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Blood saturated the walls, the stink of it creeping into his nostrils. By any measure, the scene was sickening. It was more devastation at a single crime scene than Esa Khattak had ever witnessed. From the green tinge to Rachel’s skin, he could see it was the same for her. Their eyes met across the hall, sharing the moment of horror. They’d been called at once and had arrived as quickly as possible after the shooting, a mere matter of hours.
Rachel was at the door canvasing the mosque’s parking lot. Khattak had been permitted access to the narrow cordon set up by crime scene technicians in the midst of the dead. He wore a protective forensic suit, Superintendent Martine Killiam at his side. He photographed the scene methodically, finding it easier to deal with the sight of bodies through the distancing mechanism of his lens. He made the count to himself. Two bodies in the corner had fallen back against the small shelf of books. Two more were slumped sideways in the main prayer space, where the green and white carpeting was soaked through. Another body was pitched against the mihrab, its white robe spattered with starbursts of blood. The delicately tiled niche had been damaged by a spray of bullets, its shards scattered over the carpet. A tiny turquoise flower lay inches from Khattak’s feet.
He turned in the opposite direction, to the scene he’d put off photographing to the end. Two bodies close enough to touch and farthest from the door, one huddled inside the protective embrace of the other. A father and his small son. The assailant had targeted both.
A small community, a small mosque, with seven dead in the prayer hall.
And there was one more. Killed in the small passageway that led from the imam’s office to the main hall, this time by a single gunshot to the head, assailant and victim facing each other.
The man who Khattak presumed had shot them was sitting on a chair at the far end of the hallway, a semi-automatic weapon cradled in his lap. It was an AR-15. He was surrounded by Sûreté officers who spoke to him in French, patient with his bewilderment.
Khattak glanced at him once, a comprehensive glance. Long enough to see the small gold cross he wore on a chain at his neck. And to note the details of his clothing: A gray cardigan worn over a blue shirt. Black trousers and formal dress shoes, slightly scuffed at the toes. The man in the chair seemed slight and insignificant, his thin patch of hair compensated for by a full-grown beard, his eyes wide and dazed. His clothes, hands, and face were free of blood spatter, but his hands were locked around the weapon.
A powerfully built man with an air of command was speaking to the man with the gun in a surprisingly gentle voice, his tone respectful and kind. Esa couldn’t make out his words, but after a few minutes the gun was released into the hands of the technicians. A moment later, the man in the chair was helped to his feet and escorted from the mosque through a side entrance.
Khattak turned to Killiam. The heat inside the mosque was stifling, yet he found his hands were cold. He put away his phone.
“No handcuffs?” he asked her, fighting the tremor in his voice.
Killiam shook her head. She’d made her own inventory of the scene, her sharp gray eyes missing nothing. She was wearing her dress uniform, the stripes at her shoulders indicative of her rank, and after a minute the man in charge of the scene nodded at her in acknowledgment. She nodded back.
Brusquely, she said to Khattak, “That’s Christian Lemaire, a homicide detective with the SQ—the Sûreté du Québec. The man with the rifle is Étienne Roy; he’s the priest at the local church. He holds a position of considerable influence. More than that, he is dear to the people of this town. They won’t insult the church by cuffing him. My guess is Inspector Lemaire won’t arrest him tonight.”
Khattak glanced at her sharply. “He was found with the weapon in his hand.”
“And what do you conclude from that?”
Khattak took a moment to think it through. Killiam had requested the presence of Community Policing detectives on-site for a reason. She’d accompanied him personally and not only because she expected Esa to do damage control in the small community that attended the mosque. Their relationship had progressed beyond that.
“He didn’t look as though he’d ever held a gun in his hands. There’s no blood trail leading from the prayer hall, his shoes are clean—and where’s the gun?”
“Inspector Lemaire’s team has confiscated it.”
“I mean the gun used to kill the victim in the hallway. It wasn’t the AR-15. From the exit wound, I’d say it was a handgun. Has it been recovered from the scene?”
Killiam looked at him approvingly. “No.”
“So either there’s a second shooter or the priest was not involved.”
A new team had gathered at the entrance to the mosque. Lemaire went over to speak to them. Killiam straightened her jacket, speaking to Khattak in an undertone.
“Then why was the rifle in his hands?”
“Maybe the priest came to the mosque in the aftermath of the shooting. Perhaps he tried to help some of the victims. Or it could be he wrestled the rifle away from the assailant.”
Killiam was watching Lemaire, a faint frown settling between her eyebrows.
“There’s no evidence he did anything of the kind. And if he was engaged in a scuffle, why wasn’t he shot?”
Lemaire looked back over his shoulder, fixing them with a penetrating glance.
Khattak didn’t have the answer.
What he did have was questions raised by the way the priest had been dressed. He was about to raise this when Killiam swore under her breath. Khattak followed her line of sight, to Lemaire and his efforts to coordinate the various branches of police insisting on access to the scene. His voice cut cleanly across the clatter.
But it wasn’t Lemaire who had drawn Killiam’s attention.
In the flickering light cast by ambulances and police cars, a hastily constructed platform had been arranged. A coterie of reporters were gathered in a circle around a neatly dressed woman in her thirties. Other press huddles had begun to form as well demanding the attention of local officials.
“We need to control how this shooting is covered from the outset.” Killiam sounded worried, a rare emotion for her.
“Lemaire should get out there, then,” Khattak said.
But when Killiam glanced back at him, her gray eyes frankly assessing, he understood at last why he and Rachel had been allowed access to the crime scene and, more important, why Community Policing had been called to assist at this shooting at a mosque in Québec.
She was expecting him to manage the public response to the crisis—to give it the Community Policing Section’s sanction. And to fulfill the CPS mandate, which was to play a mediating role between minority communities and law enforcement where violent crime had occurred.
But looking across at the gathering of reporters, he knew that nothing about the shooting would be easy to manage or suppress. Because one of his chief adversaries was speaking even now.
WOLF ALLEGIANCE CHAT ROOM[English-language page]
SUBJECT: MOSQUE SHOOTING
WHITEVICTORY: TOO MANY ATTACKS BY “REFUGEES” THE GOVERNMENT LETS IN WITHOUT EXTREME VETTING. WE’RE FIGHTING BACK AND IT’S ABOUT TIME!!!!
NINEINCHNAILER: YEAH BUT I WANNA KNOW HOW THEY GOT THE AR-15.
FRENCHKISSER: AN ASSAULT RIFLE?
NINEINCHNAILER: JUST WHAT I HEARD SOMEWHERE.
FLAYALLTHEPLAYERS: WE HAVE TO PROTECT OURSELVES.
NOHA TEHERE: I THINK YOU MAY HAVE READ A DIFFERENT NEWS REPORT. THE PEOPLE INSIDE THE MOSQUE ARE THE ONES WHO NEED PROTECTION.
WHITEVICTORY: FUCK OFF, ALIZAH.
BROADSWORDBEN: I SECOND THAT.
NOHA TEHERE: THOUGHT THIS WAS AN OPEN FORUM. NICE TO HEAR FROM YOU AGAIN, BEN, BY THE WAY.
BROADSWORDBEN: SCREW THAT AND SCREW YOU. HOW THE FUCK DID THEY GET AN AR-15? THEY’RE ILLEGAL AS FUCK.
FRENCHKISSER: WHO CARES AS LONG AS THEY’RE USED TO FIGHT ISLAM.
Copyright © 2019 by Ausma Zehanat Khan