Exiled heart, p.13

Exiled Heart, page 13

 

Exiled Heart
 



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  That did it! Before she could react, he grabbed her under the arms and hauled her to her feet.

  She squirmed. “No!”

  Could things get any worse? He almost forcibly escorted her up the stairs to the second floor. Double doors caught his attention. He guided her through them. Good. The master suite.

  Claire shook loose and swayed. “You’re no fun!”

  Between her and the bed, he folded his arms across his chest. “Maybe not, but neither are you at this moment.”

  “Party pooper.”

  He ignored her. “You need rest.”

  Lightning fast, she grabbed him.

  Ziad yanked away.

  Her fingers caught his shirt. Several buttons popped.

  Off balance, he tumbled onto the mattress. The hard outline of a book bit into his back.

  She tried to kiss him.

  Things had just gotten worse.

  He struggled and shoved her onto her back. “Claire, no. Stop!”

  She thrashed. “C’mon. You know you want to!”

  He grabbed her wrists and held them down. “To what?”

  “Kiss me, you idiot! You’re such a—”

  “Claire!” He took a deep breath. Now what? He wouldn’t have a repeat of a couple of weeks ago when he’d scared her. “I will not. I think—”

  A snore answered him.

  “Claire?”

  No answer.

  Shaking, Ziad slid off the mattress. He braced his hands on his knees and hung his head. What had just happened? She’d almost jumped him. He touched his gaping shirt as his gaze returned to the bed.

  Claire lay as still as death.

  For a brief second, terror seized him. He held his hand above her mouth. Breath whispered across his skin. He turned her onto her side so if she threw up, she wouldn’t drown in her own vomit. He found an afghan and draped it over her.

  Outside, the light began dimming, and thunder rumbled through the windows. He turned on a bedside lamp and gazed around the room.

  Several frames on a dresser a meter and a half tall caught his attention. He reached for one. Emma and Ben the weekend Ben had proposed to his bride. He remembered a copy of that one from Ben’s apartment. One of her with her parents. Another of her twin sisters. He set that one on the mattress with the others.

  A few more were crammed at the back. Curious, he drew one to him. Claire with a handsome man and a child.

  His blood chilled. His fingers tightened on the frame to the point where he worried he’d break it. Claire had a husband. And she hadn’t told him!

  Forget it. He couldn’t be friends with a liar.

  He almost ran down the stairs and fumbled with the lock of the screened door.

  Stop!

  Ziad froze.

  Time to go. Except something wasn’t right. What? Like his feet had a mind of their own, he returned to the bedroom.

  Claire lay still.

  As if preparing for a round of shots, he steeled himself and reached for the remaining frames on the dresser. Claire with the same man on their wedding day. One of them at a dinner party. Her with a little boy and a wide smile.

  As if handling fine china, he replaced each frame where he’d found it. What had happened? He rubbed his chin and paced. She didn’t wear a ring. Her last name was Montgomery, like her parents’, not some married name.

  Ziad began nodding. Maybe she and her husband were separated. If so, then surely the husband had something in the closet. He crossed the room and found the walk-in closet. He flipped on the light and searched. Nothing. No pants. No shirts. No shoes. Not even a man’s belt. Not one bit of evidence that showed a man had lived there.

  Of course. They were divorced. Perhaps the father had custody of their son. That was what they did in Saudi Arabia, after all. Her shame must have been so great she’d taken her maiden name. It also explained her reticence about her drinking problem.

  He wandered onto the landing. All of the other doors were open save for one. He stepped inside, flipped on the light, and stared. A child’s bedroom. Someone had painted on cheery pale blue walls a boat with animals in it and a rainbow over it. A wooden stork leaning next to a window proclaimed the news.

  Jackson Rayford Middleton, Junior. Born March 18, 2003, 9:48 AM. 8 pounds, 1 ounce, 21 inches long.

  His gaze roamed toward a dresser. He ran his finger along the top. Dusty, as if it hadn’t been dusted in months, if not years. A thick layer cloaked two stacks of clothing on a table. Three stuffed animals lay scattered on a bedspread sporting little elephants.

