Exiled Heart, page 11
Until images from three years ago flashed before her eyes. Scarlet blood. Lots of it. All over her gloved hands and her smock.
“Time of death, 7:07,” the cardiothoracic surgeon had said.
A wasted life, all at the hands of a man who swore allegiance and faith to Allah.
She swallowed hard. She’d promised Emma she’d look after Ziad. And she would. But that was all. She wouldn’t let herself get close to someone whose loyalty lay with a faith that endorsed honor killings.
A wave of loneliness rolled over her. Claire hugged a pillow to herself and stared at the ceiling fan as it rotated above her. “I can’t, God. He was a good date for the weekend. Nothing more.”
Right. Like she believed that. As she turned on her side and tried to sleep, the only thing filling her mind was a gentleman from a foreign land with a gaze that could see into her soul.
Two weeks and one incredible honeymoon in the Caribbean had passed. Ben held Emma’s hand as she guided her brand-new Honda Accord through the rainy streets of North Charleston. Time to get his Forester and focus on everything else required of settling into married life. He glanced at the directions on his phone. “Pier Six.”
“Right.” She leaned forward, then nodded. “There!” She pulled through a chain-link gate and into a parking space in front of a small building. “You want me to stay?”
“Nah. See you at home, bride of sixteen days?”
“Of course!” She accepted his kiss. “Love you.”
“Back at ya.” He shut the door and strode whistling toward the metal-sided building. While outside smelled of the ocean and ship fuel, the inside reeked of Pinesol. He sneezed. A young man sat behind the counter, and no one else was in the lobby. Ben approached the scarred Formica. “Hey, I’m Ben Evans, here to pick up a Subaru Forester that just came in.”
“Ben Evans.” The guy tapped some computer keys stained from too much use. “What was your port of origin?”
“Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.”
“Oh, yeah. I remember that one. We don’t get much from there. What’s your address?”
Ben supplied the address of his in-laws.
“I’ll need to see some ID.”
Ben laid his driver’s license on the counter.
The clerk nodded. “Let me get your paperwork together.” He began hitting more keys. “What year is it?”
“Wow. That’s getting up there. How many miles?”
“Getting close to two hundred grand.”
“And you kept it?”
Ben shrugged. “Some things are hard to let go of. Too many good memories.”
“I’m sure. I’ve never been to Jeddah.” The clerk gathered some papers off the printer. “What’s it like?”
“Hot and humid during the summer. Tolerable during the winter.” Ben snagged a pen from a plastic University of South Carolina cup on the counter.
The clerk laid four sheets in front of him. “Here you go. This one is your acceptance form. This is the release for us. And for the shipping company. And this one is a waiver. Before you sign, I want you to check out your Forester. It’s in slot A out back.”
The white SUV sat in its assigned slot. He walked around it and noted the Arabic writing on the license plates. Good memories—at least until the April before. He’d be sure to put those plates on his wall at home.
“Everything’s good?” the clerk asked when he returned.
“Good to go.” Ben began signing and dating the forms. As he did so, the clerk held down the sheets with his fingers spread.
Something peeked at Ben between the guy’s pinkie and ring fingers on his left hand. A symbol. With the tail extending half an inch onto the top of the hand.
Suddenly, he sat with Ziad at that coffee table the year before at the edge of Jeddah’s shopping district. Dressed in his SANG uniform, Ziad pointed at the exact same spot on his left ring finger, next to his wedding band. His friend’s baritone echoed in his ears. “All three of them had a small tattoo here that extends a little onto the top. No larger than a centimeter in diameter.”
No. It couldn’t be. Not here in Charleston. He hadn’t heard or seen anything about it. Of course, he’d been so wrapped up in the wedding and then away on his honeymoon that he hadn’t bothered to pick up a newspaper or read a website.
Ben signed the final paper and shoved the stack toward him. “Hey, I didn’t catch your name.”
The clerk stapled the stack. “Oh, Mike Winthrop.”
