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The Zahir: A Novel of Obsessionby Paulo Coelho
Her name is Esther; she is a war correspondent who has just returned from Iraq because of the imminent invasion of that country; she is thirty years old, married, without children. He is an unidentified male, between twenty-three and twenty-five years old, with dark, Mongolian features. The two were last seen in a café on the Rue du Faubourg St-Honoré.
The police were told that they had met before, although no one knew how often: Esther had always said that the man — who concealed his true identity behind the name Mikhail — was someone very important, although she had never explained whether he was important for her career as a journalist or for her as a woman.
The police began a formal investigation. Various theories were put forward — kidnapping, blackmail, a kidnapping that had ended in murder — none of which were beyond the bounds of possibility given that, in her search for information, her work brought her into frequent contact with people who had links with terrorist cells. They discovered that, in the weeks prior to her disappearance, regular sums of money had been withdrawn from her bank account: those in charge of the investigation felt that these could have been payments made for information. She had taken no change of clothes with her, but, oddly enough, her passport was nowhere to be found.
He is a stranger, very young, with no police record, with no clue as to his identity.
She is Esther, thirty years old, the winner of two international prizes for journalism, and married.
I immediately come under suspicion and am detained because I refuse to say where I was on the day she disappeared. However, a prison officer has just opened the door of my cell, saying that I'm a free man.
And why am I a free man? Because nowadays, everyone knows everything about everyone; you just have to ask and the information is there: where you've used your credit card, where you spend your time, whom you've slept with. In my case, it was even easier: a woman, another journalist, a friend of my wife, and divorced — which is why she doesn't mind revealing that she slept with me — came forward as a witness in my favor when she heard that I had been detained. She provided concrete proof that I was with her on the day and the night of Esther's disappearance.
I talk to the chief inspector, who returns my belongings and offers his apologies, adding that my rapid detention was entirely within the law, and that I have no grounds on which to accuse or sue the state. I say that I haven't the slightest intention of doing either of those things, that I am perfectly aware that we are all under constant suspicion and under twenty-four-hour surveillance, even when we have committed no crime.
"You're free to go," he says, echoing the words of the prison officer.
I ask: Isn't it possible that something really has happened to my wife? She had said to me once that — understandably given her vast network of contacts in the terrorist underworld — she occasionally got the feeling she was being followed.
The inspector changes the subject. I insist, but he says nothing.
I ask if she would be able to travel on her passport, and he says, of course, since she has committed no crime. Why shouldn't she leave and enter the country freely?
"So she may no longer be in France?"
"Do you think she left you because of that woman you've been sleeping with?"
That's none of your business, I reply. The inspector pauses for a second and grows serious; he says that I was arrested as part of routine procedure, but that he is nevertheless very sorry about my wife's disappearance. He is married himself and although he doesn't like my books (So he isn't as ignorant as he looks! He knows who I am!), he can put himself in my shoes and imagine what I must be going through.
I ask him what I should do next. He gives me his card and asks me to get in touch if I hear anything. I've watched this scene in dozens of films, and I'm not convinced; inspectors always know more than they say they do.
He asks me if I have ever met the person who was with Esther the last time she was seen alive. I say that I knew his code name, but didn't know him personally.
He asks if we have any domestic problems. I say that we've been together for ten years and have the same problems most married couples have — nothing more.
He asks, delicately, if we have discussed divorce recently, or if my wife was considering leaving me. I tell him we have never even considered the possibility, and say again that "like all couples" we have our occasional disagreements.
Frequent or only occasional?
Occasional, I say.
He asks still more delicately if she suspected that I was having an affair with her friend. I tell him that it was the first — and last — time that her friend and I had slept together. It wasn't an affair; it came about simply because we had nothing else to do. It had been a bit of a dull day, neither of us had any pressing engagements after lunch, and the game of seduction always adds a little zest to life, which is why we ended up in bed together.
"You go to bed with someone just because it's a bit of a dull day?"
I consider telling him that such matters hardly form part of his investigations, but I need his help, or might need it later on. There is, after all, that invisible institution called the Favor Bank, which I have always found so very useful ...
The foregoing is excerpted from The Zahir by Paulo Coelho. All rights reserved.
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