  “Strange,” he whispered. Time had frozen in place here, for sure.

  Why?

  Ziad returned downstairs. The artificial dusk of the approaching storm almost completely darkened the foyer as he pondered his discovery.

  He shook his head. Claire was obviously an alcoholic to the point where the father had gained total custody. She’d kept her son’s room the same to preserve more idyllic times. He shrugged. So sorry, but he’d not involve himself with someone who had such a problem.

  He stepped onto the porch and began pulling the main door closed.

  Stop!

  This time, he jumped as if the jinn had kicked him.

  He shivered, and his mind flashed to when he’d copied all of the information related to the Zap case to his jump drive. Now, that coldness remained just as it had then.

  Like it or not, he should stay.

  Once in the foyer, he shut the door behind him and locked it.

  A dim glow from his right caught his attention.

  He pushed one of the double doors open.

  “Interesting.” He studied the room. Masculine semicircular desk with a credenza. Deep blue paint on the wall. Dark wood furniture. Barrister’s chair. The father’s study? It had to be.

  Three books lay open in a golden pool of light emanating from a library lamp.

  Ziad eased onto a chair in front of the desk and turned the lamp so he could gaze at them. Yellowed news articles about…

  No. Claire, not you!

  His jaw dropped as he read the obituary for Jackson Middleton, husband of Claire, father of Jackson Junior, also killed in an automobile accident on this very same day five years before, April 30, 2005.

  His stomach twinged as the grief he thought he’d stowed away flooded to the surface, this time for the woman who lay upstairs. He took a deep breath to calm his nerves.

  Curiosity got the better of him. He turned to the beginning. It started with a much younger Claire, who radiated happiness on her wedding day. She was so beautiful, much like she’d been just a few weeks ago at Emma’s wedding. Only the Claire in the pictures had innocence about her. Life hadn’t etched its marks around the corners of her eyes or created the solemnity he’d sensed within her.

  Then came pictures of her with Jackson at various places. And some pictures of her pregnant. She glowed. Then came one of a tiny baby in Claire’s arms, the proud father looking on. The smile on her face said it all. She’d loved being a mother.

  Ziad pulled the doors closed and retreated to the family room. He paced as he thought about his options. He didn’t want Claire to wake up in the middle of the night, disoriented, terrified, and in anguish.

  He’d stay, be there for her.

  First things first. His shirt stuck to him and stank. He’d wash it. He thought he remembered the directions Allison Montgomery had given him. After tossing it into the washer, he headed downstairs and dumped the remains of the offending drink down the sink. He placed the pitcher in the dishwasher. Once he’d wiped the counter clean of all of the sticky mess, he scrubbed his hands like a surgeon preparing for an operation.

  What about the roses? She had to keep vases somewhere. He opened several cabinet doors. Nothing. Another pitcher, one he found in a glass-fronted cabinet, would have to suffice. Those, he set on the island.

  Lightning lit the harbor for a second. Thunder followed, then rain. A strong breeze blew through the windows. He shivered a
nd watched it for a few minutes. The wall next to her art studio caught his eye. Recessed lighting lit a series of eight photographs, all framed in black with white matting. In calligraphy he easily recognized as Claire’s touch, she’d written the place, month, and year on the mats. All were after 2006, as if she’d checked out of life for a year.

  Not that I blame you.

  He swallowed hard and turned away as his own grief reasserted itself.

  He approached the studio and peered at the paper clipped on the table. A picture of a little boy. So impressive, so lifelike yet with her own stamp on it. A folder laying on the floor caught his eyes. He leafed through it and smiled at the picture of Emma with her mare, which Ben had told him she’d receive in a few weeks. He set the folder on the table.

  There!

  Another picture lay face down on the tile. He stooped and picked it up. A boy in Claire’s arms, just like he’d seen upstairs. Wait. He recalled the picture of Claire and Jackson, Junior. Was her son in this picture? He held it up and gazed at it in better light.

