago. A lot of oil had gone into it since then, and a lot of kilometres on the clock.

The ghostly sides of a barn loomed close on his left-hand side, a brief glimpse of posters advertising a motocross event plastered across the boards. Then a bend came up, and across the road the dark emptiness of a field caught momentarily in the headlights. He tapped the brakes and hauled on the wheel, the tyres skittering slightly on the wet, rippled surface. Too fast; he should have been down to forty kph and reading the road, not fantasising. He corrected the beginnings of a skid by increasing power slightly, then eased off as the road straightened. Felt a wash of relief overtake the hot and coldsweats that had broken out between his shoulder blades.

Behind him came a brief rumble and what sounded like a thin squeal, cut off abruptly. He ignored it.

Another sign flashed by, rough and home-made.Pêche Privée 1 Km. Just past this, he’d been told. Eyes open and don’t be seen. Not that anybody sane would be fishing at this time of year in the middle of the night. Look out for the marker. Miss it and you might as well continue driving until nobody can find you again.


A slim flash of white in the headlights, right on cue. A short wooden stake with a white triangle on top, driven into the verge. Meaningless to anyone else, it would be gone the moment he was done. He checked his mirror. Black as a priest’s underwear and just as forbidding. Looked again as something glittered in the distance, and felt the raw bite of fear.

Vehicle lights coming this way.

Yellow and close together, they looked faint, probably too much work for the car’s battery with the wipers and heater on as well. He swallowed his anxiety, telling himself it was most likely a farmer returning from market, driving on reflex after too much pastis. He wouldn’t remember what he’d seen in fifteen minutes, let alone come morning.

Maurat slowed and pulled into the gateway alongside the marker post, a familiar tortured moan echoing around him as the truck body flexed on its base. The brakes squealed, too loud in the night, and he winced. He sat and waited for the car, flexing his hands on the wheel, his heart racing. He felt nauseous. This wasn’t good. What if it wasn’t a farmer? What if, against all the odds in this middle-of-nowhere shitty landscape, it was a bored cop on patrol looking for trouble?No way he’d go by without asking what a truck was doing here at this time of night. Then the other’s lights flared and a beat-up Citroën 2CV rattled past like a bag of scrap iron, bouncing and weaving on the uneven surface, the driver’s face briefly visible in the flare of a cigarette lighter. He probably hadn’t even registered the truck’s presence.

Maurat’s heart was like a runaway drumbeat and his mouth was tinder-dry. He wasn’t cut out for this business, no matter how good the money. Time he said no and meant it. If they let him.

As soon as the 2CV’s tail lights were gone he switched off his engine and took out a pair of cheap flashlights. Opened the door and jumped down from the cab; stood for a moment to let his legs regain their strength, the rain biting-cold on his cheeks. He walked to the tailgate and flicked one of the flashlights over the grass verge for a second, checking the terrain. The beam caught a wooden gate, just as he’d been told, before being lost in a dark void. But he caught a brief glimpse of metal bars. Some kind of barrier set in concrete; a parapet glistening wetly. Beyond it he could hear the gurgle of water pouring from a run-off, and a cow grumbled in protest at the intrusion before stomping away into the night.

He reached up and opened the back, then banged on the side of the truck’s panel with the flat of his hand.

‘Allez!’ he barked, his voice tinged with urgency, before remembering words from long ago when he was a conscript in North Africa. ‘Yalla! Emshi!’ Hurry. Go away. Poor bastards, he wanted to add, but didn’t have the words.

He had no idea if he was understood, but the answering scramble from inside confirmed that his live cargo was awake and ready to go.  


Inspector Lucas Rocco came awake with a start. He was naked and shivering with damp. The sweats always accompanied the dreams, covering him with a slick film as the ghostly images played like a newsreel, shimmering shots of jungle and sunlight and bright, bright flowers. The flowers were always there, too, a mocking backdrop. Behind them lay a hint of something darker, as if whatever kind of God was out there delighted in reminding him of his experiences in Indo-China by playing movie director, alternating colour and shade, life and death. Not that he believed much in God anymore.

Overhead were the skittering sounds of the residentfouines– fruit rats – in the attic. They were clearly in no mood to sleep out the coming winter, no doubt enjoying the heat rising from down here and warming their playground. Rocco mumbled a good morning to them and stretched, swept back the bedcovers and padded over to the window.