“Mike, thanks for your help.” Ben flashed a wide smile that felt fake. “Have a great day.”
With that, he headed into the rain and slid into the Forester. He reached for the registration, which he’d left on the front passenger seat when he’d dropped it off at the shipping company in Jeddah. He reached to open the glove compartment. A chill washed over him as he remembered the tattoo on the man’s hand.
“Crap, crap, crap.” He snagged a screwdriver from the glove compartment and opened the door. With one eye on the back door of the office, he popped off the side panel and checked behind it. Nothing but air. Same thing on the others. As he wormed underneath the SUV, wet soaked his shirt. Nothing there, thank goodness. Nor in the compartments in the back. Now dripping wet, he slid into the driver’s seat.
So much for enjoying the afterglow of a great honeymoon. His mind began clicking into FBI mode. He was sure he’d seen a tattoo related to the Zap bust in Saudi the year before. He pulled out his phone and located the website of the local news station. Seconds later, he got his answer. Three dead from overdoses of Zap. He began shivering and started the engine.
As he pulled out of the parking lot, he dialed Ziad’s number.
“Marhaba.” Ziad’s voice filled his ear.
“Hey, my friend. Where are you?” Ben asked in English.
“On my way to Columbia for training over the next couple of weeks.”
Now he remembered the required coursework in South Carolina law and federal law that Ziad needed. “Sounds like fun.”
Ziad snorted. “Perhaps if sitting in a classroom can be called fun. You are back?”
“As of yesterday. Thank goodness I have until next Monday before I report to work.” Ben hesitated, then continued, “But something came up that may change that. I got the Forester today, and the guy who did the paperwork for me had a tattoo in the exact same place as your suspects from last year.”
Ziad drew in a sharp breath. “You are sure?”
“Not a hundred percent. I’m going to call my future boss and see what she says. Hopefully, I’m worried about nothing.”
“Perhaps.” Doubt rang in his friend’s voice. “Will you let me know what you find?”
“Of course. Have fun, and give us a call when you get back into town.” Ben made his next call to his unit supervisor in the Charleston office. “Angie, Ben Evans here.”
“Aren’t you still on your honeymoon?”
“Uh, well, sort of.” Ben turned onto I-526. He outlined what had happened just minutes earlier.
“Meet me at the office, and we’ll go over that Forester for you.”
Ben made one final call. “Em? Hey. I wanted to let you know I need to go into the office.”
“What?” Astonishment rang in her voice. “Ben Evans, you are still on leave until next Monday.”
“I know. I know.” He swallowed hard, knowing full well that if he weren’t careful, they’d have many tiffs like this one. “Promise I’ll be home by supper, okay?”
A sigh answered him. “All right. I’ll see you then. I love you.”
“Love you back.” Ben focused on the task at hand.
An hour later, he stood inside a small warehouse with ASAC Angie Rogers as they watched an FBI dog team go over his Forester. He rubbed his chin. “You sure the dog would find something if it were there?”
“Positive.” Her dark, tight curls bobbed as she turned and led to an office building and one of the few offices. With
Ben muttered under his breath.
“Well, we have a name now. And possibly what to look for.”
Just then, someone tapped on the door frame. A Belgian Malinois, a Kong toy in his mouth, waved his tail as if in greeting. His handler said, “We didn’t find anything.”
Relief swept over Ben. “Thanks for checking. I can sleep tonight.”
A half smile crossed Angie’s face. “Good. ‘Cause guess what? Your first assignment is the new Zap task force along with me. First meeting’s on Monday at ten. Welcome to Charleston.”
Tuesday night a month after Emma’s wedding, Claire stopped in front of Mocha Joe’s, the coffeehouse where her Bible study sometimes met. With study, purse, and Bible in her arms, she burst through the glass doors.
Only Elizabeth McMillan and Sonja Williams sat at a table for four.
Claire set her stuff down. “Sorry I’m late. I’ll be right back.”