  No. Another child, maybe a nephew, who bore a striking resemblance to her deceased toddler. Maybe seeing this picture had led to agony only alcohol could assuage. I wish I could do something to ease your pain.

  At the very least, he could check on her. Upstairs, the washer chimed. He threw his shirt into the dryer before pushing open the bedroom door.

  She lay on her side, her eyes tightly closed, her hand near her face where it rested on the pillow. He swallowed hard as he remembered her grabbing him. Something had been on the bed. A book. Her Bible.

  Picking it up, he slipped inside her walk-in closet so his reading wouldn’t disturb her. He flipped to where she’d placed a bookmark and stared at an underlined verse. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” He shook his head. Then he noticed another tabbed page. He flipped over. And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. He stared those words. Why had they caught her attention?

  Nothing came to him.

  He placed the Bible on her nightstand before tiptoeing from the room and heading downstairs for his sunset prayers. Weariness swept over him. Though he wanted to lie down, he began them in the den. Other thoughts—or words—intruded into his mind. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you. To give you a hope and a future. You will seek me and find me. In all things. For the good of those who love him.

  He flopped onto the couch in the den and found a soccer match, which he watched until the last prayers. Anything to take his mind off what now stalked him. Just as he rose to spread a towel on the floor for evening prayers, the phone rang.

  He let the answering machine pick it up.

  Claire’s voice filled the room. “You have reached the Montgomery residence. So sorry we can’t take your call, but leave a message, and we’ll get back to you.”

  The machine beeped.

  A woman spoke. “Claire, this is Sonja. I’m worried that you didn’t pick up. If you don’t answer within five seconds, I’m coming over there.”

  Ziad scrambled for the extension on an end table. “Hello?”

  “Who is this?” Suspicion dripped from her voice.

  His heart hammered. “This is Ziad al-Kazim.”

  “Ziad?” Warmth replaced the suspicion. “This is Sonja Williams. I’m one of Claire’s friends. Is she okay?”

  “She… did not feel well.” Better not to besmirch her reputation with her friend. “She went to bed early.”

  “Will you tell her I called?”

  He sagged onto the couch. “Of course.”

  Finally, it was time to rest. With his shirt now dry, he turned off all of the lights downstairs, kicked off his sandals, and placed his silver watch on the end table. With a weary sigh, he stretched his long frame out and pulled a blanket he found over himself. He laced his hands behind his head. Surprisingly, he drifted to sleep almost instantly.

  Dreams assaulted him. Fragments. Flashes. Sabirah in a white caftan kneeling in a garden. Golden scales in front of her. Muhammed Amir, his oldest, joining her. Ziad knelt across from them in a spotless white thobe.

  Muhammed Amir upended a black velvet bag full of polished gray stones. He placed one on the Hasana’at tray.

  “For caring for Claire,” he said. He added another one. “And for your compassion with her.”

  Ziad stared. “How do you know her?”

  Sabirah held up a stone and placed it on the Sayia’at tray. “You judged her.”

  “I didn’t know!”

  She held up still another stone. “You thought she was an alcoholic.”

  “It was a mistake.”

  A third stone wound up on the Sayia’at tray. “And you wanted to leave her alone and helpless.”

  With a jagged breath, his eyes snapped open. His mind ventured toward those words in Claire’s Bible.

  Did God really prosper those who had suffered great loss? He thought about Claire’s situation. Absolutely. She had a close family, as shown by a portrait of the sisters he’d noticed leaning against the wall next to the fireplace. All six of them, dressed in jeans and white shirts and taken at a Wal-Mart studio. A lark during Emma’s bachelorette party, she’d told him at the wedding.

  What about him? No. He now lived in exile with no family save for his sister who had all but disowned him. No doubt about it, his pride had been his downfall. Allah’s plans had been to harm him, not prosper him.

  You will seek and find me. Claire sought God. She went to church and read Scripture, at least if the marks he’d noticed throughout the pages meant anything.

  He’d done the works required by his faith. The Haj. Prayers five times a day. Alms to the poor. And still Allah had turned his back on him.

