Farouq stared at the gun in front of him on the warehouse floor; an AK-47. He’d never shot anyone before. He’d never wanted to shoot anyone. When he tried to move towards it, his legs didn’t work. His ‘Miami Vice’ linen suit was filthy, caked in dirt and sweat, his hair was perfect as always.
Things had started so well with Monsieur Belhadj — organising the parties, looking after the house and cars – someone had finally given him the chance to help his family do more than just survive. Now the very man who had helped him pay his debts, was writhing on the floor, naked, with his hands tied, holding his head, and Farouq was in a mad scramble with a bunch of Armenian thugs. Who said it pays to be loyal?
He touched the prayer beads around his neck. The faces of Layla and his little Fatima pleaded with him to come home in one piece. Only one thing was important now – survival. He bent forward and reached for the gun.
It was a warm night in the Riviera and the guests sat around the patio, in various states of undress. God knows where most of them came from, or what they did. Film producers, advertisers, wannabe actresses, and other hangers-on. Some of them couldn’t have been more than 17, another thing for Farouq to keep an eye on. Some empty champagne bottles teetered on the edge of the kidney-shaped pool. It’s not surprising how many playboy parties end in disaster, especially ones with so many starry-eyed, drug-addled teenagers. Farouq moved the bottles to a patch of grass by the fence. Allowing himself a moment, he removed a pocket mirror and checked his gelled hair hadn’t sprung free. Still under control. He sat on a wooden sun lounger, and unbuttoned his beach shirt, exposing a pot belly.
The mansion was trying hard to be classy – designer furniture, white fabric drapes and coloured patio lights – but the building was blocky, with too much glass on show. The speakers played piped lounge bar electronica.
Nina came over for the second time that evening.
“I’m bored. Do you know when he’s going to arrive?” She wore a sarong and straightened her long curls with her hand.
“I don’t know, Nina, I am just trying to keep things together this evening and make sure nothing gets stolen, or broken . . . or worse.”
“You know your problem?” She said walking her fingers up his smooth chest, “You are too honest. Hassan wouldn’t miss half the stuff in this place. Send some jewellery home or something.”
He drew his shirt together and buttoned it. “I didn’t come here to steal. I just want what’s fair.”
“Wake up, Farouq, you’ll be waiting your whole life. All these rich guys, that’s why they’re rich, because they don’t play fair.”
“Well, he’s always been fair to me. No one else ever gave me anything.” He patted his new Brooks Brothers suit jacket, folded neatly beside him on the chair.
Nina plonked her champagne flute onto the table nearly breaking it, and dropped into a wicker chair. She was only 23, but she had been on the scene for a enough time that the necklaces, the yachts and expensive dinners didn’t thrill her anymore. A mirrored case containing at least five grams of cocaine lay on the table next to her.
Farouq snatched it from her, “You don’t need any more of that.”
Nina smiled patronisingly, “There’s more inside. . . only way to get through the evening. I can’t pose for another Instagram shot, or listen to more bullshit about someone’s vineyard.”
How could someone with such grace be so jaded?
He sighed and took out his phone, “I am going to check in with Monsieur.”
Farouq got the answer phone on all three of his numbers. What could be taking him so long? Hassan Belhadj liked a grand entrance, but he would never miss his own party, he loved to swoop in and take the credit for an immaculately planned event. Farouq hated festival season. Bargaining with caterers, the trips back and forth to the hypermarket, and running all the risks by picking up the drugs — all for an extra few hundred Euros.
As Nina made her way past the fat producer kissing a young skinny thing outside the sliding doors, his radio crackled into life.
“Entrance to patio, entrance to patio.”
“Yes, go ahead.”
“We’ve got the police here.”
“The police, Monsieur Farouq.”
“Well. If they don’t have a warrant get rid of them!”
Maybe they were just fishing again. Like Nina said, Belhadj didn’t always play by the rules.