Elizabeth paused from her conversation. “Not a problem, dear. Go and get something to drink.”
Claire bought a hot tea and a blueberry muffin for supper. She’d make up for that later by having some fruit before crashing into bed. With snack in hand, she plopped down with a small groan. “What a day! What a week!”
Sonja shoved her books aside. “That bad?”
“Yup. We had a briefing that ran long.”
“About?” Sonja asked.
Claire dipped her teabag in the cup a few times. “You don’t want to know.”
Her friend raised her chin. “Sure, we do.”
“You heard of Zap?”
Sonja sat back and folded her arms across her chest. “You too, huh?”
“What?” Claire frowned at her best friend. “What are you talking about?”
“We had our own little meeting about it.” Sonja sipped her caramel mocha latte. “Seems it’s the newest fad drug in town.”
Elizabeth laid the study guide she’d been examining aside and leaned forward. “Wait. That’s the drug that’s killed a few teenagers, right? I read about it in the paper.”
Claire winced as sadness stung her. “The one and only. A seventeen-year-old boy died a couple of weeks ago while we were airlifting him.”
“Oh, dear. I’m so sorry.”
“Our briefing was on what to do if we get calls.”
Sonja fingered the corner of her Bible. “Tell the parents to make funeral arrangements.”
“Why is it so bad?” Elizabeth asked.
Claire began breaking her muffin into pieces. “It’s heroin grown in Afghanistan but juiced up with something that acts like cyanide and bioaccumulates in the body. Teenagers and twenty-somethings are using it because it creates these crazy highs. So while at hit one it may take a gram to get high, by hit four, it only takes a tenth of a gram.”
“And they still think they need a gram. Zap, you’re dead.” Sonja shook her head. “The narc units have nailed some dealers, but no one’s talking. DEA’s just as clueless as we are. They and the FBI think the drug arrived on US soil in different places at the same time. I’m involved because we’ve set up a task force to deal with it in this area.”
Claire sighed and sipped her tea. “Sorry to get us off on a morbid topic.”
“That’s what I get for asking.” Elizabeth placed her study on top of her Bible. “Sounds like we need to talk and catch up.”
“You’re right.” Sonja slurped the remains of her drink through a straw. She appraised Claire like a jeweler would a diamond. “You do look a bit ragged around the edges.”
“I know.” Claire pulled her hair band from her hair and scrubbed her hands through it. “One of the nurses got sick, so I pulled a swing shift Thursday. Then I had to turn around and go right back in on Friday to fill her position. She just came back in today.”
“At least I’ll be off from Friday through Monday.”
Sonja blew on the hot tea she’d gotten to go along with her drink. “How’s Emma?”
“Fine, I think. Honestly, I haven’t even had time to call her.”
Sonja’s chocolate-colored skin crinkled at the corners of her eyes. “You’ve definitely been busy then. I’d be on the phone at all hours until I got a detailed description of the honeymoon.”
“That’s the prosecutor in you.” Claire popped some bits of muffin into her mouth. She sighed in ecstasy.
Elizabeth set her cup down. “How’s Mr. Ziad doing?”
Kerplunk! Forget a good mood now. “You don’t want to know.”
Sonja grinned. “You know we do.”
“No, you don’t.”
“C’mon, Claire. ‘Fess up. You can’t tell that to the District Nine Circuit Solicitor and expect her not to ask questions.”
Her cheeks began heating. “I invited him to go to yard sales with me a couple of weeks ago. It was fine until he decided he needed to haggle for me to buy a vase.”
“Why was that a big deal?” Sonja asked.
“Because I knew it was expensive, like four hundred bucks expensive, but they were letting it go for one fifty.”
Elizabeth nodded. “A steal.”
“Exactly. Except Ziad stepped in. He offered twenty-five for it.”
Sonja began chuckling.
Claire rolled her eyes. “Then the husband got involved. I was afraid he was going to punch Ziad’s lights out. I told Ziad to wait in the truck.”