The house he was renting stood on the outskirts of thevillage of Poissons-les-Marais on a patch of ground fronted by metal railings. It was bordered on one side by an orchard, and on the other by a neat cottage belonging to his elderly neighbour, Mme Denis, who insisted on looking after him by leaving gifts of vegetables from her extensive garden, eggs from the chickens roaming free on her land and occasionally stern advice on healthy living. He was also willing to bet she had more than a little interest in helping his love life, although she hadn’t said anything yet beyond the occasional hint about lady admirers. Rocco had avoided the question, happy to leave that issue alone for the time being. He’d been divorced from Emilie for a few years, since when there had been one or two brief attachments, but he wasn’t desperate for anything serious.

It was still dark, but he knew the large, rear garden would look comfortingly unchanged, unaffected by his memories or dreams. A cold dawn would soon be breaking over the apple orchard to his right and filling the garden – as yet untouched by any tentative thoughts Rocco might have harboured at horticulture – with a thin, watery glow. Too late for gardening now, anyway, he told himself. The ground was beginning to harden and nothing was growing. Leave it until spring. And until he bought a spade.

He dropped the curtains back and yawned. It was too late to go back to sleep now. He had to be in Amiens at half eight for the weekly briefing he’d so far managed to avoid more times than not. A phone call yesterday fromCommissaireFrançois Massin, his immediate superior, had scotched any chance of avoiding another one.

He went through to the kitchen to make coffee. Found he was out of water. He deliberated for a second beforetaking a large stone jug to the pump outside. If Mme Denis spotted him, she would probably throw a fit. But right now he was beyond caring. Doubtless it would give the crones who formed the rest of her gang something to talk about over the back of the daily bread van. And the village priest, an ascetic sourpuss with no visible love for humanity, would enjoy another reason for scowling at the policeman who never attended a single mass.

He primed the hand pump, his only source of fresh water until the pipes currently being laid in the road outside were connected to the house. It was no doubt a job for Delsaire, the local plumber, if his landlord agreed to the cost. The jug filled, he took a deep breath and pushed his head beneath the last gush of water. It was brutally cold, sending a shower of sparks through his brain and adding to the fingers of cold tingling across his skin. But it woke him completely, dispersing any lingering fragments of sleep. It was also a reminder that October out here, unlike his previous base in Paris, was a whole different game of pétanque. No smoke-filled corner cafés to duck into when the weather turned foul, no heated restaurants with a warm welcome and coffee and atartine beurréeto kick-start the day. Even his showers had to be taken in the neighbouring village of Vautry, where thedouches publiquesoffered a welcome session of therapy after a hard day’s work and an ear on the latest gossip through the thin walls.

He drank his coffee while shaving, got dressed in dark slacks, a charcoal shirt, black English brogues and a long coat. He checked his gun. Then he rang Claude Lamotte.

It wasn’t a requirement of being based here in the village to keep the localgarde champêtreinformed of hismovements, but it was a courtesy he liked to observe. Claude had been instrumental in helping his acceptance by most of the villagers, as well as a source of information, from how to get a telephone installed quickly to who was sleeping with whom. Rocco was less interested in the latter than the means of communication, but he usually listened out of politeness, anyway.

‘Rather you than me,’ Claude rumbled sleepily, when he told him of his plan for the day. ‘I intend to have a nice quiet one, myself. Bring me back some sweeties, won’t you?’ He dropped the phone with a hollow laugh, cutting the connection.


The first man tumbled from the Berliet, stiff and uncoordinated after being confined inside for too many hours. He was coughing explosively, dressed in cheap, lightweight clothing which Maurat could see wasn’t near warm enough for this time of year. Poor fool would soon learn. He grabbed the man’s arm and pushed the second flashlight into his hand, then flicked his beam across the verge. He could be point man for the rest. The man nodded dumbly and lurched away, and was quickly followed by another, then another, each breathing in shock at the sudden cold after the undoubtedly foetid atmosphere inside the truck. Maurat counted them as they went, like sheep down a ramp and with as much meaning for him personally. With them came the rank odour of stale sweat and unwashed bodies, of cigarette smoke overlaid with the sharp tang of urine. It reminded him of some truck-stop dormitories he’d used in the past, only worse. Then a softer shape clutching a bundle slid down off the tail, landing with afaint cry of pain.Jesus,he thought,they’ve brought a woman as well?