“They say they need to speak to someone about Monsieur Belhadj. He might be in danger.”
Farouq looked around, as if trying to locate his boss. “I’ll be there in a second. Don’t let them in for God’s sake.”
He grabbed his linen jacket off the chair and made his way towards the house.
Farouq awoke in an empty police cell, lying on his left side. His ribs hurt and his wallet was gone. What time was it? Maybe he should have given them more information, made something up.
He got to his feet and banged on the door with his fist, “Let me out of here you scum!” With no identification, the new terrorism laws gave a lot of powers to the police. He knew the score, they didn’t even need to charge you with anything.
The previous night’s interrogation started to come back to him. The officers slapping his face. Why didn’t he know where Hassan Belhadj was? What was the exact nature of his relationship with his boss? What did he know about the Sochi deal? Which Russians had Monsieur Belhadj been in contact with? The questions were never-ending. He recalled the boot to the ribs only too well.
He heard the tip tapping of footsteps, “You can’t keep him locked up in there. This is ridiculous.”
Farouq strained to hear through the door.
“Take your shitting hands off me,” it was Nina. “Do I need to call my lawyer, or are you going to release him. You don’t want another inquiry. He’s the house sitter for fuck’s sake.”
There was a long pause, then the shuffling of feet and low mutterings. Suddenly, the bolt slid back and the cell door swung open. The sharp-nosed detective with the ugly moustache entered. He pointed at the open door. Farouq smiled back at him.
The policeman stepped closer, “Don’t push your fucking luck, Café Créme.” Even through gritted teeth, Farouq could smell his stale breath.
They walked through the corridors to the front desk, with the detective exactly one pace behind him. The uniformed receptionist slid an envelope with his belongings over the desk to him; keys to his basement room, phone, a leather wallet containing a family photo, and his wooden necklace.
Nina was waiting at the far end of the reception, filing her nails. “There you are. Let’s get out of this shithole.”
“What’s going on? Have you heard anything? They said he might be in danger.”
“Come on, I’ll fill you in in the car.” She took out the keys to the Lamborghini and rattled them in front him.
“How long has he been missing?”
“I don’t know exactly, two, three days, he’s never out of contact this long,” said Nina. They reached the car and the doors unlocked as Nina pressed the green button.
“And this Petrosyan guy. It’s bad. He’s a big deal in Marseilles — runs clubs and girls. That sort of thing.”
“The police wanted to know all about him. That’s their end game really.”
She stopped before getting in, holding the door up. “Please tell me you didn’t say anything.”
“I don’t know anything. First to be accused, and the last to be told. The cops though I was hiding all sorts of stuff, that I might even be in on it. I mean — kidnapping, extortion.”
She touched his arm. “I know, it’s not really your style.”
“How did he even get mixed up with this Petrosyan? Let me guess, another unhappy investor in one of the many new film projects.”
“Something like that. Let’s just concentrate on finding him.”
“I can’t believe I’m getting caught up in this. I’m supposed to be leaving in a month. Why should I even bother helping?”
Nina’s big eyes pleaded. “He needs you Farouq and whatever you think, he does care about people . . . about you.”
They stood next to the car, overlooking the harbour. The breeze carried the familiar smells of sea salt and old leather. “I’m never going to get out of here,” he said looking out over the moored super yachts. “This place is like a toilet bowl — people flushing their money away — and once you’re in, you can’t ever climb out.” He ducked his head into the car. “Where are we even going?”
“Bakery,” said Nina, starting the engine and pulling out. “Everything’s better after a fresh croissant.”
Farouq felt his pocket vibrate. He inspected the screen, then studied the message further.
“Well? Who is it?” demanded Nina.
“What? What does it say? Read it!” Nina stopped the car without checking who was behind them. She took out her own phone to check – nothing.
“It’s just an address. In Marseilles.”
She snatched the phone from his hand. “Rue des Garçons 50D, 15th Arrondissement, Marseilles.” The phone buzzed again. A picture. Nina gasped, and closed her eyes.