Elizabeth set her cup on the table. “Did you get the vase?”
“No!” Claire threw her hands in the air. “The husband told me that if I can’t ask for it myself and instead let a jerk like Ziad do my dirty work, I couldn’t have it.”
Both women began laughing.
She glowered at them in mock indignation. “I don’t think it’s funny.”
“You’re right. It’s hilarious!” Sonja guffawed and shook her head. “Poor Ziad. You can’t help but feel for him. I mean, he tries to do right by his culture and gets hammered in ours.”
“Oh, it got better.” She really didn’t want to confess the events that followed.
Elizabeth leaned back and looped an arm over the back of her chair. “How so?”
“Uh…” Why had she opened her big mouth?
“You’re among friends, darlin’.” Elizabeth gave her That Look over the rims of her reading glasses.
“I, uh, I made him swear not to make grown women cry.” Her cheeks heated as she remembered that pleasant tingle that had rippled up her arm when she’d grabbed Ziad’s hand. Figured she had to be attracted to the one man who drove her crazy. “Then he lit up in front of me for what seemed to be the umpteenth time. I guess… I guess I got frustrated with that because I began hounding him about it. And I exasperated him because he grabbed my chin and told me to knock it off.”
Sonja straightened. “He what?”
“Grabbed my chin. He was firm but not cruel. I… It was the temper in his voice that scared me.”
“How so?” Elizabeth asked.
“I got him mad to the boiling point.” Hastily, she added, “I think he realized it because when I got home from work the Monday after it happened, I found this in my screened door.”
She pulled out the letter she’d stuffed in her purse.
Sonja quirked a smile. “You’ve carried that around for fifteen days? I’m impressed.” Before Claire could react, she snatched it from her fingers and opened it. As Elizabeth swung her chair around to look at it, she said, “Wow. He’s got the most awesome handwriting.”
“And it’s from a guy, not a girl!” Elizabeth winked.
Claire shrugged in silent acknowledgment of her own messy handwriting.
Sonja cleared her throat began reading aloud as if in a theater. “'Dear Claire, I hope this letter finds you well. I know that when I deliver this, you will be at work. I am sorry I could not deliver this in person (I am on my way to Columbia), but I wanted to apologize from the bottom of my heart if I scared you Saturday morning. You see, I have been trying my best to fit in. Perhaps even to please you because I value you as a friend.’” Sonja’s dark eyes sparkled as she grinned. “Hey, that’s good, Claire.” Her gaze returned to the paper. “‘But when you criticized me for another cultural blunder and then about my smoking habit, I got frustrated. I reacted without thinking. I saw the fear in your eyes when I grabbed your chin, and I deeply regret that. Please know I have never struck a woman. Not my mother. Not my sister. Not Sabirah.’” She raised her gaze to meet Claire’s. “Who’s Sabirah?”
“His wife who died last year.”
“Oh. I didn’t know.” Sonja lifted the paper once more. “‘And not the hired help. I never, ever would hit you, though I am sure Saturday you did not know that. Please accept my apology. I know you may not want to be my friend, but please understand I value our friendship. Sincerely, Ziad.’” She set the paper on the table. “That’s pretty big of him.”
Claire wanted to crawl into a hole and die. She settled for putting her head in her arms. They muffled her voice as she said, “I know. Oh, what is wrong with me? It’s like we get along great. Then he makes a mistake, and I jump all over him like stink on a dog about it. Then it goes downhill from there.”
“Do you know why?” Elizabeth asked.
Claire lifted her face. Yes. No! Admitting it would mean acknowledging she had a part of herself she severely disliked. “I have no idea.”
Bless her, Sonja didn’t call her on it. Instead, she folded the letter neatly in half and slid it to her. Her fingers skittered across the shiny surface of the table. Then she lifted her gaze to meet Claire’s. “Could it be because you’re a bit prejudiced due to what happened two and a half years ago?”