‘I told you not to smoke,’ he shouted. The words were pointless, lost on them in their haste to be gone, but he felt a vague sense of righteousness in complaining. If it wasn’t for him and the chances he was taking, they’d still be stuck somewhere down the pipeline, facing who knew what kind of fate.

One man stopped and gabbled a question, anxiety laced with fear making him stand too close. His face was gaunt and unshaven in the upward glare of the flashlight, and he wore a greasy jacket and cheap, crumpled trousers and sandals. He spoke rapidly in a language the driver couldn’t understand, but the meaning was clear. Where were they to go? What were they to do next?

‘Over there, the rive nord,’ said Maurat, the beam flicking across the verge to the barrier and picking up a brief reflection from the ribbon of water underneath. ‘Follow the wadi.El-souf, OK?’ He signalled for the man to take the far side of the canal and turn left. ‘Go, damn you, before the police come.Les flics, got it?’

If nothing else the man recognised the word for police. He gave a nod and followed his companions into the night.

The driver waited but nobody else appeared.

‘Hey. Hang about …’ There were supposed to be eight; the man he’d taken over from had definitely said eight. He’d only counted seven. He swore. That was all he needed; some dopey Arab left behind for the security fascists at the assembly plant to trip over. If that happened, his arse would be on fire along with his licence and his truck.

He scrambled into the back, barking his shins on the tailboard, and shone the light around the stacked boxes ofcar parts. Overlaying the heavy smell of new plastic was the stronger, acidic stench of human bodies and bodily waste. His stomach churned and he wondered how to get rid of the aroma by the time he reached the depot.

A tunnel had been created through the middle of the cargo, and he bent and peered through the gap, probing the darkness with the light beam. At the far end lay a jumble of screw-top bottles and a pile of browned banana skins where his human cargo had kept their hunger at bay during the long journey from the south. It was probably all they’d been given since scrambling off the boat in the Med. He crawled along the narrow opening, scooping up the debris as he went. The bottles were filled with a brownish liquid, and his nose recoiled at the smell of ammonia sloshing about on the floor. Bloody pigs … they were meant to take all their crap with them. God knows what else he’d find—

Then he saw the sandals.


They were pointing up, scuffed and dirty, clumsy with thick rubber soles, the leather stained. They were at the end of a pair of cheap, green, cotton trousers, grubby and creased with wear.

‘Yalla!’ he shouted, banging on the floor. ‘Come on, get up!’ He reached out and tugged at one of the feet, flicking the light along the legs for a better view. The words stalled in his throat. He knew instantly by the stillness and the stains around the seat that it was no good. The man wearing them had ended his journey.

Maurat’s stomach heaved at the noxious smell in the enclosed space and what lay here. Up close, the atmosphere was mixed with the tang of blood … and something stronger.Faeces. He gulped and crouched where he was, fighting the desire to empty his guts. That wouldn’t help right now. He had to consider his options. If he left this poor bastard where he was, come Monday morning there would be hell to pay and it would be a long time before he ever drove a truck again. But what to do with him?

Running water.

He stuffed the flashlight in his pocket and backed out through the tunnel of boxes, dragging the dead man by his feet. Hefty, by the feel of him. Solidly built, whoever he was … had been.

When he reached the tailgate, he leant out and checked the road either way, blinking against the rain. No lights, no engine noises. Perfect conditions for dumping the unwanted dead. He dropped to the ground, and gritting his teeth against the smell, heaved the body onto his shoulder and lurched across to the parapet.

Moments later he was back, breathless and sweating, trying not to throw up at the feel of some unnameable slime on his hands. He bent and ripped up a clump of grass, scrubbing until his skin burnt. He couldn’t tell if they were clean or not, but he was running out of time. He slammed the rear door and seconds later was back in the cab and driving away, his nearside front wheel crunching over the forgotten marker post. As he ran through the gears, the heater kicked in and began to warm the inside of the cab. Moments later he coughed, his nose filled with a strange smell: close, heavy, sweet. Out of place. He flicked on the interior light, wondering what the hell it was. When he looked down, he gave a cry of dismay.

His shoulder and side were glistening with a sticky layer of fresh blood.


Oran, Algeria

Where is she?’