Farouq took the phone back. The photo showed Hassan Belhadj, sat naked against a wall in a dimly lit room. The skin sagged over his pigeon chest and you could just make out the cuts, some bigger than others. The leader of a media empire didn’t look as powerful without his oversized gold watch and Cartier sunglasses. The muzzle of an automatic gun pointed to a sign next to him.
4pm tomorrow. €5 million.
They both slumped down in their ridiculous racecar seats. The passing car looked down at the parked yellow Lambo.
“You have to call them back,” she said after a long silence.
“What’s the point? It’s quite clear,” he said, gazing straight ahead. “I told him he needs more security.”
“It’s not the time to play the blame game. We have got a job to do. He needs us remember.”
“I don’t even know if he has that kind of money lying around.” Nina’s scrunched her eyes up tight.
“They’ll kill him, Nina. They’ll kill him if we don’t pay, or if we get the police involved. These people, they take precautions – no police, no bugs, no tricks. They’re pros.”
As they sat at the side of the road in silence, Farouq thought back to the first time he’d seen the car. He was selling phone chargers at a road junction, not too far from where they were parked. A young businessman had stopped to buy a cable but unlike most people, he had looked him straight in the eye when paying.
“Thank you, my friend, you’ve saved my life. I’m on two per cent.”
“You are welcome, Monsieur. Have a good day.”
“Where are you from, my friend?” The man replied.
“Aha, I knew it, I can always tell, my father was Algerian. Just arrived?” He smiled through his gold sunglasses.
“Well, yes. Just arrived recently.”
The man turned off his engine and removed his mirrored sunglasses. “I know what kind of shitheads run these games”, he said, holding up the phone cable, “and I always need people who know how to be in the right place at the right time.”
Farouq looked back in silence.
“Give me a call if you like. We’ll set something up, get you a real job.” He handed Farouq a business card.
Hassan Belhadj, Riviera Drive Productions.
The last twenty four had been breathless, a manic rush to collect what they could – selling the watches and calling in debts. Nina had just returned from offloading the prized art collection for a rock bottom price to some friends in Nice. The suspected hiding places in the house had yielded nothing. Farouq had even driven to Monte Carlo to cash in all of the casino chips he found in the office.
“We are sorry to hear Monsieur Belhadj not be requiring these any more. Please have him call us.” Farouq wished he could have called him, just once, to get just a little closer to the five million.
Everything they had scraped together was in the boot of the car – cash, jewellery and some film memorabilia. Farouq put his hand to the bridge of his nose to relieve the pressure of his headache. He wore dark circles under his eyes and Nina had aged ten years overnight, maybe it was the lack of makeup.
“What’s the guy’s like?” Farouq asked.
“Arman Petrosyan? He’s old, about seventy, but he still runs the show. Runs all of the Armenian business in France.”
“He’s dealt with these types before. What’s different?”
“Hassan usually distracts these type of thugs them with big shiny gifts and job titles when he changes secures the investments,” she said. “He promised too much this time, took millions.”
“And people who lend millions, have machine guns.”
“Well . . . yes I suppose.”
“Why didn’t you tell me about all this?”
“He told me to keep you out of it all, besides, what could you have done? Gone on a killing spree?” She turned towards him, “you can’t fix everyone’s problems, Farouq.”
“Well his problem is my problem. I have nothing without this job, and now I have nothing with it. Everything I own is in this car.”
Farouq pictured the rosewood box filled with bank notes sitting in the boot. It usually held his father’s old Quran and now it lay amongst old film posters and vulgar jewellery.
“How much did we get again?”
“About €1.5m in kind. Tell them it’s worth two, including the car.”
Farouq looked at his watch — 3:48pm.
“I’ve got the messages ready. Get the nearest taxi if the deal goes down and drive like hell if it doesn’t. I’ll meet you at Saint Charles station.”