  To give you a hope and a future. No common ground there, either. Claire had moved past her tragedy, even if she’d stumbled today.

  Had he? Could he? Could he really have a hope and a future? Hah. A far-fetched concept for him since he now lived in exile.

  Ziad swallowed hard. His eyes filled as he thought about Sabirah. She’d been his life, his sons the future of the al-Kazim clan. With their deaths, he’d lost his own hope and future.

  He shifted and screwed his eyes shut. It was better to not think of those things. At least not then. Maybe not at all.

  16

  “What do you say, my friend? You have got to be kidding me?” Early Saturday afternoon, Ziad stared at the pile of laundry stacked knee high on his living room floor.

  “Nope. Time to sort.” Ben stuffed his hands into his jeans pockets. “Put everything in those great baskets we just bought at Wal-Mart.”

  Ziad lifted the plastic bags of items from the baskets, just a small part of his eight-hundred-dollar shopping extravaganza to his first big-box store. “How to do it?”

  “Whites, darks, and khakis plus reds. So three piles.” Ben smirked. “Unless you have delicate items.”

  Ziad scowled at him.

  As he began sorting, Ben’s phone rang. “Hey, babe.”

  Emma must have been calling.

  Jeans and dark T-shirts in one basket. Undershirts in another. The same with the twenty-one pairs of underwear he now owned. He shook his head. After Ben left, he’d need to finish cleaning, then unpack the boxes that contained his personal effects from Jeddah. Ben had brought those over that morning. His ears perked up as he caught his side of the conversation.

  “Yeah, I’m at Ziad’s… I got the boxes… I’ll tell you later… Okay. Promise I’ll take care of that when I get back… Have fun. Love you. ‘Bye.” Ben shoved his phone into his pocket. “Em says hi.”

  “Does she cook and clean at your house?”

  “We split it,” Ben grabbed a broom and began sweeping the
kitchen and dining area. He herded the dust bunnies into a dustpan and dumped them in the trash.

  “Really?” Huh? In Saudi Arabia, cleaning and cooking were strictly women’s work. Even a cleaning lady had paid Ben regular visits. “Even though you work more than fifty hours a week?”

  “Yeah. Neither of us are neat people, but we’ve also learned that if we don’t clean, we’ll live in a pig sty. Since we both work, we switch off.”

  “You do not ask her to do that?”

  “Nah.” Ben joined the fun and tossed some clothing onto the darks pile. “I knew she was going to be working, and like you, we found out how expensive hired help is. Besides, right now it’s just us in the apartment. Not too much to take care of. You done?”

  Ziad gazed at the baskets. “Finished.”

  “Start a load and follow me upstairs.” Ben sorted through the bags and dumped some bottles, a pack of sponges, and a pair of rubber gloves into a bucket.

  Ziad followed.

  When he stood in the spacious master bath, Ben handed him the gloves. “Time to clean the bathroom. Put these on.”

  Ziad took them and held them by two fingers as if they were a snake.

  “Promise it won’t offend your manhood. Then take the Lysol,” Ben set the bottle on the counter, “and spray the inside of the bowl and outside of the toilet.” He opened a pack of sponges. “Then wipe it down with a wet sponge.”

  For the twentieth time, Ziad wished he could have afforded hired help. Still, he followed Ben’s directions.

  “Congratulations, my friend, you’ve cleaned your first toilet. Now do the same with the counter using this.” Ben pointed to a bottle of 409.

  As Ziad began cleaning, his friend leaned against the wall. “I heard about your Zap case a few days ago.”

  Ziad whipped around so fast that a spray of the cleaner shot from the bottle’s nozzle.

  Ben darted out of the way. “Whoa! Treat cleaners like a gun. Keep the nozzle pointed downrange.”

  Ziad scrubbed the counter as if his life depended on it. “How did you find out?”

  “Work.” Ben scrubbed a hand through his dirty blond curls. “I’m on Charleston Metro’s Zap task force, and we met yesterday. Okay. Rinse the counter.”

 
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