The voice was cool, just a hair’s breadth from turning cold, like the evening winds off the Hauts Plateaux of the Atlas Mountains. The man asking the question stared out of the window of a room on the third floor of a small office block in the commercial district of Es Sénia, a few kilometres from the centre of Oran on Algeria’s coastline. Nearby was the international airport, from where a steady roar could be heard as a cargo plane prepared for take-off. In the background came the tinny sound of a radio playing the lilting, stringed sound ofkamanjahmusic.

The speaker was dressed in expensive trousers and a white silk shirt, at odds with the plain, even rough interior of the room, which had once been an office but was no longer used. His name was Samir Farek, known to a few friends and close associates as Sami. He was of medium height, heavy across the shoulders, with muscular arms and powerful hands.He had dark eyes in a fleshy face, a thick moustache and dark hair swept back and falling to touch his shirt collar, in the modern manner. Far from looking like a local, Farek could have passed almost unnoticed anywhere in Europe and especially in France – as he had done on many occasions.

Two other men stood by the door. Also heavily built, but with shaven heads and coarse features, their faces held identical expressions of careful boredom.

In the centre of the room, a man was eating, chewing hungrily at a simple meal of cheese, olives and leavened bread laid out on a small table before him. A dumpy glass of beer stood by his hand, from which he gulped regularly and noisily. He paused and looked up, a flake of bread falling from his lips. He had not shaved in two days and the stubble of his chin had trapped a faint scattering of crumbs and a tiny piece of cheese. His name was Abdou and he was the owner-driver of a battered Renault taxi in the city of Oran.

‘Huh?’ He wiped his face with the back of a grubby hand and flicked a wary glance towards the two men by the door. They ignored him. He had been brought here for a meeting, so he had been told, to discuss a position as a regular driver for Farek’s business activities, although so far, there had been no such discussion. He had, though, been encouraged to eat by Farek, by way of an apology for causing him to miss his lunch break. Poorly paid and in a competitive market, he had needed no second invitation, and even wondered if he would be permitted to take away what he didn’t consume, for eating later.

‘The woman you took from the house on Al Hamri Street,’ said Farek casually, as if the matter were of no great consequence. ‘The woman and the boy.’

Abdou blinked, and turned slightly pale. ‘Al Hamri? I don’t know that place.’ He gave a weak smile and shrugged. He was a very poor liar. He was also very stupid. It had not occurred to him to question why he, a lowly cab driver on the border of destitution, was being treated with such courtesy by a man known widely throughout Algeria to be the head of a large and very ruthless criminal empire.

He was about to find out.

Farek turned and snapped his fingers. Like a well-rehearsed team, the two men by the door moved across the room and dragged the table away to one wall. It left Abdou sitting alone, arms suspended and mouth open, confused by the sudden change in the atmosphere. And frightened.

‘Wait! I don’t follow …’ he murmured. But it was evident by his reaction to the mention of Al Hamri that he followed all too well what Farek was talking about. And with it seemed to come the realisation that agreeing to come here had been a serious mistake; a trap for the unwary. And he’d walked right into it.

Farek clapped his hands, and the door to the room opened. Another man stepped inside. ‘You two – out,’ Farek continued, and his two guards left the room.

The newcomer was large, in the way very fat men are large, and moved with difficulty, feet forced apart by the girth of his thighs. He was dressed in a long, white djellaba and wore industrial glasses with wrap-around lenses flipped up on top of his head, which was shaven and shiny with sweat. In his hand he carried an ugly, black handgun fitted with a long, slim silencer.


Farek didn’t need to watch Bouhassa at work, but stayed, anyway. It was part of the ritual, just as giving the victim one last taste of a meal was his way of doing things … and of instilling an aura around himself. He was the boss here,le chef. And if you weren’t prepared to get your own hands soiled, even at one step removed, where was the honour to be gained? Where was the respect from those around you, and from those who heard only the rumours? It was the rumours feeding on each other which built and enhanced his reputation and power.

He sat on a hard chair in the corner and watched as Bouhassa flipped out the chamber of the revolver. Underworld rumour had it that he had ‘liberated’ the gun from a police chief in Algiers with a predilection for collecting weapons. But nobody had ever cared to confirm or dispute it; Bouhassa had a reputation, too. He inserted a single shell and flipped his hand again, locking the chamber.

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