“I’ve got it, just don’t take any stupid risks” Her eyes shifted around the car.
“Everything is going to be OK.”
“It would be if we could get into his accounts to spring his money.”
“Just promise them the rest when he is free. He is good for it.”
Farouq envisaged the different ways this could go down. He didn’t see them setting their prisoner free, they would more likely torture them both before demanding more money. But he had to try. Without his boss, nothing would be possible – his passage back to Algiers, to Layla, to his new business. After two years of dreams, the new life dangling in front of him, was slowly disappearing.
Nina leant in to hug him. “We are all counting on you, Farouq.”
His hand started to shake. “Promise me something.”
“What is it?”
“Layla . . . Fatima,” he closed his eyes. “Promise me you’ll get the money back to them.”
Nina remained silent.
“All of this, it can’t be for nothing. They have to know, that I came here to make things better, not just t—”
“I know. It’s alright . . . it’s going to be alright.”
They watched the street.
The house sitter checked his watch one more time and released the catch allowing the car door to swing up. Nina said something as he hoisted himself out of his seat, but he didn’t hear it. He scanned the block and set off towards number 50 Rue de Garçons.
The steel door opened even before Farouq knocked it. A strong hand grabbed him by the collar and pulled him inside. The man thrust Farouq against the wall and checked for weapons. His neck bulged with a spider’s web tattoo. He was short and round, made out of stone. Farouq opened his mouth to speak but the man flung him by the lapels toward the middle of the warehouse.
The space was almost empty apart from a few tools on the floor. Hassan Belhadj cowered in the far corner, hands tied, still naked, his thin hair was matted with blood. His shivered and bowed his head to avoid the gaze of his employee. A white-haired man had his back to the front door and another heavy pointed an AK-47 at Farouq.
Before he had the chance to speak, the old man barked an instruction.
“Leave your money and go.”
“Let him go first.”
“You have all money yes?”
“We need more time. I could only get half.”
“I told you, I need to access my safety deposit box,” said Belhadj, raising his head slowly.
The man holding the gun jammed it into his ribs and he doubled over in pain. “Arrgh.”
“I tell you never to fuck with Arman Petrosyan, but you no listen,” said the old man, spitting now. “You give us back all money now.”
“I have half the money, and I’ll stay in his place.”
The old man took a second to think, scratching his grey stubble. “Bring me money.”
Hassan Belhadj looked up at Farouq, his eyes strained, or was he trying to say something? Farouq tried to look stoic, reassuring.
He took out his phone slowly and brought up the two messages in his drafts box. He stared at them both. Drive, or Leave? As he looked, Belhadj sprang to his feet, barging past the old man. He drove his forehead into the armed man’s chin. The gun flew from his hands as he clutched his face and the three men scrambled for position.
Farouq looked down at the gun lying a few feet in front of him. He’d never shot anyone before, he’d never wanted to shoot anyone, but it was the only possible play here. Hassan Belhadj had given him a chance, a chance at true freedom — the happiness that waited for him, back in Algeria.
As he reached for the gun, old man Petrosyan recovered his footing. Lightning quick, he withdrew a silver pistol from his waistband, flicked the safety off, and fired two rapid shots. The first hit Farouq in the shoulder, whipping his body around onto the floor. The second caught him in the back, exactly halfway up.
The breath was knocked clean out of him and Farouq lay like a floundered fish on the concrete. He stared up and saw his wife and daughter, smiling down at him, blocking out the bright light from above. The pain in his back roared and he fought to take in some air. With his last remaining strength his brought the phone up to his face and sent the message to Nina. Drive. As the light began to fade, Farouq closed his eyes and smiled back at his family. He reached out toward them.
Philip Charter is a British writer who currently lives in Pamplona, Spain. Between writing fiction, songs and poems, he runs a blog about teaching and travel. His work has been featured in Flash Fiction, Storgy and Carillon magazines.